A LINE THROUGH TIME FROM KAZIMIR MALEVICH TO JULIE MEHRETU
The line conquered everything and destroyed the last citadels of painting - colour, tone, texture, and surface.
The exhibition “On Line: Drawing Through the 20th Century” was quite a notable event in New York’s MOMA 2010-2011 calendar not so much because of the eye-catching works on display, but rather, for its cognitive value. The title given to it says much to an attentive and interested viewer who would recognize Kandinsky’s essay with the same title; besides, it uses a term from the Internet, a kind of a homonym that is familiar to everybody.
The second part of the title marks the scope of the introduction within a century-long period of transformation of drawing, its “groundbreaking history of an art form”, starting with revolutionary innovative processes at the beginning of the 20th century and following its development along the same lines up to the present day; it is formulated by “pushing the line of drawing into real space, expanding its relationship to gesture and form and invigorating its links with painting and sculpture, photography and film, and, notably, dance and performance”.
The authors and compilers of the exhibition catalogue, opening it with quotations from the ancient Greeks through to the modernists, seem to steal from reviewers the opportunity to trace back and forth all the maximae on line — from Euclid to Leonardo and Kandinsky. For Euclid line was breathless length, for Leonardo — an imaginary idea, and Kandinsky in 1919 wrote that, “From these two graphic entities — point and line — derive the entire resources of a whole realm of art, graphics, — the fate of line is more complex [as compared to that of point — N.V.] and requires a special description.”
The exhibition “On Line” is just such a special description represented by works of iconic artists of the 20th century whose graphic experiments opened this show: Gino Severini, Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, Jean (Hans) Arp, Alexander Calder, and Paul Klee... Each of them solved diverse graphic tasks (as a rule, self-set) in search of new means of expression for the new technical devices and opportunities offered by the new century — speed, long distance communication (through radio, telephone, cinema, and later, television), a new theory of cosmology and new ideas in psychoanalysis. As guest curator and principal author of the catalogue, Catherine de Zegher writes: “In the 20th century, many artists made line the subject of intense exploration, including semiotic and phenomenological investigations. By line as such they understood its pure existence in the world and the meaning that could be attributed to this existence as creative intention and interpretation.”
Different representatives of the main trends of the 20th century art — the Futurists, Cubists, Dadaists, Constructivists, Abstractionists, Surrealists, arte povera artists — all strove to keep pace with the rapidly changing world, in which, they believed, only novel, in other words, nontraditional art forms could adequately respond to challenges of Time. The Italian Futurists (Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini) stood for synaesthesia and kinaesthesia, though they realized them in practice just on a plane, without “violating” the borders of the picture or making the surface “tangible” (as in Severini’s “Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin” on view at the show, or Balla’s well-known “Speed of the Motocycle”, or Boccioni’s “Scene of Railway Station Farewells”).
The most radical changes took place when the Cubists (Braque, Picasso) introduced something truly revolutionary in their papier colles. Now the surface was no longer homogenous, while the depicted object was transformed by the Cubist vision. A traditional material — a sheet of paper — became a field of experimentation with different types of drawing (of which Picasso was an unprecedented, unrivaled master), as in Georges Braque’s “Guitar” (1913) or Picasso’s “Guitar” of 1913 (to follow the development of his artistic direction one can see that if in 1912 drawing the same object he would traditionally use charcoal on paper, by the next year for the same purpose he would add cut-and-pasted paper and printed paper to enable himself to come to his sheet metal “Guitar” in 1914). Effectively, to create the illusion of volume on a two-dimensional sheet of paper was no longer the purpose, but was substituted by the idea of constructing reality in as many dimensions as possible. All this led to visualization of graphics based on any line, i.e. on linear material that formed the shape.
Quite naturally, the Dadaists, finding some Cubist ideas concerning the innovative usage of surface of particular interest, applied them in their own Dadaist way, gaining impressive artistic results based on random acts of creativity (for example, one could write a poem based on random choice of words) or making drawings with scissors, or both (Marcel Duchamp’s “3 Stoppages etalon” of 1913-1914 or Man Ray’s “Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows” of 1916, both at the exhibition). The Dada artists went further, experimenting with different materials never traditionally used before to create an artefact visually connected with graphics: a string, a brass plate, wire, leather as in Kurt Schwitters’ “Revolving” (1919). Schwitters’s house Merzbau (in fact he created several Merzbau houses) was his materialization of the idea to bring together different objects to build up a kind of interaction, a communication between the objects and connecting elements: for example, he transformed a six-room family house in Hannover into a space which he referred to as a “Cathedral of Erotic Misery”. The walls of the rooms were painted in white and filled with planks of wood — some standing sculpture-like, separately, while others created a multilayer ceiling.
Photographs of Schwitters’s Merzbau house in Hannover were exhibited at MOMA as early as 1936; in 1943 the house was destroyed by bombing. One of its rooms has been reconstructed in the Spengler Museum in Hannover. As de Zegher points out, “Schwitters’s gesture must be seen in the context of the Dada movement, radical for what [Roman] Jakobson called a ‘systemless aesthetic rebellion’ leading to an art of relativity and ultimately to a destabilization of identity”.
Another Dadaist idea was to manifest subjective motifs and break down boundaries; thus Hans Arp and his wife Sophie Taeuber-Arp experimented in their own way — he with papiers dechires in which he demonstrated his “denial of human egotism”, or the two together in four hands making “duo-collages” to create a work of art deprived of authorship. Denial of depiction of material reality led to the geometrical abstractions of Piet Mondrian: in his “Composition #II; Composition in Line and Colour” of 1913 or in his works with primary colours one can see the artist’s searches for complexity in simplicity which was followed and investigated by the Russian Constructivists, who receive special attention at the exhibition.
If Kazimir Malevich in 1914 with his “Reservist of the First Division” (oil on canvas, collage of printed paper, a postage stamp and thermometer) came very close to Picasso of 1913, then in 1916-1917 Malevich produced two of his particular brand-name Suprematist drawings — new ideas realized with traditional graphic media, namely pencil on paper. Attempts to extend the plane in space and time were made by the Constructivists Alexander Rodchenko and Lyubov Popova, Jean Pougny, and Malevich. Though line was still the target, to draw or paint was no longer an attempt at artistic self-expression — to formulate one’s attitude towards one’s own work became more urgent. The word “construction” was given preference not only in the titles given to a piece of art, but in articles and essays.
In 1920 Rodchenko wrote: “...working exclusively on the building of forms and the system of their construction, I began to introduce the line into the plane as a new element of construction.
“The perfected significance of the line was finally clarified — on the one hand, its bordering and edge relationship, and on the other — as a factor of the main construction of every organism that exists in life, the skeleton, so to speak (or the foundation, carcass, system). The line is first and last, both in painting and in any construction at all. The line is the path of passing through, movement, collision, edge, attachment, joining, sectioning.
“Thus, the line conquered everything and destroyed the last citadels of painting — colour, tone, texture, and surface” (Rodchenko. “The Line”, 1921).
In the same year, 1921, his declarations and encomium of line resulted in his participation in the “Second Spring Exhibition” of OBMOKHU and “5 x 5” exhibition where his three-dimensional “Spatial Construction #12” of 1920 and his drawings on graph paper were on display. In order to acquaint visitors with the Lissitzky’s “Project for the Establishment of a New Art” (Proun) his 1923 Berlin “Proun Room” was specially reconstructed for the “On Line” exhibition to show how the artist realized in the studio his ideas to combine geometrical forms in three-dimensional space. (Lissitsky’s “Cabinet of Abstraction” was reconstructed in the Spengler Museum in Hannover already mentioned).
The creative approach to spatial construction was first and foremost applied in design — in graphics, books, furniture, interiors, applied arts, and architecture. Having become an integral part of contemporary art and everyday life, design — in the most broad connotation of the term — now influences all forms of visual arts, whether graphics, painting or sculpture (as in Jeff Koons’ “Hanging Heart”; Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s “Surrounded Islands” of 1980-1983; Anish Kapoor’s giant gramophone-shaped installation).
“On Line” paid due attention to point/line interaction in the works of Paul Klee (“Twittering Machine” of 1922 — Klee could never guess what associations that title would evoke some 90 years later!) alongside Wassily Kandinsky’s drawings (“Black Relationship” of1924) in which he vividly demonstrated his theoretical attitudes formulated in his essays “On Point” and “On Line”. In his essay published by the Bauhaus in 1926 “Punkt und Linie zu Flache” (Point and Line to Plane) he would formulate that it was “the straight line whose tension represents the most concise form of the potentiality for endless movement” and would bring the artist to the graphic interpretation of dance in which a dancer makes exact drawings with his/her movements as in his “Three Curves Meeting at a Single Point” of 1925. Kandinsky made this drawing from a photograph of the dancer Gret Palucca by Charlotte Rudolph.
A quarter of a century earlier, alongside “dynamic” images created by artists on paper and canvas, there appeared a real star of the modern dynamic dance — Loie Fuller — who pioneered light-and-colour techniques in her fantastic performances with bamboo rods. She seemed to animate the futuristic images on stage and became a source of inspiration for Jean de Paleologue, Toulouse-Lautrec and Koloman Moser, who depicted Fuller’s figure dance and whirls of silk in their graphic works. The film “Serpentine Dance” in which she stars is on show at the exhibition.
Surrealism made its impressive contribution to graphic art: the Surrealists, with their emphasis on the irrational — on automatic drawing, on “dream painting”, or drawings made during spiritualist seances — produced artworks that, as Alexander Calder put it, “did not look like art” (as in Joan Miro’s “Spanish Dancer” of 1928 in which he used sandpaper, cork, nails, drafting triangle, hair, and linoleum). It was Calder himself who made a real breakthrough with his “graphic” — sculptures of air — mobile constructions (“A Universe” of 1934, made of painted iron pipe, steel wire, motor and wood with string, was displayed).
The exhibition introduced new generations, those who followed their great predecessors — some to join their company, like Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Ryman, Frantisek Kupka, Sol LeWitt, and Mona Hatoum; others just to become known for the extravagance of their artistic expression or the very sophisticated and intellectual interpretation of the interrelation between line, point, plane and space. New technologies, which appeared in the second half of the 20th century, eventually resulted in the development of a new visual language, or to be more exact, of new visual languages. The scene of the world art in general, and graphic art in particular, is international — the modern and contemporary artists, participants of the “On Line” exhibition come from practically every continent. The diversity of artists’ native languages corresponds to the diversity of visual languages, but as a rule, does not depend on their country of origin. And if during the first third of the 20th century Europeans were responsible for revolutionary changes in the approach to drawing, by the end of the century the field had been opened to the world at large.
It is worth mentioning that the notion of drawing “suffered” dramatic changes, resulting in a great aesthetic shift. Thus Ryman “defines any of his works that include a line as a drawing, notwithstanding the support, be it canvas, Plexiglas, cardboard, glassine, or aluminum”. Such an approach was visualized in the works of Eva Hesse (“Up the Road” from 1965), Anna Maria Maiolino (from the series “Constructed Projects” of 1972, or from the series “Indices” of 2005, in which she uses thread on paper to produce a type of ink-on-paper drawing), Karel Malich, and Pierrette Bloch whose “drawings” were made with horse hair, thread, acrylic, wood, rope, enamel, Masonite, and Styrofoam.
A new era of drawing emerged, materialized in metal and other materials: the line was to be used in spatial constructions as in Sol LeWitt’s “Cubic Construction: Diagonal 4, Opposite Corners 1 and 4 Units” of 1971 or Mona Hatoum’s “Cube” of 2008, in which she used black steel — barbed wire — to provoke associations with the atrocities of war, imprisonment, and violence...
After such metamorphoses in drawing, it was time for line to become a part of the landscape or cityscape, a kind of land art, like in Walter de Maria’s “Mile-Long Drawing” — two parallel lines drawn with chalk in the Mohave Desert. Artistic result was no longer the point of destination — the idea became everything, while aesthetic considerations were no longer at stake. Now line exists as a remaining characteristic of a drawing. If so, it can play the role of a sign, a mark, a link between reality and imagery, a measure, having, due to the Internet, become as Catherine de Zegher notes “a moving trace in time and space, stressing inter-reliance and trans-subjectivity. The Timeline of the 20th century has morphed into the Web lines of the 21st.”
A key contemporary artist of the exhibition Julie Mehretu — an American of Ethiopian origin — receives special attention. Her “Rising Down” of 2008 appears on the cover of the catalogue — no surprise at all after the London show of 2010 “Picasso to Julie Mehretu: Modern Drawing from the British Museum Collection”, where she was characterized as “one of the stars of the contemporary art scene”. Further to this, at the 2010 Lehman Bros Art Auction she was the leader with $1 million paid for her “Untitled 1” — a very encouraging fact since Mehretu’s paintings — as she herself puts it — “were just composed of layers of drawing” and might signal the recognition of, and/or a kind of return to, traditional media and technique.
In postscript: Of course, there are contemporary artists who, as they would have done centuries ago, travel with a sketchbook and use a pencil to capture a view, a rare flower, a face, but they are not represented in the show; that is reasonable and justified, since they preserve the past, even if few of them can boast that they manage to reach the perfection of their predecessors.
The substitution of specific drawing media by anything bearing a shape or imitating a line completely changed the field of graphic art, leaving behind what for centuries was called a drawing. What we can see in the second decade of the 21st century as the continuing development of the experimental art of the beginning of the 20th century could be some unpredictable mixture of media, which could result in another “systemless aesthetic rebellion” formulated by the great Russian-American scholar Roman Jakobson as the quintessence of artistic search for the sake of artistic search.