New York

“Freeing the Line”

The freeing of the line to which the title of this elegant show refers is “the departure of the line from the paper surface and its venture into space.” The word paper signals that Catherine de Zegher, former director of New York’s Drawing Center, was thinking, indeed, about drawing in this show of largely three-dimensional art, and the linearity of the work she chose was unmistakable. The first piece viewers came to was Richard Tuttle’s Untitled, 1972, in which lengths of wire stretched between nails in the wall form an obliquely oriented cross. Next came Gego’s hanging column and sphere, from the mid-’70s, made of steel wires clasped in geometric but irregular configurations, in a fine play of impulse and logic; and then works by Karel Malich, also hanging, also from the mid-’70s, suggesting, perhaps, Saul Steinberg drawings realized as Alexander Calder mobiles. Joëlle Tuerlinckx, with enough work for a one-person show, was the dominant figure here, though the single most spectacular piece was probably Ranjani Shettar’s Vasanta (Spring/Transition), 2005, a beautiful spiraling room-scale web of thread and wax. The constituent parts of all of these works are solid but thin, even skeletal. The air around them presses on them; insubstantial—linear—in themselves, they together make substantial aesthetic form.

The show’s theoretical burden was less clear. For de Zegher, the line’s entry into space carries heavy freight: “What had become clear in the process of separating lines from the support is that drawing was an accumulation of human marks without a ground, creating a new place for being that had not previously existed.” When the support no longer “preconditions the drawing,” we can “understand marks and lines as constituting the ground and its articulation”; “interdependency [is] stressed and not subservience.” The argument to me overreaches, and not just because the line in space goes back decades in constructivist sculpture, or because I had thought the relationship between support and drawing was a little friendlier—more supportive—than that. Remember Edwin Abbott’s fanciful novel Flatland, published in 1884, in which the flat narrator, A. Square, happily inhabits a flat world until taught the birds and bees of the third dimension by a revelatory encounter with a sphere? In de Zegher’s conceit it is as if the residents of Flatland had conceived a revolution against the two-dimensional condition that with their unknowing complicity had oppressed them.

De Zegher’s eight artists are a catholic bunch—born between 1912 and 1977, in the United States, Europe, and India, and including sculptors like Eva Hesse and installation artists like Monika Grzymala—and the enterprise in which she enlists them, liberatory though it may be, ends up seeming to sell them short. Her choices become radical drawings only if they are seen as drawings in the first place—only, in other words, if you begin with the taxonomic impulse to assign them to that type. In de Zegher’s tale of revolt lurks a closet formalism. A part of me defends that categorizing impulse—believes that only by setting new art against art history, which is full of taxonomies, can we see just what’s new about it. And “Freeing the Line” was in fact both visually exciting and provocative in the linkages it found among rather differently conceived bodies of work. At the same time, surely art has long been more fluid, more resistant to categorization, than de Zegher’s premise allowed, and the flatness she posited as a villain was something of a straw man. She made one want to say, as to A. Square in 1884, The world has more dimensions than you know.

David Frankel