Nicolas Carone’s Drawing Act

Of course, one never knows what’s going to come out, but as soon as the drawing gets underway, a story or an idea is born, and that’s it.”      


The practice of drawing is integral to Nicolas Carone’s art. Whether on canvas or on paper, his work is based on the same process. He demonstrated it one recent morning in his studio. Having picked up a small piece of red chalk, he first drew a few lines quickly, in a spontaneous gesture, with no particular subject in mind. Then, he examined the sheet carefully, picked it up to look at it closer, turned it around before grabbing the chalk again. “It’s going to be a nice girl,” he said while adding a few marks. From the tangle of lines the curve of a back and the contour of a leg emerged. Switching back and forth between the chalk and a paintbrush, Carone extended a line, gave weight to another one with a stroke of color, connected two shapes into one, and wiped out a whole area before starting it over again.  

The technique is reminiscent of that of the Surrealists. André Masson derived his imagery from the random markings of automatic drawing; Max Ernst from the pattern produced by rubbing the pencil on a sheet of paper over a textured wooden board. Carone, who discovered automatism with Matta, combines such a reliance on chance with a more structural method derived from cubism, which he learned at Hans Hofmann’s School in the early forties.  To cubism Carone owes his sense of spatial organization, notably the geometric substructure in which his figures are integrated. For however abstract his drawings seem to be, the figure remains central to Carone’s art.  One could apply to him the observation that Harold Rosenberg made about de Kooning:  “Obviously, you have certain habits, and if you really let yourself go, you would not produce a mess, you’d produce a figure.” 

Before he was exposed to cubism and surrealism, Carone had been trained in the academic tradition. From 1933 to 1938 he studied at the National Academy of Design, notably with Leon Kroll, an important representative of the figurative tradition in American art. From his training Carone has kept a strong attachment to the art of the past, especially the drawings of Ingres, Pontormo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, for whom he has a special admiration. Their influence can be felt in Carone’s red chalk drawings, a medium more readily associated with the old masters than with contemporary art. Carone’s red chalk drawings are figure compositions, often suggesting mythological or biblical scenes. Many appear to be erotic encounters. But their subject matter remains undetermined. Without any context–there is rarely a landscape or architectural background—it is hard to tell, for instance, whether two figures folded in each other’s arms are embracing or fighting.  Hands, feet, and even heads, often vanish into the ground of the paper, leaving it to the dynamic outlines of fragmentary bodies to activate the sheet rhythmically. 

Carone’s gouache and charcoal drawings do not have the classical restraint of his red chalk drawings. More abstract, they exude a vibrant energy. Their composition extends to the edge of the sheet, with no firm distinction between figure and ground. To the eye wandering on the surface of the paper, positive and negative spaces keep shifting as transient images reveal themselves from the welter of lines and colors. If some lines become contours, many however keep their autonomy. Independent from any reference to the real world, they draw their expressive power from their sheer movement, color, and intensity, as well as from their rhythmic flow across the composition. In many drawings random spillings and spatters of paint convey the speed of execution, adding to the sense of movement. 

Carone’s method rests on an organic conception of drawing.  His images are never conceived a priori but generated with each additional pencil mark or brush stroke.  Matisse once remarked about his own drawing technique: “My road is not planned in any way: I am driven, I don’t drive.” Likewise for Carone it is the process, the act of drawing itself, that is essential in the creation of a drawing.  How then does he decide that a work is finished? “When it has a sensation of reality,” Carone replies, “like that of a dream.”  

Isabelle Dervaux

New York, July 2005

© Estate of Nicolas Carone 2012 (except in case of previous copyright)