The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century purports to display “the radical transformation of the medium of drawing throughout the twentieth century,” but what the genre retrospective really does is to narrow the definition of “drawing” considerably, limiting works not by medium but by execution: almost every work in the show is non-objective. This festival of the abstract is visually impressive but conceptually lacking. Shouldn’t any century-long survey of drawing include some less academically austere work?
The exhibition traces a narrative of abstraction over 100 years, which is a fascinating journey. We move through Picasso, Matisse, early abstractionists, and even briefly visit Duchamp’s “Three Standard Stoppages,” a piece in which the artist dropped a length of string onto paper and traced the pattern it fell in, creating an automatic drawing that is one of the more interesting flashpoints of the show. Yet after dipping a toe into such artist-denying conceptualism, curators Connie Butler and Catherine de Zegher are content to wade through the safer waters of non-objective cliche: the tyranny of the artist’s mark and gesture in a ground space.
Following up Kandinsky drawings and Kurt Schwitters’ collages and constructions, On Line begins a lengthy pitch into the spirit of constructivism. It’s fascinating to see a reconstruction of Russian constructivist El Lissitzky’s “Proun Room,” originally from 1923. The work’s geometric wall mounted sculptures form a gesamtkunstwerk environment, experienced like stepping into one of the artist’s jagged tornado abstract paintings. But the baroque, academic abstraction of constructivism comes to dominate when too many of the artists and works on display fail to engage any kind of greater context than their own virtuosity with materiality, the line, and volume.
This is largely the responsibility of the curators: the exhibition’s sections, deemed Surface Tension, Line Extension, and Confluence of Line and Plan fail to provide the social and political context of drawing as a medium and undermines many of the exhibition’s pieces. Hung near an Agnes Martin abstract canvas and 60s Italian modernist sculpture, Gyula Kosice’s “Mobile Articulated Sculpture” loses the revolutionary significance of its Latin American origins, the democratizing fact that anyone could manipulate the work into new abstractions, an anti-academy posture that is lost in On Line‘s new drawing canon.
The show feels too final. It feels like the last word on the medium when in reality On Line doesn’t even provide a proper survey of “drawing” in the 20th century. Where is the figuration? Though the exhibition’s last galleries branch out into performance art for a brief look, any dialogue around representation of the figure or the landscape are lost. A wider view is sacrificed for a streamlined passage through 20th century abstraction. The exhibition’s initial introduction states that drawing reflects:
…the interconnection and interdependency that are increasingly both shaping and emerging from a globalized society. Line, like thought, once understood as linear and progressive, has evolved into a kind of network: fluid, simultaneous, indefinite, and open.
So here we have globalization as pictorial flattening and networked communication as abstraction, a teleological argument that seems to once again posit the non-objective as the supreme goal of a developed society. The exhibition doesn’t acknowledge that its own trajectory is outdated to the time of Greenberg. Abstraction is never the final word. Haven’t we been through this already?
On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century is on view at MoMA (11 West 52rd Street, Manhattan) until February 7, 2011.