PRINT May 1976

Drawing the Line

THE RECENT EXHIBITION “LINE,” organized by Janet Kardon, brought together a group of artists previously dispersed among the ranks of Conceptualists, Earth-workers, painters, sculptors and draftsmen. In doing so, the show identified another skirmish between those age-old artistic antagonists—line and color.

Line points up all the things painting has managed to submerge, overcome or ignore. It puts nasty cracks in painting’s smooth surface, wedges itself rudely between gently blended areas of color, and leaves offensive trails on pristine fields. Lines, to classic color field painting, are an unattractive nuisance.

Color field, in turn, makes line feel ill at ease; it is sensuous, beautiful, has pretty clothes and wears make-up. It attracts lots of admirers. Its insistence on flat expanses cramps line’s style. Line needs space to stretch its legs. When it encounters a flat surface it is happiest running back and forth, either marking off neat sections or filling it up with random tracks. Sometimes it lies down—to rest, as it were—but it always seems to dream of marking and dividing, never of flat emptiness.

Line is so plain that color isn’t much use to it. When lines are different colors, it’s usually to tell them apart. Even then, they’re mostly plain, primary colors—red, yellow, blue—exotic shades of mauve or turquoise would be wasted on their scrawny presence.

A line, like a point, is elusive. It is a fact of location, not a form in itself. Nevertheless, it can act as assertively as a brick wall; it tends to impose an order out of allproportion to its physical spareness. To be a line, it must know where it is going and what it is doing, all of which requires a fair amount of self-discipline. Crossing a line is a decisive act. People standing in a line are restricted in their movements, not by any physical constraint, but by the concept of the line. It has invaded language as well, contributing its peculiar properties to such phrases as “out of line,” “toe the line,” “draw the line,” “bottom line,” and “line of duty.” Property lines, state lines, white lines on highways, stake out our limits, inform our behavior; international boundary lines package us up and label us with a national identity.

Line has so long been thought of as the basic ingredient of drawing that the two have become inextricably entangled. Two much publicized drawing exhibitions, embarked on simultaneously by the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, furthered the definitional muddle. There is no point in going into the strengths and weaknesses of those two shows except to say that they were so all-inclusive as to confound any attempt they may have been making to define drawing. The artists in the “Line” show, many of whom turned up in the MoMA exhibition, are often dismissed as draftsmen, precluding any further investigation of the specific nature of their art. Their use of line seems to pigeonhole them automatically.

Since, as the two museum shows claimed, a work does not have to be linear, on paper, or even a preparatory sketch to be considered a drawing—witness Cornell’s boxes at the Guggenheim, Beuys’s rabbit-blood stains on canvas at MoMA—it seems equally possible that something may not be a drawing just because it is linear. In raising this question the “Line” show performed a subtle critical act, “reviewing” the drawing shows and adding itself as a clarifying footnote. In doing so, it identified line’s autonomous function within recent esthetics.

A line is a conceptual joy because it is, above all, a terrific idea. Clear, unequivocal, simple, functional but formless, visible but invisible. Straight lines are perhaps most compatible with Minimalism. Criss-crossed according to a predetermined, strictly ordered system, they comprise a favorite piece of Minimal equipment—the grid. It imposes an arbitrary structure that can “authenticate” even a blank canvas.

Minimal art manifests itself as an unyielding declaration of fact. Not fact about anything, just fact itself. Lines, whatever else they may be up to, manage to convey a reassuring factuality. Lines connect or divide, measure, mark, or merely extend themselves. In their more unruly moments they coil and bend, even snarl and knot. They can also scribble or write. They can start and stop abruptly or go on indefinitely. In recent art they take the form of paths, tracks, beams of light, ropes, folds, wires, shadows, cuts, neon and fluorescent tubes, sometimes even descriptions and instructions. They don’t set out to “draw”; they don’t outline forms, indicate three-dimensional structure, as in sculptural studies, or test and work out ideas for finished works in other media. (With the exception of a study by Barry Le Va, all the works in the “Line” show were finished works.) If they allude to, comment on, or examine anything, it is the potential of line itself.

The artists in the “Line” show are concerned with line’s nonpictorial functions; their works, which cut across all media, identify and comment upon its many “nonart” habits and foibles. One of line’s most intriguing traits is its ability to do seemingly opposite things simultaneously (i.e. connect, divide); its equivocal properties offer the chance for all kinds of perceptual manipulations which, in one way or another, lie behind all autonomous lineworks. Multiple readings of any single piece are inevitable, in fact, essential. The catalogue accompanying the show proposed certain groupings: lines on a surface; lines in space; negative lines; positive lines; objects; projects; line as expression; line as system; line as tracking. All the artists fall into at least three categories simultaneously, some as many as five or six.

These categories, for the most part, concentrate on the form the line takes within the work. Grouping them according to specific linear activities is equally instructive, though by no means foolproof, either. Individual pieces transcend this method of ordering as easily as any other. Nevertheless, it does reveal certain interests which, in one way or another, have informed various Minimal and Conceptual sensibilities.

Division is one of line’s favorite occupations. Gordon Matta-Clark used it actually to saw a house in two, slicing perpendicularly from the roof through its two floors to the ground. Photographs detailing the cut in different parts of the house documented the action. These the artist collaged together in such a way that the gap between the two sections of the house read as a continuous line. Dennis Oppenheim’s Time Line is perhaps the quintessential Conceptual dividing-line piece. By tracking a footpath through the snow along the middle of the frozen St. Lawrence River, Oppenheim identified the boundary between Canada and the U.S. The line that he is most interested in, however, is not merely the geographical boundary, but its representation of the hour time difference between the two countries—3:15 P.M. on one side of the line; 4:15 P.M. on the other. Three types of lines come together here: the boundary itself is a positive line; the path through the snow a negative. The time change, like the two sides of Matta-Clark’s severed house, becomes a split. Negative dividing lines also appear in Lucio Pozzi’s art, though in the more conventional art context of pencil or pastel on paper. Here the erasing of a strip across a pencil-shaded square produces a negative line that becomes the focus of the drawing.

Lines also connect and locate points. Barry Le Va’s work explores line’s locational functions by postulating various configurations in the gallery space or on the floor which are completed by imaginary lines. The work in the line show, a study for an installation on view concurrently in SoHo, used lines to connect various points located throughout the gallery. The result was a crisscross of lines that occupied the space like a giant cobweb. In many of Sol LeWitt’s drawings, the line becomes what is located as well as the means of location. Large wall drawings, often executed by other people, result from detailed instructions as to where to draw the lines and in what lengths. In smaller drawings on paper, the lines are often annotated with their enabling definitions: “To a point halfway between the midpoint of the right side and the lower right corner,” etc. Thus the process of locating the lines is clearly read, and the facts of their presence become literal as well as visual.

Measuring and circumscribing are also functions of line. Any dimension, whether height, length or circumference, is, by inference, linear. Distance is also, fundamentally, linear. Walter de Maria acknowledges this in his Mile Long Drawing, two chalk lines that extend for exactly one mile in the desert. Michael Heizer, leaving circular tracks in the desert with his motorcycle, attests to another aspect of this same idea.

Line is the crux of geometry, the inhabitant as well as the framework of graphs. Robert Mangold’s paintings play upon line’s geometric accuracies, using it to describe pseudo-geometric figures which puzzle the eye by just missing their targets. “Tangents” don’t quite touch; the beginning and end of what appears to be a perfect circle don’t meet; figures which our experience and best instincts tell us should be symmetrical or equilateral are slightly out of kilter. Mangold’s lines seem to reflect on their own function, while at the same time gently challenging our acceptance of their precision. Stephen Antonakos, whose line constructions of neon tubing often take the form of geometric figures, commented on the function of line in geometry in his piece in the line show: titled Incomplete Square, it consisted of a single straight tube—one-fourth of the square. Certain of Dorothea Rockburne’s drawings refer strongly to geometric processes—delineating, measuring and bisecting angles. Sometimes the angle-making is achieved solely by folding paper; in other works, folded geometric figures form the basis for lines extended onto the surrounding wall.

Graphs are line’s other great mathematical arena; espoused by contemporary art as the grid, they regulate all kinds of surfaces, imposing their orderly habits on the work of Agnes Martin, Hanne Darboven and LeWitt. For Martin the grid has a personal esthetic meaning; for Darboven and LeWitt it activates particular systems which are, in turn, the subject of their work.

When line artists move into three dimensions, the results define and activate the space. Richard Tuttle’s sinuous wire lines, which project from points on the wall, connect those points, which serve simultaneously as the beginning and end of a line drawn on the wall itself. The wire then emphasizes its location in space by casting a shadow, the third line in the work. Tuttle’s sculptures are small in size and spare in means; nevertheless, their linear strength is remarkably assertive.

Patrick Ireland and Fred Sandback draw in space on a much larger scale. Sandback’s lines, consisting of thick brown wool, anchor themselves in the floor and wall and unobtrusively dispense perceptual information about the surrounding space. Ireland’s lines, clothesline painted in pale primary colors, bend and angle mysteriously in mid-air, without obvious means of support. (Their anchors, it turns out, are transparent nylon threads that connect to wall, ceiling and floor.) Though the lines float in space, they draw for their points of attachment on the structural elements of the rooms they occupy. Often they annotate that space, “quoting” a jutting corner or cueing their lengths to dimensions within the room. The colors, which identify individual lines, also produce elusive effects of projection and recession as one moves around the work.

Rockne Krebs also projects lines into space, but his medium, the laser beam, lacks even the meager physicality of rope or wire. They are highly visible nonetheless, and take advantage of one property of line that none of the other works can. When pointed at the sky they literally extend indefinitely, temporally as well as spatially. Travelling at the speed of light, they streak beyond the limits of our vision and keep going.

Some line artists, though they may separate their interests from line’s illusionistic uses in art, nevertheless acknowledge it as the medium of writing and drawing. In some of Cy Twombly’s drawings, unruly lines suggest the act of writing; their random squiggles could be seen as a parody of the gestures of a child pretending to write. In others, by virtue of their placement and configuration, his lines refer to pictorial representation. In doing so, however, both carefully maintain their posture of being neither. It is a highly sophisticated distinction, which Twombly makes with perfect confidence. Alan Saret carries the same idea into three dimensions; he was represented in the show by a big snarl of different kinds of wire—the sculptural equivalent of a scribble.

Attempts at categorizing these artists (who also included Stephen Rosenthal, Dan Flavin, Ruth Vollmer, Sibyl Weil and Natalie Bieser) are, in the end, somewhat frustrating and unsatisfactory. It could equally well be argued, for instance, that de Maria and Matta-Clark belong in “spatial definition,” Heizer in “location,” LeWitt in “drawing,” Oppenheim and Ireland in “measurement.” If such difficulties prove anything, it is that the richness of line as a medium, the depth of the investigation to which it has been subjected, and the range of solutions to be found within current art activities establish it as a prime force working within the overall context of post-Minimal art.

“Line” was shown at the School of Visual Arts, New York City, from January 26 to February 18, 1976 and subsequently at the Philadelphia College of Art, March 5 to April 9. In addition to the artists in the New York show, the Philadelphia show included Carl Andre and Forrest Myers, as well as a wall drawing by Sol LeWitt.