Contemporary Art Review: “For the Incarcerated, Drawing Is a Lifeline”

Contemporary Art Review: “For the Incarcerated, Drawing Is a Lifeline”

The New York Times is a newspaper based out of New York City, which includes opinionated articles and reviews on a wide variety of topics; from national news on business and politics, to reviews on art and design. The art section of The New York Times covers everything from reviews of recent art exhibitions to interviews with artists to articles on the curators that make new exhibitions and restructuring possible. The article I will be reviewing is “For the Incarcerated, Drawing Is a Lifeline,” which focuses on the Drawing Center’s new exhibition of drawings made by incarcerated artists; curated by their five-person curatorial team.

I believe this particular review of The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists, to be a fresh take on the analysis of an exhibition. The writer, Hilarie M. Sheets, interviews the head of the curatorial staff to gain some insight on the intentions of this exhibition, then she goes on to select particular artists from the exhibition and speak not only about their art, but also speak of their incarcerations and how they are spoken about in a contemporary context. Sheets’ review of the exhibition is refreshing, because she not only focuses on the art included, but the artists’ experiences and how each case has effected their art making process and results. Sheets also uses facts about the art world in a response to the growing necessity for art exhibitions that give representation to underrepresented groups.

The first piece of Sheets’ review that should be analyzed is the incarcerated artists she mentions. She makes note of Valentino Dixon, a wrongly convicted man, and his use of art as a coping mechanism to survive his time behind bars. She quotes Mr. Dixon stating, “Prison is a dark place and drawing became a survival tool.” I believe it is important to make note that Sheets makes the connection between her title, “Art Is a Lifeline,” and how each artist utilized art during their time incarcerated. Sheets also mentions that Mr. Dixon’s talent in art allowed him the opportunity to get recognized and reopen his case for freedom. Another artist she discusses is Azza Abo Rebieh, a Syrian artist imprisoned for her political activism and resistance. She quotes Rebeih stating, “When I started drawing in prison, I believed that I am still alive,” another connection to art as a lifeline for those whom are imprisoned. Sheets goes on to mention many other artists and how their art has contributed to the overarching theme of the exhibition. Ultimately, I believe that Sheets does a good job of being impartial in her reviews of each artist’s work, particularly by using quotes directly from the artist and by using factual evidence for the pieces included in the exhibition.

Another important part of Sheets’ critique is her mention of the curatorial staff. She mentions their struggle of including art from both political prisoners and others convicted of different crimes, while ensuring they were presenting enough information about the artists to provide context without casting judgment. It is important that Sheets including this information in her review because it allows for the reader to understand the context in which this exhibition was curated. Sheets includes a quote by the museum director, Laura Hoptman, stating, “What we have been most interested in is how one uses drawing when one is unfree,” once again tying back Sheets’ idea of drawing as a lifeline. Although Sheets mostly praises the exhibition, I believe that her criticism of understanding the difference between the art and artist can be difficult, especially in the wake of certain modern, political movements, such as the #MeToo movement, is one that is very necessary. Sheets mentions that Ms. Hoptman was comfortable separating the art from the artist and making judgments for the art itself; however, this can be difficult for people who are not well informed about the art industry or feel strongly about a particularly political/social movement. Sheets’ discussion of the curatorial process along with the factual evidence about the growing attention to mass incarceration made for an interesting critique of the exhibition; one that recognizes both the benefits of an exhibition like this and the problems associated with it.

Just as Sheets’ praises the Drawing Center for their attention to details and masterful display of a wide variety of work by incarcerated artists, I too believe that The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists, was an impressive exhibition, different from any others I have previously been to. After experiencing this exhibition myself and speaking with the assistant curator, Rosario Güiraldes, I feel particularly moved by it. Viewing the exhibition itself is a powerful experience; however, speaking with Ms. Güiraldes, I understood the curatorial staff’s intentions for the exhibition much better. The curators each had particular affinities with different groups of incarcerated artists, and it showed through the exhibition. Each artist has a story and the organization of the exhibition shows this effectively. Organized chronologically and by events, which led to mass incarceration, the exhibition covers a diverse grouping of drawings and incarcerated artists. Ultimately I agree with Sheets’ review of the exhibition, that the drawings in the exhibition will evoke a wide range of feelings in all those who witness it.



Sheets, Hilarie M. “For the Incarcerated, Drawing Is a Lifeline.” The New York Times. The New York Times, September 20, 2019. 

Valentino Dixon, Untitled, a composite image of four drawings in colored pencil on paper. Valentino Dixon and Andrew Edlin Gallery
Adolf Wölfli, The Kander Valley in the Bernese Oberland, 1926, pencil and colored pencil on paper. American Folk Art Museum
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