On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century

Museum of Modern Art

Luis Camnitzer, The Instrument and its Work, 1976, Wood, glass and metal, 30 x 26 x 5 cm.

Luis Camnitzer, The Instrument and its Work, 1976, Wood, glass and metal, 30 x 26 x 5 cm.

How to circumscribe the many and varied forms and practices that the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, ‘On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century’, wanted to lay claim to, all in the name of drawing? Or, more to the point: is there really a line to be drawn around these 300 or so works of art – the Kasimir Malevichs, Paul Klees and the Agnes Martins; the Gino Severinis and Alexander Calders; the Eva Hesse, the Michael Heizer, the Dorothea Rockburne, along with many lesser known names like Nasreen Mohamedi and Anna Maria Maiolino – all of which were recruited to represent drawing as the mode of not one, but multiple media: painting, sculpture, collage, video, installation and dance, among them? Curators Connie Butler and Catherine de Zegher attempt to do just this. And while it seems that line is a rather slippery subject, reluctant to stay within the confines of the obscure categorizations that the show relied upon (‘Surface Tension’, ‘Line Extension’ and ‘Confluence of Line and Plane’), ‘On Line’ did make some compelling propositions about line itself – that simple yet elusive mark, that utterly ubiquitous yet somehow still quite mysterious figure.

This curatorial feat – also remarkably global and impressively gender inclusive – was suggested from the start by the double line that literally wound its way into and around the perimeter of the first few spaces of the exhibition, finding its resting point just beneath Marcel Duchamp’s grand 3 Stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages, 1913–14). Comprising a trail of handwritten text inscribed above a second line assembled from a plastic comb, some electrical cord, a bit of straw, a strip of packing tape, side by side with many other bits of less recognizable household and industrial detritus, Luis Camnitzer’s Two Parallel Lines (1976–2010) led us into the early part of the 20th century. There, the dynamism of works by Severini and Umberto Boccioni was recalled beneath a running projection of Loie Fuller’s Danse serpentine (II) (1897–9), whose experiments with moving lines and undulating lengths of silk foretold a theme that recurred throughout the show: that for at least the past century (if not since the beginning of time) it has often been the body – if not ‘the human’, more generally – for which line has served as trace or representative. Consider, for example, at the far end of this showcase on line, Stanley Brouwn’s relatively quiet work: Steps of Pedestrians on Paper (1960), where we encountered the scant, yet heavily mediated, marks of human presence in the dusty, patterned tracks of a passer-by. Nearby, Giuseppe Penone’s massive wall drawing, Propagazione (Propagation), conceived in 1995 but executed for the exhibition, departed from a very different sort of evidence: that of the artist’s fingerprint, whose authorial lines are made to radiate outward to form concentric rings, like the annual circles in the massive trunk of a giant sequoia.

If ‘On Line’ chronicled how artists have deployed line in two-dimensional space, three-dimensional space, relational, figurative, real and discursive space, then it was odd, for all its inclusions, that the exhibition failed to investigate in any genuine and overt way the space most immediately conjured by the exhibition’s title: that is, the space of the Internet or World Wide Web, where we ‘go online’. In spite of this omission, the matter of connectivity in an age of digitality did reverberate even in those works of art that are obdurately analogue in nature. Indeed, in the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby of the museum were two large performing loops or ‘O’s of magnetic tape (of the sort one finds wound up inside a VHS cassette). There, they danced together without end, hovering just above the floor. While the circling lines of Žilvinas Kempinas’ Double O (2008) may be utterly readymade and of this material world, powered by nothing more than the force of two large industrial fans, their effect – being both animated and held up by mere air – offers a most wonderful and whimsical rejoinder to all that time we spend suspended online today.

Issue 141

First published in Issue 141

September 2011

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