A Modern Master's Modest Art

Sometimes I find it's best not to pay too much attention to the label. The one for "Railway Tracks," for instance, in the wonderful "Georges Seurat: Drawings" exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, on view through Jan. 7, touts the "deep perspective of a winding road" and the "sensation of the earth in upheaval." While there is a bit of road at the bottom, and the drawing does depict a changing suburban area outside late-19th-century Paris, the beauty of Seurat's art lies elsewhere. In a current art world filled (to invoke an old Little Richard lyric) with a lot of womp-bomp-a-loo-bomp installations and video, this little miracle is the most economically poetic combination of technique, composition and sense of "being there" I've ever seen. Poor Seurat, who died of diphtheria in 1891 at 31, was only 23 when he finished it.

As the poet-critic Gustave Kahn put it, Seurat was "a young man crazy about drawing." He worked in conté crayon (a kind of greasy charcoal) on toothy Michallet paper, without the safety net of lines. Seurat just filled in tone, progressing from light, speckled grays to velvety blacks, until the drawing "developed" like a photographic print in the darkroom. Nominally, "Railway Tracks" is a precise view of a railroad embankment punctuated by electrical power poles and a tall stand of trees. But to me, Seurat's disbursement of just a few grams of conté is a meditation on the natural versus the industrial, on finding beauty amid the ordinary, and an aching expression of the melancholy Seurat felt about it. His drawing reminds me that small, modest art is often the most profound art of all.