PRINT December 1995

Kenneth Baker


SOL LEWITT’s show at the Ace Gallery in New York was the most memorable one I saw in 1995. Playing out obvious structural permutations in classic Minimalist style, LeWitt filled each of Ace Gallery’s huge skylit rooms with towering, systemic, bottom-heavy constructions of cinderblocks. Their tremendous scale made these structures read as crushing arguments for the perversion of sculpture by architecture, and vice versa. The largest piece—an enormous open grid of thick, chest-high walls with a tall tower surmounting each juncture—consumed space so greedily that it seemed to swallow the very building containing it.

In its implicit squandering of resources and labor and its airless, hammering structural logic, one could see LeWitt’s show as an artistic mirror of ’90s capitalist triumphalism and the hardening of hearts and class barriers it entails. The show gave me nightmares, themselves like the day residue of life in the present dark moment. Though the impact of the work was demoralizing to the extent that a visitor could not ignore its resonance with the tenor of events, it was heartening, too, as proof of contemporary art’s capacity to objectify unspoken, almost unspeakable, civic experience without imagery, narrative, or even overt analogy.


One possible criterion of “worst” show might be frustrated expectation. But in this case I expected little of painter CHRISTOPHER BROWN’s first museum retrospective, at the San Jose Museum of Art, so while this show was the worst I viewed this year, I was not particularly frustrated. Brown, a Bay Area arts star, makes a handsome product—his paintings are rich in color and workmanship, seductive on first impression—but all his energy goes into making us believe there is intellectual nourishment in his thin soup of image fragments lifted from old photographs and documentary material (such as the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assassination). His paintings invite perceptual and speculative completion by the viewer, but the materials he offers for this legitimate exercise are so philosophically hollow that he effectively lowers all but the appetitive expectations of his audience. In the calculus of his work, understanding amounts to a feeling: the frisson of delectation. No wonder he is a darling of collectors.

Kenneth Baker is art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.