TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 1984

STUBBORN IDEAS AND LeWITTY WALLS

IT IS WELL KNOWN THAT “ideas” generate Sol LeWitt’s art. He has said so himself, and few if any have found cause to say or write otherwise. But “idea” is often too vague a word. Ideas are entirely useless unless they prompt further thought. Impractical inventions—art, music, theoretical physics, etc.—are propelled not so much by ideas as by hope that ideas will suggest themselves. It is this hope or leap of faith—the rising of the soufflé—that Sophistication applauds, then blithely calls “dumb.” Fundamental ideas cluster in empty places and moments, sometimes within reach, never new, and laughably obvious. LeWitt, for instance, has said that ideas “belong to whomever understands them,” a statement so obvious it is dumb enough to be an idea.

More simply, LeWitt begins with a decision, a recipe for drafting or geometry that is followed through under given sets of circumstances to the extent those circumstances allow—in two or three dimensions, on a wall, on paper, or in books. Musical scores are often mentioned as a model for how all this works, for how LeWitt realizes a project or has it realized, with orchestration, interpretation, acoustics, and the variability of instruments as built-in analogies for nuance in the lives of his pieces.

There is nothing harder to remember with any precision than the sound of one’s own thoughts, which is why people usually need to review, rehear, or reread anything that has made them think. My memory of LeWitt’s 1978 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art is a blur—a lot of white, a lot of switching rhythms, and a sense of something urban: his lines queueing up, not queueing up, crowding, not crowding. Not the kind of exhibition where the artist, or living specimen, pinned and splayed and fixed before your eyes, is caught between some plucked-out version of a beginning, and a cutoff notice. Like cities, not-there-yet, getting there, there, or clouds or tumbleweed, it eluded inventory.

In Holland this spring LeWitt was given a second large retrospective, in two concurrent and complementary exhibitions—of wall drawings since 1968, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and of structures since 1962, at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. This inventorylike approach may have been intended to separate LeWitt’s supposedly more rigorous and austere work from the more traditionally “decorative” drawings, to give some idea that there are two Sol LeWitts, but this was not what happened. There are many more than two Sol LeWitts, and they are all one.

In the earliest wall and table structures the intellectual emotion, and in several cases the graphic and chromatic qualities that will characterize LeWitt’s latest drawings, are clearly forecast. Wall Structure, Blue, 1962, for instance, in oil on canvas and painted wood, adumbrates a wall drawing realized in 1981 on a blue, vaulted ceiling at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In both pieces convex inflections and soft-focus geometries (“crafted” in the first, physically bent in Philadelphia) seem concrete metaphors for the inward flow of thoughts toward subject, thoughts that “come in” and don’t put out. Introspection in art is an atmosphere that can be carried by color, very often by certain shades of blue—Matisse’s 1914 blue View of Notre Dame here comes to mind. In a contrasting mood, an outrageously balletic wall drawing such as On black walls, all two-part combinations of white arcs from corners and sides, and white straight, not straight, and broken lines., 1975,1 feels like it’s been cooked at the temperature ice starts to feel hot.

LeWitt’s “dumb” line about the ownership of ideas is a dropped gauntlet that dares you to put his work through your thought process, his way. In doing so one may encounter at will any number of discretely lodged styles. Lines, not long, not straight, touching and crossing, drawn at random, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall., 1984, is nothing if not a comedy of manners. A wall divided by lines drawn from corner to corner, and from side to side. Lines in four directions with a different direction in each half square., 1970, could describe many history paintings involving crowds. Isometric figures, each drawn with progressively darker tones of India ink washes. The background is gray.,1982, might be an elegy. LeWitt, in yet another stunning truism, has written that “once out of his hand the artist has no control over the way a viewer will perceive the work. Different people will understand the same thing in a different way.” For gnomic terseness, and the simultaneously permissive and straitjacketed logic of his published statements, LeWitt is rivaled only by Andy Warhol, among living artists.

Since 1980 LeWitt has been living in Spoleto, Italy, not far from the Giottos and Cimabues of Assisi, so most of the work he has done since the MOMA retrospective originated in Europe. Expatriation seems to have had no more, no less an effect on him than it did on Gertrude Stein, another genius of the obvious. It has had some effect, in other words, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, because whoever said it shouldn’t? There are a lot of thick, uneven walls in Europe, and these may have something to do with the more rusticated lines and “seasoned” colors in some of LeWitt’s recent projects. The faintly comic ambivalence peculiar to the American artist abroad—one part guarded, the other entranced—is not lost on LeWitt who, this summer on his terrace, inking in a diagonal stripe as all of Umbria sprawled in front of him, paused, turned, and dryly announced that he was “bringing back plein air painting.” He may actually have said “open-air painting,” come to think of it.

LeWitt has always been attuned to architecture (though the way he runs roughshod over fixtures and such can’t exactly be called overly “sensitive”), but to anyone not already familiar with his most recent pieces, and who might not remember the earliest structures, “seasoned” color must sound surprising. Typically, LeWitt’s structures are white, and his drawings have been made with white, black, and the most intense and unmodulated primary colors—many still are. But gray has become an important, even dominant presence in his recent work, both as an entity in itself and as an agent of change in the other colors. His grays are carefully toned, with dark, medium, and light gray corresponding to blue, red, and yellow, as they do in black-and-white photographic reproductions. When next to color they are also a “fourth” primary, shade but not shading. This emergence of gray has, as well, cast not a shadow but a new light into the chromatic range of his wall drawings. “Teal,” “rose,” and “ochre” have come into existence, though LeWitt himself is unlikely to call anything rose that isn’t one. The alchemical precisionism of his new color recipes give them a deeply absurdist tone. Try these on your Beckett:

Color Drawing Ink

Red: Pelikan Vermillion 3
2 parts Red: 1 part Medium Gray:
2 parts water/4 coats

Yellow: Pelican Yellow 5
8 parts Yellow:
1/2 part Red mixture:
1 part Medium Gray:
2 parts water/5 coats

Blue: Pelikan Cobalt Blue 8
1 part Blue: 1 part Medium Gray:
4 parts water/3 coats

India Ink

Pelikan India Ink 17

Black 1 part ink:
2 parts water/4 coats
Dark Gray 1 part ink:
8 parts water/2 coats
Medium Gray 1 park ink:
16 parts water/3 coats
Light Gray 1 park ink:
30 parts water/4 coats
Wall Tone 1 part ink:
40 parts water/2 coats

LeWitt seems to be as compulsive about producing work—about repetition and proliferation—as Ingres was, and maybe as deft with gray. Like Ingres, who in his lifetime witnessed a continuing, unprecedented, and probably unsurpassed avalanche of graphic techniques, LeWitt is very evidently more than a little interested in reproductive forms, photography not least. The exact focus of his interest seems lately to have shifted somewhat. Eadweard Muybridge’s serial photographs were of great and easily discernible importance to LeWitt’s work during the 1960s and 1970s, but what seems to count most now is a static, implosive, and volumetric center, the trunk itself, one could say, rather than the shape of the branches. Like Francis Frith’s pictures of the pyramids at Giza, LeWitt’s new geometries are powerful demonstrations of clinical reason combined with Romantic gigantism. His recent and spectacularly “pretty” drawings of variously pointed stars bring to mind the astrological preoccupation of medieval Islam, and for that matter the Enlightenment philosophies of Spinoza, the lens grinder. The conceptual artist is a mystic (emphasis mine, sentiment LeWitt’s).

LeWitt’s isometric projections—two-dimensional renderings of cubes, pyramids, etc. (but for some reason not of spheres)—go a long way toward convincing one of the autonomy and preexistence of forms. They are nearly brutal in their optical insistence and suggest the force of impacted matter, yet appear, felicitously, to levitate. This kind of epic cliff-hanger, wherein the subject clings to known reason while gazing beyond, was the atavistic drama for neoclassical “visionary” architects like Claude Ledoux, Etienne Boullee, and Alexandre Brongniart, who depended so consistently on the properties of unadorned geometry in their designs for funereal monuments. Brongniart drew his plans for Pere Lachaise around a pyramid; Goethe’s monument in Weimar is a sphere on a rectangular pedestal; the “modern” Protestant cemetery in Rome is burrowed in back of the ancient pyramid of Cestius—in the rudiments of form, the potential of consciousness.

Robert Smithson once wrote that “everything LeWitt thinks, writes, or has made is inconsistent and contradictory,” that “nothing is where it seems to be,” that “every step around his work brings unexpected intersections of infinity.” To the extent that this is true, it explains why LeWitt is occasionally compelled to take his own inventory. His Autobiography (1980) is an itemized, photographic account of every object he had at a particular time and place. The lurking hilarity of this little program brings to mind another ontological artist’s joke, Charles Sheeler’s Self-Portrait, 1923, a deadpan grisaille drawing of a telephone on a window sill in front of a blackened pane. There are other, more visible similarities between these two artists. Joseph Cornell, who bored Duchamp to death with his besotted love of culture, might be another, if at first less likely, “friend.” In a sense, LeWitt has taken the trips that Cornell, who accrued his life on Utopia Parkway, never did. Hartford, Connecticut, LeWitt’s hometown, may prove to be another arcadian locale—a great deal of his work is already in its Atheneum.

I have not yet spoken directly about beauty—one risks sounding silly, which is vastly inferior to being merely dumb. Seeing a lot of LeWitt’s work at one time can produce a range of reactions from metaphysical disorientation to formalist frissons. In this sense his work is as beautiful as Jean Renoir’s. This is a big deal, in my book. As a more everyday example, try holding an egg, any egg, in the palm of your hand, and jiggle your wrist slightly as you experience the idiotic satisfaction of its gravity.

Lisa Liebmann, a writer who lives in New York, contributes frequently to Artforum.

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NOTES

1. Dates given for all wall drawings refer to when they were first realized, many have been realized repeatedly.