Friday, December 31, 2010

On On Line

Walking through the galleries of the current MoMA show "On Line," I saw an amazing collection of brilliant works, featuring icons such as Picasso, Duchamp, and Kandinsky, as well as many less known but talented artists. At the same time, I felt rather confused - even lost. Is this just a survey of whatever art pieces that have beautiful lines in them? If so, why did they skip some usual suspects like Brice Marden but put in Jean Arp's square compositions? Maybe the curators made such selective decisions in order to make a point here? But what is it?

Study for the Muses (1991-1997) by Brice Marden,
whose work, for some reason, was not included in the show On Line

I went back to the entrance and read the curatorial notes. It says: "On Line ... argues for an expanded history of drawing that moves off the page into space and time." The exhibition "is organized chronologically in three sections: Surface Tension, featuring the artistic drive to construct and represent movement through line within the flat picture plane; Line Extension, composed of works in which lines extend beyond flatness into real space; and Confluence, presenting works in which line and background are fused, giving greater significance to the space between lines."

OK, they did try to voice a message and organize accordingly; just I didn't quite get it - maybe because I walked through the show backwards. It's a great concept to revisit and rediscover something as fundamental as line in art. But chronologically? Are we talking about a linear history here? (Maybe they are too obsessed with "line"...) I don't think developments in history works like that. When Picasso drew a line, did he only think about "tension on the surface" and not space or time? Is it fair to put Loie Fuller's dance in the first section with works that draw lines "within the flat picture plane," just because the performance took place more than a century ago?

Actually, I should be happy to see Loie Fuller's work in the show. In art, lines exist not only as drawn with pencil on paper or brush on canvas. Artists have explored many different mediums. A line can be created by cutting (Lucio Fontana, Gordon Matta-Clark), folding (Dorothea Rockburne), dancing (Loie Fuller, Trisha Brown), and walking (Richard Long). Materials can be thread (Anna Maria Maiolino, Ranjani Shettar), metal wires (Alexander Calder, Gego), Plexiglas (Georges Vantongerloo), or even horsehair (Pierrette Bloch). On Line successfully captures this expanded definition of drawing. But I think they missed out three important artists: André Cadere, Cai Guoqiang, and Dan Flavin. Cadere represents the process of sculpting a line (as opposed to sculpting with lines, like Gego), while Cai draws through gunpowder explosion. Flavin uses light as drawing material, and consequentially paints the wall.

Lines of different processes and materials
Clockwise from top left: Fontana, Matta-Clark, Fuller, Cadere, Gego, Flavin, Long.
Cai Guoqiang, Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A Myth Glorified or Feared (1996)

Here, I am proposing a counter-curation of On Line. Instead of a flatfooted linear chronological display, we can explore multiple developments of the concept of line in the history of modern/contemporary art through different themes, and we can use the notion of "relation" as an organizational thread. First of all, there are compositional relations, which we can take examples from De Stijl (Mondrian), Russian Constructivists (El Lissitzky), Bauhaus (Kandinsky), and more recently, Ellsworth Kelly. These artists explore line in relation to the page and other elements on it. The meandering compositions by Brice Marden can serve as example of line that folds and unfolds onto itself.

Then there are dimensional relations. A line is one-dimensional. How does art express line in relation to point (0D), plane (2D), space (3D), and space-time (4D)? Space is the primary focus of the current exhibition (with Picasso's Cubist drawings and Sol LeWitt's three-dimensional grid). But it doesn't address much of the other dimensions. Line is composed by points. André Cadere's round bars could be understood as such. At a larger scale, The Gates by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, which didn't make it to the current selection, shows the point-line relation just as well. Many large wall drawings by Sol LeWitt (none of which was picked by the MoMA curators) are perfect examples of lines composing a plane. Tara Donovan's installation of loose folded plastic sheeting has a similar effect. The forth dimension is a bit tricky. MoMA features some dance and performance pieces. Perhaps also music? We can include works by Iannis Xenakis. His branching drawings remind me of the Algue screen that the Bouroullec Brothers designed for Vitra, which in fact is also a surface formed by many lines.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Gates (2005)
Sol LeWitt, Scribble (2007)
Iannis Xenakis, Study for Erikhthon (c.1973)

Now I have mentioned The Gates, the issue of scale and Land Art leads us to the notion of line in relation to nature. Other key figures under this theme include Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Richard Long, and Walter de Maria. These artists used land as the canvas, placing abstract geometry such as straight, curve/spiral, or zigzag lines in nature as symbols of human intervention. They also borrowed and reappropriated lines directly from nature, like The Lightening Field by Walter de Maria. I have to admit, I am so tempted to include The Palm Islands in Dubai here.

Lines in Land Art
Clockwise from top left: Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970); Walter de Maria, The Lightning Field (1977); Walter de Maria, Mile Long Drawing (1968); Richard Long, A Line in the Himalayas (1975); Christo, Running Fence (1972-6); Michael Heizer, Dissipate (1968)

I was very happy to see young Lithuanian artist Zilvinas Kempinas' Double O featured in the show. I saw it last year at Yvon Lambert and I still find it ingenious - the two dancing circles are formed by the combined forces of gravity, wind, and magnetic field. The installation comes to life through basic physics, constantly changing and always reflecting the complex conditions of "now."

Zilvinas Kempinas, Double O (2008)

In my alternative version of the show, I would like to add two other young artists who have also skillfully and gracefully dealt with lines. One is Tomas Saraceno, born in Argentina and now based in Frankfurt. Formerly trained as an architect, he follows the tradition of visionary architects like Buckminster Fuller and Yona Friedman, using elastic ropes to form spider's web or cloud-like tensile structures that somehow imply floating habitats.

Tomas Saraceno, Galaxies Forming Along Filaments, Like Droplets Along the Strands of a Spider’s Web (2008)
Tomas Saraceno, Cloud Cities Connectome (2010)

The other is Seattle-based duo Lead Pencil Studio (Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo), who are also architects-turned-artists. Their recent installation at the US-Canada border near Vancouver looks like a giant Sol LeWitt wall drawing, but with depth. Interestingly, this piece touches almost all types of relations mentioned above. Countless metal bars are welded together to create a three-dimensional volume. Fuzzy on the outside, the volume frames an inner void with crisp edges. This "missing billboard" redirects attention to the landscape, and relates itself to nature in general. With exquisite elegance, it marks the socio-political line of the border.

Lead Pencil Studio, Non-Sign II (2010)

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