Museum Review: “On Line” at MOMA

Posted on February 23, 2011

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Julie Mehretu. "Rising Down." 2008.

The exhibition “On Line,” recently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, generated some positive buzz with the curators’ inclusion of a large dollop of dance. With a compelling live-performance program fleshing out the performance films that peppered galleries otherwise devoted to drawing, painting and sculpture, the Modern seemed to be insisting that it could broaden the dialogue beyond static two- and three-dimensional work.

The stated goal of the curators was to present a shifting idea about the uses of line—at first flat on paper, then creeping onto the wall, then emerging off the wall into three-dimensional space, and finally liberated as a dancer moving through space—as illustrative of the progress of art through the last century. Yet for all the lip service given to taboo-busting, the Museum’s presentation remained, if you’ll excuse the pun, two-dimensional. In its eagerness to present the spatial possibilities of line (“Look, it leaves the page for the wall!” “Look, it leaves the wall for the gallery space!”), it forgot to present the emotive and metaphorical possibilities of this most basic kind of mark-making.

With “On Line,” line was literally all you got. If a visitor had viewed the exhibition and neglected to wander through the Modern’s permanent collection, he or she would have left with a very narrow understanding of the function of line in art. Line, the show suggested, is rigid. It is most always straight, but it can be allowed a turn now and then. It is above all hard-edged. It is never diffuse, it doesn’t simply peter out. It is unambiguous and it stands for nothing outside of itself.

If kudos are to be given for the kind of outside-the-box thinking that allowed modern dance its due, a slap on the wrist is in order for the glaring omissions that occurred from failing to look inside the box, too. For the box that holds the history of art must be at least halfway full with line. The cave artists at Lascaux used line to describe form. For calligraphers it was analogous to form. Chinese landscape painters used it, magically, to suggest the passage of time. It was the go-to tool in Ingres’ tool belt, and Matisse’s too. Pollock’s drip lines are a testament to a fluidity of motion. Even the absence of line, in a Rothko colorfield, for instance, or a late Seurat drawing, is as important as its presence is elsewhere. Indeed, Line’s service to the visual artist is matched in its diversity only by that of its esteemed colleague Color.

Imagine a different exhibition, starting where this one left off. Take Julie Mehretu’s Rising Down, a cloud of information (coalescing? dispersing?) somewhere in a hard-edged architectural space. Next to it, imagine a Seurat from the Modern’s own show a few years back, all delicate hazy tonal form, not a line in sight. Throw in something, almost anything, from the Modern’s vault of representational drawing and painting (R.B. Kitaj, Susan Rothenberg, Marlene Dumas) and suddenly there is a dynamic, both formal and ideological, which galvanizes a whole new dialogue. Now there’s the beginning of a show I would like to see. . .

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Posted in: Museum Reviews