Falling in Line

John Haber
in New York City

On Line: Drawing at MoMA

When the Museum of Modern Art calls a show "On Line," you know what to expect. At the very least, it ought to fall in line. But can "drawing through the twentieth century" dispense with both drawing and paper? Maybe so, if it can connect Picasso, dance, and Minimalism. And then again, maybe not.

In one textbook version, Modernism found itself by abandoning line. Academic realism was out, and daubs of pure color alone were a world. Whichever story you choose, though, line may sound like a narrow excuse for a show. If it means prints and drawings, the Modern has galleries for that—with their own chief curator, Connie Butler. If it means line as synonymous with object and space, what could it possibly exclude? If it means a refusal of Impressionism, what could it include at all? Mimi Gellman's nightdrawing 1 (Museum of Modern Art, 2009)

Butler wants to throw you a curve, preferably more than once. Along with Catherine de Zegher, former director of the Drawing Center, she sets out line as almost anything but drawing—and then, a third of the way into its history, they start over with a new one. In the process, the exhibition skips over large swatches of the twentieth century, in favor of a greater diversity of people and places, not to mention a greater balance when it comes to gender. It still draws mostly on the permanent collection, like many shows since the recession, and it still comes down to the Modern's all-too familiar mission. Can it succeed in making the familiar and the modern unfamiliar and contemporary? Maybe not, but at least it has the gall to ask.

Drawing connections

For many, drawing in the twentieth century means the century's most fluent and prolific draftsman. Pablo Picasso may have made his greatest mark elsewhere—dismantling space, meanings, and the very materials of art. That left ample time, however, for the greeting-card outlines of the Blue Period, a brief but influential turn to the clarity of Neoclassicism, and print after print slashing through wives and lovers. Others might think instead of his rivalry with Matisse. An overworked one-liner contrasts them as line and color, like Florence and Venice in an older Renaissance, but what is The Dance if not a single, sinuous closed curve? From the artist's studio, Henri Matisse could capture Notre-Dame and the banks of the Seine in just a few black arcs and a few strokes of blue.

Others look at them both and want drawing back. People could praise or revile Otto Dix for unrelenting images of war, and they could admire or dismiss Salvador Dalí as "illustration," but they could at least agree on the kinds of talent they took, quite different from Cubism. Later, "action painting" spun out arbitrary signs, drips, and "zips" into the vocabulary of art. Thanks to them, formalists like Frank Stella in The Marriage of Reason and Squalor could identify paint on canvas as simultaneously object and composition, while Postmodernism spoke of thought itself as a kind of writing. Terry Winters inherits something of both when he sketches natural history or higher mathematics. So do those today reviving the artist's book.

"On Line" wants to start over, but it still starts and ends with what the Modern knows best. It opens with Picasso, because at MoMA everything opens with Picasso, although this time with collage. It has a Matisse, but small enough to serve as a footnote. It has painting after abstract painting, from a largely white square by Piet Mondrian to debris from the front by Kurt Schwitters and Kazimir Malevich. It has the physical line of Standard Stoppages by Marcel Duchamp and full-scale architecture by El Lissitzky—his Proun, or "Project for the Affirmation of the New."

Still looking for drawing? An unfinished Mondrian shows him in charcoal, with unexpected lushness, while Umberto Boccioni works on multiple canvases in black and white, in dense curves that could easily pass for Op Art. Looking for work on paper after all? Picasso's white guitar is blank paper and literally three dimensional, with its only lines the paper strings. Looking for German Expressionism or Surrealism? For the most part, look elsewhere.

Only be careful not to look away. The moment you do, about a third of the way through, the party line changes. I had adjusted to line at the center of everything except drawing. The exhibition says as much when it comes to Wassily Kandinsky, quoting his Point, Line, and Plane, which imagines a line as a point in motion—and ultimately, one can imagine, a recipe for many more dimensions beyond the visible. I expected a painstaking revisionism through the Bauhaus and up to the present. Yet the moment one exits Schwitter's Merzbau and the Proun room, one has entered a Post-Minimalist present. "On Line" continues, but the time line comes to an abrupt end.

At first, it may seem merely to be drawing connections. An early Michael Snow does look rather like a Paul Klee, and Lucio Fontana with his slashed canvas takes up from Joan Miró—whose work MoMA dubbed just a year ago "Painting and Anti-Painting." Using Alexander Calder rather than David Smith to represent sculpture as "drawing in space" may seem reasonable enough. Besides, if one has to skip the 1950s except for a tiny sketch by Jackson Pollock, maybe "Abstract Expressionist New York" downstairs has the rest tied up. Or perhaps you blinked and missed it.

Drawing the lines

In reality, you may as well have walked into another quite different, larger, and more coherent show. It begins with Gego, the Venezuelan born in Germany as Gertrud Goldschmidt, and draws often on Europe, the Americas, and the Third World. I should have noticed a sculpture of beeswax pellets by Ranjani Shettar, an Indian artist, out front—joined later by Nasreen Mohamedi, A. Balasubramaniam, and Sheila Makhijani inside. It has nearly half women, in an institution blamed all the time for ignoring them. The first three rooms already had Lyubov Popova along with Russian Constructivism and Sophie Taeuber-Arp along with her husband, Hans. Indeed, one can see them as simply a historical and conceptual preview.

From that point on, the show is increasingly on the move, although there, too, it supplies early hints. Where "A Point in Space Is a Place for an Argument" in 2007 leapt directly from California Minimalism to the stillness of space, Kandinsky explains everything as motion, and Calder did introduce his mobiles. Man Ray merges color fields, line, and poetry as The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows. Earlier still, on a monitor high above, Loie Fuller presides over the first doorway like a reigning deity. Her turn-of-the-century dance has the flowing dress of a Greek goddess, assuming the gods worked on the side for the Folies Bergère. And behind every line and every instantiation of gender lie shifting physical presences.

Many here are more often associated with dance, including Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainier, William Forsythe, and Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker. Others like Michael Heizer derive from earthworks, and quite a few combine the two—like Françoise Sullivan dancing in the snow or Atsuko Tanaka tracing circles in the sand. A star chart by Michelle Stuart star chart captures the skies of Peru, and Mimi Gellman charts her "Dreamwalk" with a hand-held GPS. Monika Grzymala speaks of her paper-clay skeleton high on the wall as a kind of dance to confront her fears, while Luis Camnitzer describes his Two Parallel Lines as "a shadow of the horizon" and a "fragment of the curvature of the Earth." Their intrusion into the very first room also places art within a social nexus. With Julie Mehretu or Mark Lombardi, that fragment of the Earth may turn out to be the art world.

At its most potent, motion here comes with a sense of humor and something of a threat. Robert Rauschenberg had John Cage execute his drawing in tire tracks, while La Monte Young dragged his own head across a similar sheet. Those crayon marks by Carolee Schneemann began in performance with a tree harness, and Lygia Clark clipped paper while walking with scissors. Mona Hatoum's open cube echoes the Sol LeWitt nearby, but in black barbed wire. Cornelia Parker even cast her lines from a bullet. It makes sense that Michael Snow's most influential film, Wavelength, is both notoriously static and a murder mystery.

This is Minimalist to the max. Technically, the curators claim three segments, but I never spotted them: any of "surface tension," "line extension," and "confluence of line and plane" works just as well for pretty much everything. And that everything is highly conceptual, spare in color, and abstract. It has room for the delicate and prickly sensations of Agnes Martin and Eva Hesse. It has room for Dorothea Rockburne and Robert Ryman—but both at the rare moment of breaking out of the picture plane with an arc right out of Richard Tuttle's bent wire, which also appears.

Camnitzer's placid course through room one amounts to tape running slightly above the floor across from Picasso, like a police line. One may approach the twenty-first century, but do not cross—or not too often. For some, "On Line" will have the worst of both worlds, combining a heavy curatorial hand with business as usual. It leaps from the artist's hand to Picasso's feet, like a parable of Modernism's decline, without ever quite shattering the distinction between point, line, and space. I prefer to see it as a game attempt to revision business as usual—or to imagine that the past would become relevant again if only Abstract Expressionist had left well enough alone. Before Pollock performed his line for Life magazine, Modernism was asking for the next dance.

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"On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through February 7, 2011.


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