The term "freedom" is thrown around a lot it seems, especially in the 21st Century when even the simplest rights seem to be in peril. The freedom to create, whether just simple ideas or even the grandest of artworks, is something perhaps we take for granted, but indeed some of the greatest works that move generations of people are often borne out situations where the creator has societal restrictions. That is why this new exhibition, The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists, on view at The Drawing Center from October 11 2019 to January 5, 2020, is so fascinating in its scope.


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Focusing on more than 140 drawings by imprisoned artists from around the globe, spanning multiple centuries, The Pencil is a Key "interprets the term 'incarceration' broadly to mean any situation in which an individual is denied their freedom. This includes penal incarceration; imprisonment of combatants during wartime, systematic imprisonment by governments on the basis of political af liation, gender, sexuality, race, or religion; as well as forced restriction of movement and involuntary imprisonment in psychiatric institutions."

The show ranges from political prisoners such as Gustave Courbet in France in the late 1800s to the works of Juxtapoz cover artist, Timothy Curtis in the 21st century. What is apparent in each work is the idea that creativity in the face of repression, in the humble of gestures of mark-making creates a feeling of freedom and survival. Many of the works depict faces or figures, as landscape views are often not afforded to those in prisons. And yet, in the case of Guantánamo prisoner Abdualmalik Abud, "landscapes are meticulously rendered from memory." The Pencil is a Key explores these idiosyncratic details of incarcerated art and are a key to understanding a global human condition. 

Laura Hoptman, Executive Director of The Drawing Center, remarked, “In this moment throughout our country and around the world, when all kinds of freedoms are being called into question, it seems to me that we could not have picked a more urgent topic than the ability of drawing to articulate our humanity and express our determination to be free, even in the most dire conditions. For the first exhibition created under my auspices as Executive Director, I wanted all of us at The Drawing Center to collaborate on a show that made a full-throated argument for the essential nature of drawing—or in broader terms, art—to our lives, and in a bigger sense, to the definition of ourselves as human beings.”