Tearing The Line – Works by Leon Polk Smith

Written by Lonnie Monka


Flipping a page of a book too forcefully, someone may unintentionally tear it. As a page approaches losing its status as a single unit, it calls out to be fixed. Applying some sort of adhesive, the less the tear is noticeable, the better the repair—but by trying to hide this unintentional damage, perhaps people miss an opportunity—maybe, in a subtler voice, the torn page also speaks of an aesthetic experience. Could the ignored sliver of the inside of a page tell us something? Could the lines of the rip themselves be beautiful?



This line of thinking may be what inspired American artist Leon Smith Polk’s Torn Drawings series. Created between 1960 to 1963, the “torn drawings” consist of rectangular sheets of paper which Polk has intentionally torn. Unlike a dangling, half-ripped page in a book, Polk tore his paper all the way, cutting them into two pieces. Most of these tears reach from one edge of the rectangle to another, exposing interior slivers of paper. Even though the pages look like their two halves were meticulously placed beside one another to reconstitute the rectangle, it seems possible that Polk created this effect by placing the torn page over another with the same color. Regardless of how many sheets are incorporated into each piece, the prominent feature of these works are the tears.

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Tearing The Line exhibition view, photo by by Elie Posner courtesy of the Israel Museum.

Though there are a few deviations, the “torn drawings” consist of single colored rectangles with exposed whitish and brown tears—their softly zig-zagging lines are not only formed by the edge of the tear, the tear also displays variable widths of inner-exposure—shifting, according to their scale, in size, color and texture. Many of the snake like lines of these edges resemble a gorge, carved out by water or tectonic shifts. Delving further into this figurative exploration, we can imagine ourselves shrinking so small that those tears become the size of cliffs. As if we were geologists, able to read deeply into the world’s exposed layers, Polk has created the conditions for a kind of exploration of paper —a product that crosses our hands so often that it can easily be ignored.

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Twelve works from the Torn Drawing series are currently on display as the Tearing the Line exhibition hosted in the Kay Merrill Hillman Gallery in the Israel Museum. This particular gallery is tucked away in the basement level of the museum, while the same location on the upper levels serve only as small corridors connecting gallery spaces. The Kay Merrill Hillman Gallery utilizes the space between a staircase and elevator that grants access both to another gallery as well as the restrooms which are located half a floor up and down. Just like accidentally ripping a page while trying to read a book, people may merely happen upon this exhibition while seeking to use those restrooms. For those unexpecting visitors, perhaps the leap from the unintentional to the imaginative is all the more forceful. 

Tearing The Line, curated by Nirit Sharon Debel is on view at The Israel Museum, Derech Ruppib 11, 02-670-8811. Exhibition Website.

About the Author: Lonnie Monka is a freelance writer and poetry enthusiast. He is also the founder of Jerusalism, an initiative to foster local literary community in Jerusalem, where he continues to organize readings series, workshops, and social gatherings. He also enjoys posting pictures of @toiletsofjerusalem on Instagram.

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