"Craig Kauffman: A Retrospective of Drawings" begins with a whimper.
The first piece you see is a lifeless doodle: painted and drawn on a tautly stretched 3-by-6-foot swath of white silk, "Stepping Out" is a row of overlapping red and black circles that resembles a grade-school penmanship exercise. The next piece is similarly scaled and equally inert: a tidy jumble of numbers and letters swiftly scrawled atop one another on a large sheet of clear vinyl. And a quick walk through the four galleries that make up the Armory Center for the Arts' main exhibition space has none of those stop-you-in-your-tracks moments that instantly involve you in art's dazzling drama.
But despite the bland first impression, Kauffman's drawings grow on you.
There is plenty of gentle captivation, quiet vitality and restless pleasure in the survey. Organized by Jay Belloli, it consists of 57 pieces, most the size of sketchbook pages and all made between 1949 and 2008. It's as if Kauffman, now 76, had spent a good part of the last 50 years going out of his way to make drawings that are invisible to people who see things only in terms of their ability to deliver instant gratification. Many of the drawings here have never been publicly exhibited.
The get-it-all-in-an-instant attitude that fuels so much current behavior -- visual and otherwise -- plays no part in Kauffman's best drawings. They are slow reads that fly in the face of urban life's rapid pace by flying beneath the radar, where they make little places -- or create simple occasions -- for delightful discoveries, serendipitous insights and see-for-yourself satisfactions.
An exceptionally light touch, which is never called on to do too much, is evident in the wispy scratches, casual scribbles and occasional smudges of color that Kauffman lays down with a fine brush or sharp pencil. The tentativeness that dribbles from the surfaces of his works is neither scrappy nor exquisite but somewhere in between. Less than suggestive of his own insecurities, it is more indicative of an unassuming manner, one that avoids pretense, prefers obliqueness to directness and behaves as if the best things in life happen by accident.
In the main gallery, two juxtaposed drawings look as if they began as an ad man's study for a shoe advertisement. In each, rows and columns of high-heeled pumps, in elegant silhouette, fill the surface.
But Kauffman's whiplash brushwork has made them into something else altogether. One resembles a stack of messed-up tattoos, impossible-to-erase mistakes you're stuck with for life. The other seems to be a bunch of letters of the alphabet that are disintegrating, making communication difficult. As a pair, they evoke works by Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. But Kauffman softens their brash Pop graphics with poetic intimacy.
In the larger of two back galleries are 11 drawings in which sensuous chunks of softly tinted light appear to hang on rickety armatures or to emanate from basic forms, like glowing penumbrae. Think a stained glass window that has been through the wringer and come out all the more lovely for its bleach-faded lightness and supple tactility.
Although none of these drawings has any of the streamlined slickness or hard-edged perfection of Kauffman's vacuum-formed plastic wall sculptures, they evoke the sensuality and indirectness of those pieces, whose best effects are seen out of the corner of your eye and easily missed.
The two remaining galleries feature 15 early works, in which Kauffman was finding his footing, and nine studies for sculptures, which are primarily diagrams.
A sense of prickly restlessness animates this show. You get the sense that Kauffman could not stand to repeat himself for fear of getting so good at a technique or so comfortable with a style that it would become formulaic and his art would become facile.
The least captivating pieces are the two largest: a pair of approximately 6-by-4-foot vinyl banners from 2008 that riff off two tastefully salacious abstractions painted, in 1962, on the yellowed pages of magazine ads for shoes and bras from Frederick's of Hollywood. Whereas the notebook-page-size pieces are intimate knockouts, these big reruns are duds, overworked exercises that fall flat and can be seen quickly.
In contrast, most of the works in the exhibition require more patience -- but not much more effort. Kauffman's easygoing art invites a relaxed attitude and generously repays this come-what-may outlook by making you happy you just happened to look closely.
Pagel is a freelance writer.