Review by Giulia Smith
Line is a ‘point in movement’, Vasily Kandinsky wrote in 1919-1920 in his essay ‘On Line’. Making this slogan its premise, the homonymous exhibition currently on show at MoMA argues for an expanded history of drawing in the last century. Curators Cornelia Butler and Catherine De Zegher bet on the line precisely to defy linearity. With over a hundred artists and three hundred works on display, this ambitious installation cuts across the conventions of the medium, bringing together sculpture, site-specific installations, painting, dance, performance, video and photography.
Animation makes a powerful appearance in the museum’s entrance hall with Zilvinas Kemp Kempinas’s ‘Double O’ (2008). Two entwined circles of magnetic tape whirl to the blows of two industrial fans placed at their sides, their restless fluctuation standing for the dynamic exchanges that underpin the exhibition. No longer the flat product of controlled mark making, drawing enters the third dimension and destabilizes the spectator from the start. As we approach the exhibition rooms, Kanjani Shettar’s ‘Just a Bit More’ (2005) creates further ground for interconnectivity. Its intricate webs of invisible strings evoke the perceptual agility required by a globalized world and contextualize the very logic of ‘On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century’.
It is with these works in mind that we approach the entrance, knowing from the outset that the hi-story we are about to be told is retroactively shaped by the present we inhabit. Three thematic sections orchestrate the display, each arranged chronologically. The first one, ‘Surface Tension’, brings together the historic avant-gardes. From plane to readymade and ultimately the utopia of total environment, lines provided a battlefield for artistic revolutions.
At stake was the desire to take representation beyond illusionism. Noteworthy is the inclusion of Loie Fuller’s ‘Dance Serpentine (II)’ (1897-99), a welcomed reminder of the performative ferment that predated the 1960s. In the same way, El Lissitzky’s ‘Proun Room’ (1923) testifies to the phenomenological and participatory aspirations engendered by art at the beginning of the century. The middle section, ‘Line Extension’, covers a time span ranging approximately from the 1940s to the present day. At this point, lines leave the wall and extend into the real world. Symbolic at first, as with Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Automobile Tire Print’ (1953), this intrusion becomes literal when the spectator is assaulted by the hooked wire that sticks out of Eva Hesse’s ‘Hung Up’ (1966). Mona Hatoum and Cildo Mereiles take bodily incursion a step further, radicalizing the iconography of the grid to evoke the experience of warfare and detention. This section isolates a structural trend, across boundaries of time, geography and medium, in order to disclose its sociohistorical meaning, ultimately seen to lie in the critique of institutional powers. Here, transnationalism proves a rewarding rationale, with ‘peripheral’ artists like Gyula Kosice and Atsuko Tanaka casting a powerful - and enchanting - light on modernist abstraction. Yet, for all its value, the sweeping breath of these rooms is also responsible for their frustrating potential. ‘Confluence’, the last part of the exhibition, presents practices that merge the line and its support. Initially the focus is on mapping, with the first room showing documentation by land artists like Richard Long and Michael Heize alongside the politically more mordant charts of contemporary artists Mark Lombardi and Francis Alÿs.
Confluence proves to be an appropriate title as it becomes increasingly difficult to identify a distinct message. Lest disorientation plunge into mere critique, however, as an overflow of inputs is perhaps the only way to attempt a speculative recapitulation of the present. In the last room, Julie Mehretu’s daunting drawing of an ultramodern web-scape leads us back to the beginning of the exhibition, reminding the spectator of the need to approach history from the standpoint of an expanded perception of the world and vice versa. The times when we believed in the individual’s power to draw reality and forge its meanings are long gone, the exhibition suggests. Nowadays, the predominant rhetoric tells us that we are inscribed by a world of experiences that out-scale us. It is this dynamic that ‘On Line’ wishes to trace by moving from image to object. No doubt overwhelming is a suitable adjective for the exhibition. At worst it feels loose and unrewarding, at best strategic.