Moments before the start of our conversation, Allegra Pesenti, Curator at Large for the Menil Drawing Institute, is at a standstill. She is installing Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now, the museum’s first survey of frottage and rubbings in their many forms set to open on Friday, Sep. 11. Forty to 50 crates of artwork vie for her attention; each piece provides a myriad of possible contrasts, connections and expressions. Her plan is to carefully study the visual viewpoints, playing close attention to both meaning and beauty. Perfectly placing more than 100 pieces that compose the exhibit is arduous work, but Pesenti finds this part of the process magical. “It’s a marvel to see how works find their place within the spaces.”
Apparitions spans over a century, combining drawing culture and printmaking, says Pesenti. To produce a rubbing, the artist places a malleable material over an object or textured surface then rubs the material, usually with a pigment or dye like ink or charcoal. Like printmaking, rubbings are a form of reproduction and, like drawings, they create an impression of an object.
While the ancient technique, which traces back as early as 6th century China, is very basic and straightforward, it is also ripe for experimentation. This is why rubbings became such a favorite of Surrealist artists like Max Ernst and Henri Michaux. Ernst invented the term “frottage” to refer to rubbings in 1925 while Michaux coined the term “apparition” to refer to rubbings in the 1940s. For this reason, Surrealists are at the heart of the exhibition. This is a happy coincidence for Pesenti since the Menil Collection holds one of the most important and largest collections of Ernst frottages in a single institution.
Still, Pesenti traveled far and wide to acquire pieces for the exhibit. “This particular exhibition brought me on some wonderful voyages and brought about some memorable encounters,” she says. When Pesenti met Czech artist Adriena Šimotová, she was in her late 80s and nearly bedridden. Nonetheless, she was still creating the spirited and vibrant pieces she is known for from her wheelchair, using chalk on a long stick.
Šimotová was deeply moved to see her work travel the globe. “It was a very poignant and significant meeting for me,” the curator notes. Šimotová’s death two months later made it more so. “In a way, I feel like the exhibition will open the door to more research on her and will keep her memory alive.”
Visitors will be exposed to many artists like Šimotová who, though largely unknown to the American public, are more than deserving of remembrance. “[Apparitions] opens up our understanding of what a drawing can be…It’s the type of exhibition that really fascinates me.”
Sep. 11–Jan. 3. Free. Wed–Sun 11–7. The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross St. 713-525-9400. menil.org