"Line: Making the Mark" at the MFAH Gives You Something to Figure Out

Josef Albers, Segments, 1934, linoleum cut on Japanese paper, edition 7/35
Josef Albers, Segments, 1934, linoleum cut on Japanese paper, edition 7/35
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, purchased funded by the Trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in honor of Mr. Alvin S. Romansky. ©2015 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

'Line: Making the Mark," which opened last week at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and runs through March 22, is a show of prints and drawings about making marks in the modern art era -- roughly the past 80 years -- the marks in evidence being lines.

If this sounds like a circular description, well, it is. And it's a reflection of my quandary in approaching the show. In large part it's a show that eludes me. Which makes it the best kind of show for me to see.

It's in a prestigious museum, put together by smart people using works deemed worthy of the permanent collection, so I know there's something there that I need to figure out. I just don't know what it is. And be warned: I won't have figured it out by the end of this review. Luckily, I can look forward to months and months of going back and back.

Perhaps that word "figure" from the previous paragraph is part of my problem. Because one thing this show is not about is figure. In these works, figure is dead; line rules, along with tone and texture. These are marks made for mark-making's sake, which is part of the point of modernism: Pictures don't have to be of anything anymore; they are in themselves and that's enough.

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In the old days, before modernism, artists organized lines to depict something. They made marks, many or few, into representations of places, people, things. Viewers mostly saw the images rather than the lines. At the same time, drawings were almost always preparatory steps, not ends in themselves. Then, with the advent of modernism, that all changed. The marks called lines became paramount, and the drawings and prints that used them increasingly came to be viewed as finished works themselves.

But maybe this was a case of all that's old being new again. Just as "Line: Making the Mark" was about to open, the news reported a recent discovery: "Scientists say that a series of marks carved onto a freshwater clam shell represent the earliest known engravings made by a human ancestor. The zigzag lines...probably were carved at least 430,000 years ago..." (Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2014).

Judging by the photograph that accompanied the article, the clam shell lines would look right at home in this show. Even the clam shell itself wouldn't seem completely out of place, since many unusual elements entered into the making of the works, including but not limited to rainwater, dirt, tires and linoleum.

We don't know what the clam shell marks meant to the maker; we can't even know for sure that they were art. The same might be said of the works that make up "Line." We suppose they must be art, because artists and curators say they are, and they're hanging on the walls (and in one case from the ceiling) of a museum gallery. And they must have meaning, because why would all these people go to the trouble of making meaningless marks?

Understanding the things that make up culture, including art, requires experience and education, and I confess that I'm deficient in both when it comes to the art in this show. I find myself in the same position as the perhaps apocryphal primitive peoples who, on first seeing a film, looked behind the screen to see where the figures went as they left the frame. I sort of want to look behind these works to see where the figures went. And the color, too, since I'm also a color man and the few works that include color almost seem like interlopers in the show.

Though these works don't depict, some of them do evoke, at least according to the wall text. Jasper Johns conveys the frenetic, repetitious sense of insect sounds with his print Cicada. Brice Marden's Hydra, Summer 1990 channels the trees on the Greek island where he worked. Mark Tobey and Willem de Kooning give us the feeling of oriental calligraphy, though without the meaning. But it seems a little like cheating to see even those minimal, out-of-the-frame points of reference in a show like this.

I'm left to ponder some basic but actually pretty useful questions about the show itself and the individual works: Do I like them? Would I want to live with them? If I lived with them, would they grow on me?

I do like the show. It looks good in the gallery, and there's a good deal of (but not too much) curatorial help, meaning wall text and label descriptions, offering to help me get my bearings. Though in some ways it seems almost an echo of "On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century," mounted at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2010, I know that show only from the catalog. So even though the theme is similar and many of the artists are the same, seeing the works live and in person is a good thing.

There are works by the famous, such as de Kooning, Johns, Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman. And there are works by many who are less well known. A third of the artists are women, a huge proportion in comparison to those on view elsewhere in MFAH (and at most other museums, too).

By my quick count, there are even three Texas artists -- two from Houston and one from Dallas -- though you have to know who they are to know they're Texans. The wall labels list them as "American." Tell me again why that's less limiting than letting Texas viewers in a Texas museum know that these marks are being made right here around us by people we might pass on the street or in the gallery, rather than only far away by a tribe called artists. But some readers have told me that this is an annoying hobbyhorse of mine, so I'll move on.

One very good thing about prints and drawings is that they can be shown only for short periods because of their fragile nature (unless they're etched on clam shells, that is), so over time we get to see many more of them than of permanent collection works in other media. The painting galleries, for instance, sometimes remain almost unchanged for years.

Here are a few works I'll definitely want to go back and see again while they're up:

• Josef Albers's 1934 linoleum cut Segments, so different from his more familiar color-in-color squares. This one has a profile as stirring as the Sydney Opera House -- but there I go trying to see an image in the lines instead of just seeing the lines themselves. I have so much to relearn. This one intrigues me because the line, the most prominent feature, is an absence rather than a presence, made by carving out its shape in the linoleum block.

• Mark Tobey's Sumi Drawing of 1957 and Flight Over Forms of 1966, because I know that Houston artist Gene Charlton showed with and was influenced by Tobey in the early 1950s. Okay, that's a backstory that isn't letting the art speak for itself, but I love a backstory.

• Sol LeWitt's six lithographs titled "Untitled, from the series Work from Instructions." Talk about mailing it in; LeWitt literally did that, mailing instructions so that students could work the lithographic stones without him. His instructions for one read, "Within a twenty inch square area, using a black, hard crayon, draw ten thousand straight lines, of any length, at random."

• Agnes Martin's 1997 lithograph (barely) in color -- this one for what may seem a backhanded reason.

I fully expect that the fires of art-crit hell will rain down on me when I say this, but I don't get Agnes Martin. (She's only one of several from the show I could have picked.) Her lithograph here, with its pale pastel strips and thin gray lines, is, as Barack Obama impoliticly said of Hillary Clinton, likable enough. I don't have anything against it. I just don't understand the hoopla, which was also my reaction to the 2002 show of her work at the Menil. But it took me years to get Cy Twombly, though to my eventual delight, at last I did, so I'm hoping for a repeat with Martin.

Master novelist and lifelong amateur art critic John Updike published three volumes of his musings on art with the titles Just Looking, Still Looking and Always Looking. I chant those words strung together as a mantra for my own art viewing, especially when I'm at a show that's as challenging for me as this one. Maybe someday, with enough looking, I'll be singing the praises even of Martin and the others. Just not quite yet.

"Line: Making the Mark" Through March 22, 2015. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org.


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