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Greatest hits of drawing

Times Staff Writer

Of all the mediums a visual artist might choose to employ, drawing is the one historically aligned to writing. There’s the obvious similarity between the draftsman’s tools and the writer’s -- most commonly pencil or ink and paper. But another reason is even more compelling.

Thought is given immediate form, whether drawing pictures or writing words. For a viewer, artistic process unfolds in the abstract operation of making marks on a page.

Hal David, the celebrated pop music lyricist, and his wife, Eunice, began to collect drawings 10 years ago. Now 58 of them have been assembled in an agreeable exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum, where the collection is a promised gift to the university’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts. The sympathetic link between a lyricist’s labors and those of visual artists is made in the handsome catalog that accompanies the show, prepared by Hammer curator Cynthia Burlingham, with entries by Getty Museum curator Lee Hendrix and numerous others. Yet, while it establishes a hook on which to hang the collection, it also seems a bit of a stretch.

Why? Mostly because writing is the lyricist’s avenue to finding a distinctive voice, while imitation is his fiercest enemy. David has accomplished that singularity in his hugely successful career writing songs, perhaps most notably in his 1960s collaborations with composer Burt Bacharach. (They shared an Oscar for 1969’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” a memorable interlude in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”) By contrast, “The Eunice and Hal David Collection of 19th and 20th Century Works on Paper” consists of what might be called rather safe examples of long-established hits.

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Deeply conservative, it keeps its cautious eye pretty squarely focused on big names in Paris and New York. On the occasions it ventures to Los Angeles -- one drawing each by Richard Diebenkorn and David Hockney, and two by Sam Francis -- the artists are ones who had already emerged into prominence back when those raindrops were falling on Paul Newman’s head. Neither adventurous in scope nor a rigorous exercise in connoisseurship, it is instead a nice assembly of dependable standards.

Individual quality varies, but several delectable works stand out. Indeed, among them is Francis’ 1959 study for a celebrated mural, commissioned by David Rockefeller for Chase Manhattan Bank. Visually, the foot-wide composition is very different from the finished mural, but the ethos is the same: Rich, calligraphic color explodes across a narrow strip at the top of a wide sheet of paper, carving out chunks of negative space that -- miraculously -- also feel weighty and dense.

By contrast a finely rendered figure of a reclining satyr by Gustav Klimt, which is a preparatory study for a well-known mural in Vienna, is virtually identical to the figure as it appears in the finished painting. The collection demonstrates drawing’s manifold uses for artists’ various working methods.

A fine study of a peasant woman carding flax (circa 1854) by Jean Francois Millet shows her in sharp profile. Seated, she forms a dense block of sonorous black crayon posed before a sketchily rendered combing machine in a barely articulated workroom. In the midst of her unending labor she is imbued with an almost monumental presence, like an Egyptian goddess gravely carved from a block of stone.

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The earliest American work is Winslow Homer’s “Figure in Surf,” a loose-limbed little wonder drawn in colored pencil and white chalk on blue-green paper around 1885, a few years after the successfully established artist moved to the wilds of Maine. The figure in the center of the small sheet, which is only slightly larger than 4 by 6 inches, is essentially a black circle set atop shoulders formed from a rudimentary lozenge shape.

Atlantic surf swirls around this dark core, in diagonal black scribbles highlighted with foamy puffs of white. The drawing is a marvel of economy. Homer endows the classical theme of the bather with a ferocious drama, which befits the harsh natural beauty of coastal Maine. At the same time the figure recalls a deity serenely resident in the clouds, confounding easy assumptions about man, nature and ultimate power.

Among the 20th century works, Juan Gris’ masterful composition “Study for Harlequin With Guitar” (1919) employs Cubist facture to enmesh the comedic representative of Everyman in an architectonic machine. Music emerges from the industrial clatter of modern life.

Stylistically, Pierre Bonnard’s “Woman in an Interior” (circa 1925) couldn’t be more different from the Gris. Still, his figure is also tightly enmeshed within her environment -- here, a taut structure of horizontal and vertical marks that recalls nothing so much as a spiritual abstraction by Mondrian.

The one surprising drawing in the show is a monumental image of a Buddhist monk, executed in Beijing by Isamu Noguchi when he was 26. Nearly life-size, and atypical in the Japanese American sculptor’s oeuvre, the cloaked figure is rendered in a manner derived from traditional Chinese painting with ink and brush.

There is no room for error in a drawing like this, in which every fluid line has a distinct job to do in evoking a vibrant form through the leanest means. Noguchi had already apprenticed in Paris with Constantin Brancusi by the time he made it, and the fusion of European modernism with Asian tradition is striking. He pulls it off without a hitch.

A small sketch by Edouard Vuillard of an elegantly attired woman shows his lover, Lucie Hessel, in a jaunty hat, dressed for a public promenade. It makes an interesting counterpoint to the more intimate oil sketch of Hessel reclining before an open window at the seashore, made a year before. The oil sketch, already in the museum’s Armand Hammer Collection, offers an unusual private contrast to the drawing’s interest in public display.

Drawings like these will make the David Collection a useful teaching tool within the university’s already impressive Grunwald Center. Even Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s study of a garden statue of the goddess Diana -- which, as the only Old Master in a collection otherwise limited to Modern drawings, is an anomaly -- is put to good use. Tiepolo shows the Diana sculpture from two slightly different angles, in side-by-side renderings, as if he were practicing his skills or attempting to find an ideal viewpoint. Installed opposite the Juan Gris harlequin in the Hammer’s gallery, it separates out the simultaneous, overlapping viewpoints that Cubism was to pioneer.

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‘The David Collection’

What: “The Eunice and Hal David Collection of 19th and 20th Century Works on Paper”

Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

When: Mondays-Wednesdays, Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Ends: Feb. 8

Price: Adults, $5; seniors, $3; students, free

Contact: (310) 443-7020

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