NEW YORK — While it's easy to spot paintings by Matisse or Pollock from the distant ends of vast galleries, when it comes to drawings there are few artists whose styles can be quickly recognized at two paces, let alone a dozen yards. An exception is Vincent Van Gogh, whose works on paper are as passionate, as charged with idiosyncratic sensibility and as immediately identifiable as his canvases.
Determined to leave no corner of the artist's brief career obscured, the Metropolitan Museum is spotlighting about 100 of Van Gogh's drawings, which number in the thousands. Even more than his paintings, these intimate works reveal an artist whose brilliance lay less in his somewhat rickety technique than in his ability to harness art for self-expression. The drawings are vivid markers of his mental state and of his character, which shine through each stroke of the pen.
That's not to say that they are unstudied. If anything, they reveal a mind very much at work, sorting out visual problems, calibrating compositions, refining the ability to transcribe the reality he felt rather than saw.
While most artists thought of ink as a step on the way to oil, Van Gogh often made drawings after he had completed the correlative painting. Their primary goal was to keep his friends and his brother, Theo, apprised of his doings, but the black-and-white versions often represent further interpretations and distillations of his ideas. The museum has set drawings and paintings of the same motifs side by side, and it's clear that Van Gogh kept a constant dialogue going between the two media.
Van Gogh copied "Arles: View of the Wheat Fields" three times. The rendition he sent to his colleague Emile Bernard is an off-the-cuff schematic arrangement of ingeniously spaced dots and dashes. The one mailed off to John Russell is crammed with detail. Theo received a third that combines the virtues of the first two: a foreground field of abstract curls and hatchings, and a distant town delineated with clarity and a minimum of fuss.
Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings is on display through Dec. 31 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.