It takes guts to put on an exhibition with as dry a title as “A Brief History of Lines” at the Pompidou Center-Metz during the dead of winter, with the museum surrounded by snow. But this show, which is up through April 1, and which consists almost exclusively of drawings — 200 works in all — is a beautiful exhibition, as evanescent as the snow, and turning out to be one of the big successes of early 2013. With predominantly black and white works, sober traces can be reduced to ordered points (the work of Pierrette Bloch) or frenetic tangles (the work of Pierre Bismuth).
Lines: A Trajectory
Lines can be geometrically rigorous, even a bit uptight, and dialectical (as in Kandinsky’s sketches); rational in their desire to master space and time (in maps and musical scores); and even calligraphic (in the writings of Guy de Cointet). But they also have expressive, sensual potential. “We wanted to start with the gesture of the hand holding the pencil, with the body,” co-curator Hélène Guenin told ARTINFO France. “We want to expand the definition of drawing to other media: cinema, photography, animation…” In the gurgling abstractions of Robert Breer’s short film “A Man and His Dog Out for Air” (1957), a line crosses the screen similar to the way you might cross town, and recalls the statement by anthropologist Tim Ingold (whose book title became the title of the exhibition): “Wherever they go and whatever they do, men trace lines: walking, writing, drawing, or weaving.”
So this show is as much about the gesture as about the line on paper. It touches on Conceptual Art and Land Art, as with American artist Hamish Fulton’s attempt to redraw a landscape with his body by walking through nature. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Running Fence” (1976) gives a stretch of land in Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, a temporary border. In Eleanor Antin’s postcard series, “100 Boots” (1971-73), black rain boots without bodies take a tourist’s trip to California: Lined up in battalions and organized in circles or columns to cross a road or a scene, they tell a picaresque story, and the work is as fun as it is radical. Silvia Bächli traces gestures, as with a work in which each watercolor line represents the maximum extension of her arm on the paper.
Certainly lines can frame and enclose; but they can also become liberated, as Henri Michaux shows in his mescaline drawings. They also represent composing elements of life, such as the grooves of trees (Penone’s “Palpebra”) and the lines on the palm of the hand (Kandinsky’s hands, slathered with paint and pressed onto paper). Lines are solid and rational like mathematical truth, but also fragile like life itself, whose course they represent.
Rare Works, Recent Acquisitions, and Other Curiosities
In addition to taking a wide and open approach to the subject of drawing, the exhibition also does a wonderful job pulling out small treasures from storage. The nature of graphic art collections makes them difficult to show in the light of day — three months of exhibition time must be followed by a quarantine for three years! The medium is therefore fated to a certain secrecy, broken temporarily with this show, which gives a glimpse of the varied and extensive assortment of works in the Pompidou’s collection.
Many of these have not been shown in many years, and others are on display for the first time ever, such as Klaus Rinke’s series of photographs from 1970 in which he builds an alphabet with his body, acquired by the Pompidou in 2002. Or Vera Molnar’s seismographic landscape, “OTTWW,” which consists of a simple black thread stretching around the wall from nail to nail in graphic variation on the letter W, inspired by a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley , and donated by the artist to the museum in 2011. Another work by Molnar from her student days contains the seeds to her abstract, modular system: a few stylized trees drawn in pencil in a notebook.
Other unusual works include an extremely fragile drawing by Roni Horn, “So I,” a kind of exploded labyrinth made with little strokes of red pigment. A lacy drawing by Claude Viallat shows the artist’s fascination with the science of knots, revealing fishing nets strung between trees. Other artists on view include Agnès Martin, Julije Knifer, Stanley Brouwn, Lee Ufan, and some overlooked minimalist artists from Prague, such as Julius Koller, Karel Malich, and Stanislav Kolibal. A new acquisition by the Pompidou is a black monochrome work by Dove Allouche, which reveals its stormy landscape only when closely studied, like a drawing/palimpsest.
“A Brief History of Lines” is sensually and emotionally charged, bringing lines to life: like the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt displayed on the upper level of the Pompidou Center-Metz, they encompass the scale of time, body, and subjectivity.