In the beginning was the line. You don’t believe me? Go back a thump your Bible for a minute. King James, Genesis: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And what was between the heaven and the earth? Nothing? Don’t talk nonsense; you don’t separate two things with nothing. There was a line there. Read on: God divided the light from the darkness. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. ‘Firmament’ is just a fancy word for a line. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. This is God drawing lines in the cosmos…and it was good. A firmament is a surface. God called it heaven.
The line is one of the stables of art. Study drawing, sculpture, painting, architecture and the first thing they will tell you about is about the line.
Boundary lines, borders, lines in the sand, thresholds, furrows to plant the crops—the plow, after all, simply cut a line in the soil—good fences good neighbors make: poetry is made up of lines; there used to be an old TV show called ‘What’s My Line?’ where you had to guess the guest’s job—or was it his identity? People have opening lines, pickup lines; imaginary lines go around the globe; manufactures have clothing lines, and clothes used to be put on lines to dry.
And then there’s math: A line is the shortest distance between two points. A line divides two surfaces. A geometrical object that is straight, infinitely long and infinitely thin. ‘Infinitely thin’. Imagine. The world changed when we decided that parallel lines could meet. Somewhere. You recreate the third dimension by drawing lines that meet at focal points.
And then there’s…what’s your sign? One of the great lines.
You can look at art as a study in decisions. Think about putting a line in a piece of wood, and the decisions you make. Where to put it? Should it divide the board in half? Should it be straight? Should it be a furrow or a crease? How thick should it be? How deep? Should the line in fact be the meeting place of two different levels, and if so, consider the possibilities between the top of the line and the bottom of the line: should it be straight, bevel out, bevel in, modulate between the possible slopes?
There’s this big category: should the line suggest something representational? Or rigorously shun a representation? Should it aspire to do both?
And the craft of the line: crude, polished, rough, smooth, machined or hand cut?
Should the line function to reveal the beauty of the wood, should it aspire to give the wood a new life? Should it aspire to portray something, the outline of a face or a figure, a tree or a tower?
The line seems the perfect place to investigate some instances of minimalism, of a work of art so simplified that it raises the question: is it art? It raises the question, though perhaps doesn’t answer it, the answer being part of the completion the thoughtful critic and the discerning viewer bring to the project. It says it’s art if you say so, otherwise it may be left in the corner, or thrown out during a vigorous housecleaning: it’s just a line somebody carefully carved in a piece of wood, and don’t put too much stress on that adverb; it was carved a long time ago, and nobody remembers who did it. No, it can’t be worth anything. Take it to the Antique Road Show and they’ll laugh at you. Maybe if it was signed…like by Rembrandt or Grandma Moses or somebody…
Suppose the resulting piece of wood is pretty? Suppose it’s beautiful? Beautiful in the way a piece of driftwood can be beautiful, taken off the beach and put on the deck, or shellacked and put on the coffee table. There’s no intention there; you just like the way it looks.
Drift wood can be art, a pile of stones can be art, a line incised in a piece of wood can be art—as everybody knows, you just put a frame around it.
Say that another way: you put it the right space.
And all art is about space, isn’t it? Some kind of space. Just make a line.