The relationship between old master or modernist art and contemporary work is not immediately easy to comprehend. The paintings of Manet and Matisse reveal obvious visual connections to Giotto’s frescoes, but installation, performance, and video art appear to have radically different concerns. In China, the connection between traditional and present-day art is even more elusive. Scroll paintings, made to be unrolled for a single privileged viewer, are difficult to display in museums, and while some artists continue to develop the ink-on-paper techniques of their predecessors, sometimes showing up-to-date subjects, this style of art has very little connection with the borrowings from Andy Warhol’s Pop art, American Minimalism, or Italian Arte Povera found in the Chinese art around New York’s Chelsea galleries.
Sarah Sze, born in Boston to American and Chinese parents and educated in the United States, is a professor at Columbia University. Her previous installations in this country and Europe develop with the Western tradition of Eva Hesse and Judy Pfaff. Like them, and many of her contemporaries, Sze utilizes banal, everyday materials, such as disposable plastic eating utensils, notepads, scissors, and ladders— materials not normally thought to possess the aesthetic value required of art.
“Infinite Line” has three parts of very unequal size and interest. Eight installations are in the C.V. Starr Gallery; a number of drawings, some of them on scrolls, are in the smaller Ross Gallery; and five small prints hang on the staircase wall. One must take great care when moving throughout the Starr Gallery, as sheets of paper, strings, cotton swabs, tape measures, ladders, mirrors and other frail materials lie exposed and unprotected on the floor. Moving clockwise in this undivided high space, this series of site-specific installations— which seem to form the core of the exhibition— unfolds before the viewer in tumbling dimensional variations. There is Random Walk Drawing (Compass), which makes use of a bamboo-like, bent wooden elements; Random Walk Drawing (Window), which extends outside onto the small patio above Park Avenue, uniting indoor and outdoor space; Random Walk Drawing (Eye Chart), in which the letters of an eye chart are projected onto sand on the floor below; Random Walk Drawing (Water), which contrasts the techniques of Western perspective with the presentation of space in Chinese painting, whereby parallel lines do not converge; and Random Walk Drawing (Air), in which a scroll is deconstructed. One installation merges into the next, deploying elements endemic to traditional Chinese landscape painting, as if an old master scroll or rock garden had been physically taken apart: scholar stones and photographs of picturesque mountains like those found in Guilin; layered or shifting perspectives (the eye charts), recreating the depth effected between near and far, one of the three primary traits of traditional Chinese landscape paintings; and the material foundation for those paintings, the scroll itself.
Her show, according to Sze, is about “examining historically different ways of representing space in two and three dimensions,” showing “how we see two- and three-dimensional space.” As in an old master ink painting, we see imaginary landscapes as if we were actually traveling through them, without appeal to Western vanishing point perspective. The work of art, so Hegel says, grants us self-knowledge by embodying a worldview in a sensuous medium. Sze demonstrates the truth of his dictum. By identifying the components of traditional Chinese painting and gardens, and contrasting the ways that artists in China and the West represent space, “Infinite Line” makes a major contribution to our understanding of world art history. It is a dazzling exhibition, and a profound commentary on the relationship between traditional Chinese painting and contemporary art. David Carrier