A show that aims to set lines free

MoMA’s new exhibition considers the potential of the line as an independent element

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A line is a line is a line.

Well, not quite. A line can be the mark left by an object as it moves through space. It can be the perimeter of a plane, the shortest distance between two points, a twisting wire, the border of a backlit shape, a single stroke of crosshatching in a pencil sketch, a mouse’s path in the snow. A line can project into three dimensions, casting a shadow in the form of another line. It can measure lengths, record change, track time.

The Museum of Modern Art’s laboriously clever new exhibition, On Line: Drawing through the 20th Century, aims to expand its subject’s turf, so it follows the journey of one dimension into three. The show begins promisingly. In a piece by the Lithuanian artist Zilvinas Kempinas, two blowing fans face each other, and between them twirls a length of magnetic tape suspended in air currents. Kempinas illustrates the show’s central point: that the line has been liberated, leaping off the page and into the surrounding world.

Unfortunately, many of the 300 works on display have little to add to that insight. Hewing to shades of black, white and grey, they feature every conceivable flavour of line: squiggly, straight, torqued, and spiralling. All this spare and airy stuff grows burdensome after a while. Some editing would have helped.

The show opens around 1912, when the avant-gardes of France, Italy and Russia were beginning to realise that line could function as an independent element. As usual at MoMA, Picasso comes first, wielding his charcoal in virtuosic contours that depict a jumble of fragmented planes. But it was a sculpture – his 1912 “Guitar,” assembled out of cardboard, string and wire – that redefined the line as a three-dimensional presence.

In a painting, a line may represent shape or space or depth, but it has no body of its own. Since the Renaissance, line had been linked to mimesis. It was the key weapon in artists’ arsenals, enabling them to emulate reality. It was also the cornerstone of the academic tradition, which promulgated the notion that drawing engaged the mind, while colour only captivated the senses.

With “Guitar”, Picasso stomped on these assumptions, and also paradoxically bolstered them. He rejected the illusionistic capacity of line, but reinforced its dynamism and intellectual heft, opening up exciting avenues for drawing to exist independently of colour, and even of canvas. He transformed the line into something palpable that jutted into the viewer’s domain.

With grim thoroughness, the rest of the exhibition traces the impact of these ideas, first on Picasso’s contemporaries and then on later monochromatic generations of the pencil-and-straightedge crowd. It’s a shame that so many members of the avant-garde had little use for colour; in this show, that makes for a bland sequence of galleries that all seem to have faded to eggshell.

Among Picasso’s seminal gifts was the lattice, which in his early Cubist works already takes the form of relentlessly interlocked horizontal and vertical axes. Subsequent artists have exhausted the graph paper approach to composition. MoMA gives us what must be the palest Mondrian ever, an unfinished symphony of ghostly x and y axes. Then came Agnes Martin’s anaemic grids, Mona Hatoum’s extentions of those grids into room-sized installations made of barbed wire, Sol LeWitt’s white cubic constructions, and variations on this theme ad infinitum.

Another Picasso legacy is the line that wanders off the wall and into the room. Alexander Calder twisted lengths of wire into delicate geometric sculptures and fitted them out with motors that once twirled coils, tossed balls, and swung their pendulous arms. (Sadly, the museum has frozen Calder in place, for the sake of preservation.) More recently, Richard Tuttle has picked up the gauntlet. He hammers one end of a wire into the wall and allows it to waver and vibrate on the way to finding its own, peculiar form. Then he traces, in pencil, the shadow that the wisp of filament makes on the wall, so we see the wire melding seamlessly into its shadow, a line that stretches quietly into infinity.

Once a line has freed itself, it can go just about anywhere. In Japan in 1968, Atsuko Tanaka hit the beach, took a stick and drew giant patterns in the sand, images that only cohered when viewed from the air. In the 1970s, earth artist Michael Heizer drove his motorcycle in circles around a dry Nevada lake. Tanaka and Heizer knew their work couldn’t survive. But aerial photos of the furrows they cut into the earth remain as a permanent analogue of evanescent art.

Then there are the invisible lines drawn by the body as it moves through space. In the video of “Trio,” dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer inscribes the air with a calligraphic swirl, hurling herself into a crouch, stretching on the floor, or sweeps her arm across an imaginary horizon.

With that, the process of linear liberation is complete. What remained for centuries a slender mark, imprisoned on a surface and mastered only by trained adepts, has sprung into an invisible contrail that anyone can leave.

‘On Line: Drawing through the Twentieth Century’, Museum of Modern Art, New York, until February 7, www.moma.org

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