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Gagosian Quarterly

November 20, 2018

Paul NobleRecent Drawings

An uncanny yet strangely familiar universe unfolds in Paul Noble’s recent drawings. On the occasion of simultaneous exhibitions featuring this body of work, Anna Heyward considers the world it conjures and its mysterious motifs.

Paul Noble, I, 2015, pencil on paper, in artist’s frame, 71 × 58 ¼ × 3 ⅝ inches (180.3 × 148 × 9.2 cm). Photo: Mike Bruce

Paul Noble, I, 2015, pencil on paper, in artist’s frame, 71 × 58 ¼ × 3 ⅝ inches (180.3 × 148 × 9.2 cm). Photo: Mike Bruce

Anna Heyward

Anna Heyward is a writer and editor in New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vogue, and The Paris Review Daily, among others.

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Almost all art is against time.
—Paul Noble

Paul Noble’s encrypted visual universes are rendered almost exclusively in hard graphite pencil, using language as image, and images as grammatical systems. His meticulously depicted, interlocking words and objects create legible syntaxes, presenting a reality that appears recognizably of our world—but is not.

In 1995 Noble began Nobson Newtown, a series of drawings depicting an imagined city of the same name. In the following years, Nobson became an immersive realm, one that seems to live on beyond the edges of the drawings. Noble was nominated for the Turner Prize for the series in 2012, and while it may never be complete, it seemed to reach a kind of critical mass in 2014, when the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam brought together twenty-three enormous pencil drawings, allowing the first unified look at the surreal and novelistic universe of Nobson. With its hospitals, utilities, and unique local vernacular, it bears a resemblance to the planned towns that were constructed in midcentury Britain, and to the London in which Noble lived during the 1990s.

This November and December, Gagosian presents an installation of works by Noble to coincide with an exhibition of his work at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. David Lemaire, curator of the Musée des Beaux-Arts presentation, notes that Nobson “shares numerous similarities with the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds: a certain isolation, a taste for sharp right angles, modernist architecture, and strange public sculptures. The exhibition was conceived with the artist for its resonance with the city.”

Paul Noble: Recent Drawings

Installation view, Paul Noble, Gagosian, Geneva, November 6–December 15, 2018. Left to right: (2015), Small Couple (Noir et Blanc) (2011), and WHAM (2016–17). Photo: Annik Wetter

Both Gagosian’s installation and the concurrent museum exhibition include drawings from the Nobson Newtown series along with selections of Noble’s recent work, made since 2015. The new works unfold within flat, planar settings, devoid of the epic scale and spatial breadth that have characterized Noble’s past drawings. The environment they present moves the viewer out of the panoptic range of Nobson and into a tightly confined, almost airless interior space. It is as though, after creating the vastness of an entire city, Noble has telescoped in on a single house, room, doorway, or object.

Paul Noble: Recent Drawings

Paul Noble, 4, 2015, pencil on paper, in artist’s frames, in 2 parts, each: 60 ⅜ × 26 ⅞ × 2 ¾ inches (153.4 × 68.2 × 7 cm). Photo: Mike Bruce

While the large works of Nobson Newtown were unframed, reinforcing their sense of vastness, these drawings are encased within heavy wooden frames of Noble’s own design, which often echo the framed images within the drawings themselves. In this way,  the suggestion—latent in Noble’s work—that a drawing can also be a sculpture emerges.

Characterized by a flatness of perspective and a uniformity of light, these pictures contain certain recurring motifs: a leg, large and incongruous like a divine icon; mysterious doors, always concealing whatever is behind them; and clocks that stand still at 10:45—the time at which, Noble says, Nobson was created, suggesting a  surreal providence and forming a continuation between the two series of work. Scale tends to shift throughout these interiors, ranging from the minuscule to the gigantic according to an opaque logic at odds with physical reality.

This feeling of the strangely familiar, preternatural, or unsettling, reminiscent of Surrealism, resonates in Noble’s drawings, with their quietly decontextualized objects.

Paul Noble: Recent Drawings

Paul Noble, c’_ock, 2015, pencil on paper, in artist’s frame, 33 ½ × 26 ⅛ × 2 ½ inches (85.1 × 66.4 × 6.4 cm). Photo: Mike Bruce

Legs stand before doors, in corridors, entryways, or other interior settings. Oriented toward the right of the picture’s edge, their form seems to conform with a character being read in left-to-right Latin script. Appearing with other objects—a clock, a cane, a feather, an egg—the inscrutable limbs suggest human presence, though they remain uncannily disconnected. This feeling of the strangely familiar, preternatural, or unsettling, reminiscent of Surrealism, resonates in Noble’s drawings, with their quietly decontextualized objects.

Paul Noble: Recent Drawings

Installation view, Paul Noble, Gagosian, Geneva, November 6–December 15, 2018. Left to right: L’Eg (2015), Small Three Prone (2012), L’Eg Noir (2015). Photo: Annik Wetter

Each drawing contains encoded repetitions. Door handles are flat, open hands; keyholes take the same shape as the leg. The magician’s wand depicted in WHAM (2016–17) sits, larger than life-size, in a horizontally oriented frame. The wand, like a typographical dash, or a line made on a page, serves as a mediator, connecting elements that had no previous relationship. In magic, the wand does what a pencil does on paper, causing things to appear from nothing.

Just as Nobson developed from a typographical font—the staffs and stems of the letters making up the architectural elements of the city—this space has a peculiarly symbiotic relationship with words, too. With his titles, Noble exploits the sound of the lexeme, as well as what it signifies, with visual and homophonic puns. C’_OCK (2016), for instance, shows six clocks decreasing in size from left to right. Its title, employing an apostrophe and an underscore, makes the alphabetic character L into an image, and physically extends the word clock to the same number of glyphs as there are clocks depicted. L’Arge D’Oor (2015), meanwhile, is an overt pun on Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film L’age d’or (1930).

This affinity between the object and the word makes the acts of seeing and reading simultaneous, in that the viewer decodes at the same time that she perceives, uncovering subconscious preexisting connections. This is fitting, given that there is a sense that Noble’s task has only been to slowly reveal the universe he depicts rather than to create it—that it has always existed and that it is just now being shown to us.

Artwork © Paul Noble; Paul Noble: Open Shut, Musée des Beaux-Arts, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, November 4, 2018–February 3, 2019; Paul Noble, Gagosian, Geneva, November 6–December 15, 2018

At the Studio with Paul Noble

At the Studio with Paul Noble

This video features interview footage alongside documentation of the artist’s intensive process, serving as a faithful chronicle of Noble’s latest efforts.

Jenny Saville’s Prism (2020) on the cover of Gagosian Quarterly magazine.

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Jay DeFeo’s Transcendent Objects

Jay DeFeo’s Transcendent Objects

Alice Godwin explores the shifts in Jay DeFeo’s practice in the 1970s, considering the familiar objects that became recurrent subjects in her work during these years and their relationship to the human body.

Frank Gehry, Steeves House, perspective from valley side, reproduction of original drawing

Frank Gehry Drawings

Frank Gehry speaks to Jean-Louis Cohen about the early years of his practice, including his work with LA artists, and the role of sketching in his design process. The first volume of the catalogue raisonné of the architect’s drawings, edited by Cohen, was published by Cahiers d’Art earlier this year.

Joe Bradley’s studio, New York, 2018

Work in Progress
Joe Bradley

With preparations underway for his 2018 exhibition at Gagosian in London, Phyllis Tuchman visited the artist’s studio in Long Island City, New York, to learn more about this new body of work.

Allen Midgette in front of the Chelsea Hotel, New York, 2000. Photo: Rita Barros

I’ll Be Your Mirror: Allen Midgette

Raymond Foye speaks with the actor who impersonated Andy Warhol during the great Warhol lecture hoax in the late 1960s. The two also discuss Midgette’s earlier film career in Italy and the difficulty of performing in a Warhol film.

Isabelle Waldberg, with Construction (1943), in her studio, New York, 1943.

Isabelle Waldberg

Jacquelynn Baas profiles Isabelle Waldberg, writing on the sculptor’s many friendships and the influence of her singular creations.

Ed Ruscha, At That, 2020, dry pigment and acrylic on paper.

“Things Fall Apart”: Ed Ruscha’s Swiped Words

Lisa Turvey examines the range of effects conveyed by the blurred phrases in recent drawings by the artist, detailing the ways these words in motion evoke the experience of the current moment.

Helen Frankenthaler, Cool Summer, 1962, oil on canvas, 69 ¾ × 120 inches (177.2 × 304.8 cm), Collection Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.

Building a Legacy
The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation on COVID-19 Relief Funding

The Quarterly’s Alison McDonald speaks with Clifford Ross, Frederick J. Iseman, and Dr. Lise Motherwell, members of the board of directors of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and Elizabeth Smith, executive director, about the foundation’s decision to establish a multiyear initiative dedicated to providing $5 million in covid-19 relief for artists and arts professionals.

Bebe Miller and Cynthia Oliver in motion dancing, mid-jump, against a white background

Bebe Miller and Cynthia Oliver

The legendary choreographers discuss their history together, the evolution of Cynthia Oliver’s boom!, imposed boundaries on “Black dance,” and the choreographies of the pandemic.

The crowd at the public funeral of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968. Photo by Moneta Sleet Jr.

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Jay DeFeo working on The Rose (then titled Deathrose), photographed by Burt Glinn in 1960.

Jay DeFeo

Suzanne Hudson speaks with Leah Levy, executive director of the Jay DeFeo Foundation, about the artist’s life and work.