We tend to think of lines as static traces of movement but not mobile in themselves. In a line we see the connection between a work and its maker in its clearest form; line betrays the hand of the artist, and for that reason the line in drawing has often been associated with draftsmanship and tradition. This exhibition, curated by Drawing Room Directors Kate Macfarlane and Mary Doyle, underscores the inestimable role of the conceptual artists of the 1960s and 70s in freeing line; both from the page and from its role in drawing as a slave to description.
Sol LeWitt, whose observation ‘a drawing of a person is not a real person, but a drawing of a line is a real line’ as quoted in the exhibition catalogue, did both in one stroke with his seminal wall drawings. LeWitt’s ‘Wall Drawing 157’ (1973) is one of three pivotal, earlier works included that serve to demonstrate how much artists today owe to the radical departures made by previous generations. ‘Wall Drawing 157’ is important not only to the history of contemporary drawing but to that of the Lisson Gallery itself, as gallery founder Nicholas Logsdail first followed these same instructions to realise the work on the gallery’s walls in 1973. It’s reinstallation here thus reactivates a historic moment and demonstrates the work’s continued relevance.
Tom Marioni’s One Second Sculpture (1969) embodies two of the prominent strands running through the show: the liberation of the line from the page and the innate performativity of drawing, concerns detectable in Victoria Haven’s ‘Study for Potato/Potato’ (2016) and Ceal Floyer’s ‘Taking a Line for a Walk’ (2008). Meanwhile, Richard Long’s ‘A Four Day Walk’ (1980) draws together the line and landscape, themes also engaged in K. Yeoland’s ‘Red Line through Mountain (Point of Rocks, West Texas)’, (2013). While Long gently treads his line into ninety-four miles of the English landscape, evoking the deep temporal lines that woodland paths and riverbeds can maintain, often predating the stark boundaries of the nation state, Yeoland evokes the paradox of the border, notional and impermeable, in a work depicting the borderlands between Mexico and the United States. Yeoland’s piece elects not to address the often brutal reality of this heavily policed border, a missed opportunity, some might argue, to add some political punch to the exhibition. The cohesion of the whole is paramount, though, and the conceptual and the formal are woven together in this show like a rope. Yeoland’s piece echoes and complements the others so elegantly it feels churlish to complain.
The thoughtful connections between these works spanning a roughly fifty-year period reveal the careful archival research conducted by the curators. Asked about how the show came about, Macfarlane explains that the gallery were interested in looking back at their archive, in looking at LeWitt, and that they wanted to take a conceptual approach. “The starting point was work in the Lisson archive. Some work that Logsdail has in his collection inspired us to think of artists with similar concerns, around sculptural drawing, for instance. It sprang from the archive,” she explains.
The exhibition includes some new commissions, including a site-specific piece by Polish artist Monika Grzymala, who is concerned with the relationship between her drawings and the space they occupy. Macfarlane recalls, “Grzymala wanted to use the window. There’s a sense of the energy coming from the outside into the gallery. It’s all related to her body and the investment of time, so one important thing is how she titles the work. The amount of tape that she’s used is reflected in the title – it’s about the amount of time it’s taken her.” The deployment of line as a measurement of time, indexing action to the finished work, is an example of the way in which concern with gesture and the body on one hand, and conceptualism on the other can be brought together. This marriage, also enacted by LeWitt as the curators observe, overturns the dualistic tendency to separate the two.
Line is a huge subject. To offer a sense of its possibilities and contradictions, and outline some of the artistic developments that have occurred within the last fifty years, through a collection of only fifteen works, is an achievement. ‘Line’ is an exhibition to visit, think about and return to.