You’re standing in the middle of an open gallery floor, surrounded by white walls hung with prints, paintings, photos and the occasional freestanding sculpture. Works appear to be clustered around intentional themes like color, medium or subject, but nothing is labeled.
You may not realize you’re surrounded by a veritable who’s who of 20th century art. The absence of signs and didactic panels robs you of name recognition, so you might not recognize Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Cy Twombly and Wassily Kandinsky, among others. But here, eliminating expectations is exactly the point.
“You have to walk up and experience it. You’re interacting with the piece,” said Rebecca Schoenthal, interim curator at The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia and co-curator of the museum’s latest exhibit, “What is a Line?”
“So much art history is rooted in the social history of art,” Schoenthal said, but this show, an unusual one for the Fralin, strips away historical suggestion and asks visitors to share intuitive experiences with each piece—and each other.
“The final exhibition shows work from about 1905 to 2007. That’s a century of work,” she said. It includes sculpture, drawing, photography and collage, a diverse expression of the many ways that different artists at different times have used lines to create compositions.
“During those 100 years, the art world had some of its most profound changes,” Schoenthal said, including new techniques and attitudes toward art making, not to mention two world wars. “The fact that we can look at those 100 years through artists and see how the artist’s relationship to line as a tool has been, regardless of the medium and current vogue in thinking at the time, makes for a really unique show.”
The show’s unusual setup and layout reflects its unique origins. Schoenthal explained that her co-curator Jennifer Farrell, associate curator of modern and contemporary prints and illustrated books at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and former curator of exhibitions and contemporary art at the Fralin, inaugurated the work on the show last fall.
“Jennifer originally went through the permanent collection at the Fralin and selected a large number of works from a wide range of artists, including those from the 20th and 21st century, in conjunction with members of the education department,” she said. Then the museum invited members of the public to collaborate.
Every week, the museum released electronic surveys that pitted various art works head to head. Web voters were shown several pairs of images, along with basic information like title, artist, date, medium and dimensions, then asked to choose their favorite in each pair.
Voters also left comments explaining their choices, which ranged from a desire to see the work in person to rhythm to gut feel. And, as one voter put it, “when in doubt, I voted for the underdog.”
Running tallies of each painting revealed certain runaway winners, like Andy Warhol’s “Martha Graham (Satyric Festival),” and several match-ups that barely claimed a winner. Over the course of six weeks, the curated pool was honed and winnowed and new options were brought into the mix.
Not every winner made it onto the gallery walls, however.
Schoenthal, who came on after the public voting process wrapped up, was tasked with putting together a “complete exhibition,” one that reflected the tastes of the public and aligned with the ethos of the Fralin because, she explained, “some people will never know there was this crowdsourced show.”
A teacher in UVA’s art history department and former curator of Second Street Gallery, Schoenthal focused on evocative juxtapositions. Knowing that some visitors would be voters, but others may not have seen the collection before, she included a range that could inspire or encourage viewers to draw their own connections.
By clustering the art thematically instead of chronologically, she echoed the absence of easy narrative faced by each online voter. And the final show “speaks to art as an enduring endeavor,” she said.
Through the lens of the line, viewers are asked to consider, question and analyze how artists use what Schoenthal calls “probably the most fundamental compositional element that artists are engaged with.”
Works include etched lines, drawn lines, found lines and an entire array of processes. Two Matisse lithographs, painted in two different decades with two different approaches to line, are hung one above the other. Two German expression artists take two very different approaches to woodcuts. A Sol LeWitt screenprint reveals diagonal lines and cross hatchings, an almost scientific breakdown of what a line can do or be. A Kara Walker silhouette meets a Berenice Abbott photograph of light dividing and refracting through a prism. Both, Schoenthal said, reflect “line captured by tool of the artist.”
The co-curator also leveraged one of Farrell’s inspirations, the Paul Klee statement that “a line is a dot that went for a walk.” The walls of “What is a Line?” include quotes from major artists throughout the 20th century “meant to encourage free association when you’re in the space.”
Viewers can share their ideas via a Web survey and iPads available in the gallery space. Those tablets also include thumbnails and information about every single work, including snapshots of the voting results, “so if you must know you can grab one on your way in,” Schoenthal said.
In a way, they seem necessary. “Having those iPads brings it back full circle,” she said, to a process that gives layered life to art: the involvement of the people and, of course, the intervention of the Internet.