While sitting at my desk, thinking of a passage in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying concerning the horizontal and vertical in life, death, and art, I conjured up a mental image of the space and art in the fifth gallery on the first floor. It was a concept brought to my attention in graduate school through a reference to the character Anse Bundren’s analysis of things that stand vertical and stay put as opposed to those in a horizontal state that tend to wander and move forward. Faulkner used direction and individual perspectives to tell the story of Addie Bundren’s death and her family’s quest to fulfill her dying wish. The graduate school memory and the association it produced with the work in the Modern’s fifth gallery fascinated me. So I visited the gallery to see if there was anything to it.
After entering the gallery, it was clear that there were in fact directional pulls as I scanned the space to get my bearings and take account of the horizontal and vertical qualities of individual works and the architectural space they occupied, as well as my own verticality within the space and in relation to the art. Just as Faulkner directed his reader, each artist represented in this gallery determined the relationship of their piece with its viewer by presenting it on the wall or the floor, vertically or horizontally. But upon closer examination, it became more complicated than that, and far more interesting.
Moving around the gallery I noted that One Lump, Two Lumps, Three Lumps, Four () by Lawrence Weiner stretches across the wall with a strong horizontal pull that seems to pick up speed as the piece is read left to right. The negative space at the center of each stencil-style letter reinforces the works horizontal quality and how it operates as a phrase, an image, and a thing. With As I Lay Dying in mind, I like to think that Anse Bundren would have considered the physical construction of words that gather to suggest an idea as being in danger of wandering or moving on.
The horizontal pull of Weiner’s piece brought me to Robert Mangold’s 1/2 Blue-Gray Curved Area (Central Section), which is as pronounced in its verticality as One Lump, Two Lumps, Three Lumps, Four () is in its horizontal thrust. The two vertical members of the piece stand erect, shoulder to shoulder, rising up from the gravitational pull of the convex arch at the bottom created by the perfect proportions and union of the two halves, as if the work was predestined to take and hold this form for eternity.
Adjacent to the Mangold piece, as if in comparison, Urdan by Brice Marden reclines with its two components lying one on top of the other. The bottom canvas seems to support the top thanks to the horizontal arrangement, but the point of contact between the two is tentative and messy. Unlike the central horizontal line in Weiner’s piece, Marden’s is not uniform. I found myself lingering at the irregularity of the horizon created in Urdan, noticing that the gray of the lower portion is spilling into the peachlike color of its partner above. But the gray is spilling up, pushing against gravity and defying the passive quality that is initially suggested in the repose of this painting.
Serving as a bridge between the horizontal and vertical pulls of the gallery, is Dan Flavin’s The Diagonal of May 25, 1963. Flavin’s light fixture, placed between a vertical or horizontal position, brings to mind elements in Faulkner’s story that moved from vertical to horizontal, such as rain becoming a river and the way a tree became Addie’s coffin.
My investigation continued with Hamish Fulton’s photographs of a rocky terrain joined by subtle vertical lines to create a panoramic view for Glen Tamanisdale Isle of Lewis a Five Day 100 Mile Walk Outer Hebrides Scotland, Early 1976; the horizontal stainless-steel boxes stacked vertically in Donald Judd’s Untitled; Clyde Connell’s vertical and stationary Guardian No. 4; and finally, Slit by Carl Andre that challenges notions of vertical or horizontal as the piece hugs the ground, reminding me that direction and its impact is always contingent on point of view.