What distinguishes the work of an artist from the mere production of a work of art? Process, in part. And that of sixty-year-old Austrian artist Leopold Strobl—whose drawings were featured in “One,” his second solo show in New York—seems closer to meditation or prayer. He begins his day in the early hours, leafing through newspapers, looking for photographs of interest—not an easy task, by his lights. When he lands on one, he cuts it out, glues it to another piece of paper, and embellishes it with graphite and colored pencils. The result looks as though it could have been ripped out of the hands of a Technicolor artist of yore. Each new day begets a new drawing, and each is a varietal of the same species. A fine winding black line gently demarcates the frame of vision, sometimes sticking to the edges of the picture as though the viewer’s eyes are pressed to a stereograph. At other times, the artist fills the frame with thick, undulating forms, tightening the view. The most striking detail that recurs throughout: a mysterious blot in black graphite looming somewhere in nearly every scene.
“Making art has an almost religious character for me,” Strobl has said, and in his oddball gestures one certainly might see similarities, for example, to the meditative shapes deployed in tantric paintings. But whereas those pointedly sacred forms are meant to give rise in the mind to the image of a divinity, Strobl’s are born from the practical matter of covering up the unwanted stuff in his clippings: an idling motorboat, a bird in flight, firefighters lined up before a burning building, a man wearing a sheriff’s badge and a Western hat. (Such reveals might betray the artist’s intentions, but what does hiding do if not beg at least a little seeking?) Freeing the photograph of its original subjects, the artist pushes the eye elsewhere: to sun glittering on the surface of water, to a clouded sky, a crumbling wall, a stretch of river, lush woods. With our attention on the background—on nature’s presence, and how and where it is interrupted—the drawings feel expansive, even luxuriant, though most of Strobl’s work is small enough to fit inside a jacket pocket.
One piece from 2020—all were untitled—featured a tangle of treetops lightly cut through with telephone lines, the leaves awash in greens from lime to lichen. At the center was a wobbly blotch, alien yet also perfectly at home among the branches. In another, from a year prior, one of Strobl’s spots seemed to survey the verdant hills rolling beneath it and a violet mountain range in the distance. Funny that a move to obliterate seeing also provides a certain traction for sight. The artist’s pencil strokes, the unevenness of the graphite over the image specters below, give his blackouts murky depths that keep the eye from just rolling away or lingering only on the pleasant parts of the picture.
Contemplation is both elicited and complicated by these . . . what are they? Analogy always falls short of capturing the precise essence of a thing—perhaps to protect it? In some drawings, Strobl’s shapes are like stones or eggs, possessed of an organic, sculptural bearing. At other times, they appear as portals or voids: blasts of negative space, yawning cosmic maws. “Abstractions” would be a fine enough description, but given the works’ use value, that characterization would let a viewer off the hook a little too easily. “Such was the effect of this simple piece of crape,” Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote, parsing the material fact of his fabled minister’s black veil from its unnerving presence. How could a simple swatch of fabric placed just so produce both fascination and dread? Like Hawthorne’s cloth, Strobl’s forms are neither of the worlds they shape nor as potent without them.