An Intimate Glimpse Into the Drawings and Studies of the 20th Century Masters

At Art Basel in Hong Kong, you’ll find Mitchell-Innes & Nash chock-full of iconic names from 20th century modernism (read: Frank Stella, Jean Arp, Robert Rauschenberg, among others). But many of them—including those known for their bombast, like Roy Lichtenstein and Willem de Kooning—reveal more intimate lenses into their practices, putting pencil to paper in delicate studies and drawings. What follows is a glimpse into four works on paper that may upend expectations of these modernist greats, offering insight into the artist’s process. 

Willem de Kooning: Woman

Willem de Kooning once remarked that “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented,” a statement that comes to life in the vigorous brushstrokes of his numerous paintings of ferocious women. But he also rendered his favorite subject in charcoal drawings, including a series created with his eyes closed. Woman (1964) marks a departure from de Kooning’s characteristic representation of women; here, the subject of his gaze is softer, even introspective. The artist purchased a small home in Springs, Hamptons in 1961, after which he begun to depict figures in sand dunes, as clam diggers, or as in this image, reclining in rowboats. Cast in animated, sketchy lines, Woman appears to float, her body at ease and her eyes averted upwards to the sky. 

Roy Lichtenstein: Drawing for Still Life with Goldfish

“It’s all thought up in the drawings, and it’s all accomplished in the painting,” Roy Lichtenstein once said. The renowned Pop artist placed his drawings beneath a projector, magnifying them and using their enlarged proportions as the basis for paintings. Between 1972 and 1974, Lichtenstein produced a series of works that mined Matisse’s still lifes. Here, taking Matisse’s Les Poissons Rouges as his starting point, Lichtenstein reduces the work down to rudimentary lines and squiggles before later rendering the image in his bold, hard-lined comic-book style.  

Nancy Graves: In Memory of My Feelings

With numerous accomplishments to her name—a prolific painter, sculptor, film- and printmaker, and the first woman to receive a solo retrospective at the Whitney—Nancy Graves first drew the art world’s attention with her life-size sculptures of camels. She traveled widely, and exotic subject matter regularly surfaced in her work. In this richly patterned gouache-and-India ink work on paper, Graves layered imagery inspired by her travels, particularly her trips to Asia, seen in the Koi fish and lotus flower.

Paul Cezanne: Au Bord de L’Eau 

Famous for his fragmented landscapes and statuesque bathers in oil on canvas, the grandfather of Cubism, Cezanne, also produced sensitive watercolors like this one, very few of which still survive today. Au Bord de l’Eau was created using a time-consuming process that entailed waiting for each paint color to dry before applying another, creating a layered effect and greater saturation of color. Cezanne was also noted for his unusual practice of working simultaneously in watercolor and pencil, rendering details in pencil line over his pigment. 

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