Drawings to Be Read

Ilaria Bollati

The purpose of the drawing is to make people feel that there is something else beyond the perception. That is essentially what I am playing with—the voyage between perception and understanding. Perception also has to do with a context. People who see a drawing in The New Yorker will think automatically that it's funny because it is a cartoon. If they see it in a museum, they think it is artistic; and if they find it in a fortune cookie, they will think it's a prediction." And what would happen if drawings were placed in a library? How would we see them?

Steinberg regarded exhibitions as "a big public affair," far removed from the "clandestine nature" of his work. Almost nomadic in his working practice, he crisscrossed different fields and areas of art, and he was not particularly fond of visiting museums. In the late 1960s, the art critic Pierre Schneider invited eleven well-known contemporary artists to accompany him, one after the other, through the sumptuous rooms of the Louvre and recorded their comments. On that occasion, Steinberg moved around the museum complaining about what he felt was an experience of excess.
"The ceiling frescoes, the gilded reliefs, the marble flooring, the busts, the scholars" - everything demanded to be looked at and, absent a hierarchy of attention, he felt almost suffocated. Everything in that context bore a message: the environments, the objects, the scents, the smells.
Yes, the smells. Steinberg argued that in Europe, museums smelled "of town halls and grade schools," while in America they smelled "like banks." Is it then perhaps destiny that in Milan his collection is cared for by a library and not a museum?

First let us consider his friendships. Steinberg tended to build ties with people comfortable with speaking and writing. With Aldo Buzzi, he shared a precious, long-lasting relationship of fertile exchange. He loved to converse with Saul Bellow, to play with nonsense and find himself involved in unexpected conversational developments. He repeatedly read and reread James Joyce. He was a fascinating subject to the art historian Ernst Gombrich, Roland Barthes the critic, and Italo Calvino the writer, so much so that he appeared in several of their texts. But not only that. Steinberg also made books out of wood, and in some letters to his friend Aldo, they are mentioned as among the books he had read, almost as if the material act of creating these mock books automatically turned into an experience of reading. He referred to himself as a novelist manqué. And he said he "generally got on better with writers than with painters." One is left to wonder whether his drawings are now better off with books than with paintings.

Certainly points of contact between the collections of the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense and his drawings are not wanting. Think of Umberto Eco's recently opened studiolo, for instance. To Eco, books are machines that generate interpretations, machines that produce an identity. It is possible to navigate a library in a number of ways and, no doubt, infinite worlds will open up. As a matter of fact, Steinberg believed that the beauty of a work of art lies in the possibility of being interpreted. For there is no right or wrong, no incorrect answer. The attempt to interpret frees and leads to the discovery of new meanings. Steinberg's drawings always seem to provoke the viewer's thoughts. They invite a totally subjective exploration. They are an exercise in attention. Faced with them, everyone is called upon to find their own key to interpretation. But one has to create the occasion and design the context for the above to happen. Exhibiting Steinberg's drawings in the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense is not an obvious endeavor. It involves a set of choices in terms of exhibition design and beyond that are at once delicate and complex. The specificities and dimensions of the works, rather different from those of books, pose a challenge to the Biblioteca, which is historically accustomed to a different kind of design effort.

Thus, in the Sala Maria Teresa, curtains are replaced and some of the display cases are redesigned to guarantee new, high conservation standards; the metal structure of the vertical panels, originally designed by Gae Aulenti, is revisited in order to accommodate the larger works. The panels also have mesh-like netting. This choice purposefully intimates the semiotics of the transparent and visible storage facilities of the adjacent Pinacoteca di Brera, whose main policy is to make its collections as accessible as possible. But there is more. Displaying Steinberg's works also allows for a strengthening of the physical bond between the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense and the nearby Pinacoteca di Brera. The two are as naturally linked and connected as non-identical twins are. Yet, this is the first time that the opening of the glass door connecting the two institutions will allow visitors to decide where to start their visit and allow them to have a seamless experience of visiting both the library and the museum. The exhibition layout mirrors such duality, which is also replicated in the reading of the exhibition by opening up a fluid path with no pre-imposed beginning or end.
Finally, the drawings on display are few, so that visitors can dwell on them for long enough to establish an intimate relationship with them. Moreover, in this renewed exchange between the world of the library and that of the museum, the balance is subtle.
The ultimate intention is to get people to read the drawings as if they were books rather than quickly skimming through the books, as is often the case with paintings. The real challenge is to invite people to go off the beaten track in order to discover profound messages.

"We spend almost our whole lives reading boisterous, ready-made messages (the mail, the newspapers, traffic lights). To decipher the other kind of messages requires an effort which we prefer to avoid making. Yet it is this effort that renders life rich, gay and, so to say, inexhaustible."