Curator Rodrigo Moura’s exhibition of artists working in the field of abstraction, specifically with lines from the 1950s onwards, seemed likely to be anchored in Formalism. Happily, this weight was cast off at the very outset. ‘The grid announces modern art’s will to silence […] it’s what art looks like when it turns its back to nature’ read Marilá Dardot’s installation ++ (2014). Her text, written in vinyl letters, was placed over a grid of seedling trays within which vegetable seeds had been planted. Germination was already evident at the opening and within a week the text was nearly entirely obscured, pushed out of the way by the sprouting plants. By this Dardot took aim at the constraints of Modernism and overcame their limitations directly.
Moura gathered artists – from South and North America, India and Romania – who ‘explore new frontiers for abstraction’, though these frontiers tended to return to familiar forms rather than exploring more rarefied ones. The artists here combined abstraction with lines in other, non-art uses – textual, musical, financial, scientific, architectural or relating to information technology. As a result, these lines were infused with concrete alternative possibilities and there seemed something pressing at stake beyond art for art’s sake. Added to this, most of the artists showed multiple works, demonstrating a concentrated interrogation of a hypothesis. Ivens Machado’s numerous drawings on, over and through notebook pages, for example. One, Desenho (Drawing, 1976), looked like a standard page ripped from a lined, ring-bound notepad but for two adjacent guidelines that broke free and cross over midway across the page. R.H. Quaytman’s Orchard Spreadsheet (2009) laid bare the sale of works in the artist-run Orchard Gallery, New York, in a two-metre-tall print of a spreadsheet, the minutiae of which resonate equally as a diffuse group of lines. Nasreen Mohamedi’s photographs, Untitled (c.1970), detailing images of fabric looms, made the viewer long to place all those lines of thread in a social and economic framework.
Channa Horwitz’s works were least well served by their presentation; a Sonakinatography graph and other works on paper needed to be embedded in a more informative context to make sense. One image documenting the performance At the Tone the Time will be (1969) was too slight to mediate the complexity and concrete nature of that event’s outcome, not to mention Horwitz’s other predetermined systems. The exhibition walked this line uneasily, pulling back from specificity in order to retain its claim to abstraction. It was unnecessary as viewers could surely have entertained both concepts at once. The first section of the show closed with a delightful Trompe l’Oeil (1972) by Machado, two crayon lines that meet in the middle of a page, where a tab of masking tape sutured them. The merest wrinkle in the tape brought both to life, a fractional shift from two to (imagined) three dimensions.
All these works prefaced the exhibition’s finale, which was in a separate gallery – 18 Lygia Pape works from the 1950s to ’70s. A wealth of pieces, covering several bodies of work, was almost too much of a good thing after what had already been a dense first section. It culminated with the thread installation Ttéia (1976/2014) in one corner. While Pape’s other works on paper fit neatly into the theme of lines that engage with abstraction as well as other languages of line, the installation offered a moment of transcendence. After the engaging quotidian complication elsewhere in the exhibition, this escape into untethered line didn’t have the appeal it might have otherwise. Pape’s colleagues had too successfully made the argument for lines both visionary and grounded.