TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT February 2000

SUM AND THE PARTS: SOL LEWITT IN RETROSPECT

“SOL LEWITT: A RETROSPECTIVE,” THE FIRST FULL-SCALE U.S. SURVEY OF THE ARTIST’S WORK SINCE HIS 1978 MIDCAREER MILESTONE, GOES ON VIEW THIS MONTH AT THE SAN FRANCISCO MUSEUM OF MODERN ART. ANTICIPATING THE OPPORTUNITY TO VIEW THE LAST TWO DECADES OF LEWITT’S DIVERSE OUTPUT ALONGSIDE HIS EARLIER PRODUCTION, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR YVE-ALAIN BOIS ASKS HOW THE INCREASINGLY CONTRADICTORY SECOND ACT WILL SQUARE WITH THE FIRST.

IT’S BEEN A WHILE SINCE WE’VE BEEN ABLE TO SEE SOL LEWITT WHOLE. His last full retrospective in this country was in 1978, at the Museum of Modern Art. Sure, he’s been around: In my home area of Boston alone, we’ve had an excellent survey of his wall drawings from 1968 on (at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover in 1993), and shortly afterward the touring retrospective of his drawings on paper, beginning with his 1958 student sketches after Piero della Francesca and Velázquez, made a stop at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. And in New York, just as one was beginning to wonder if LeWitt the sculptor had been completely superseded by LeWitt the wall draftsman, his stunning, monumental installation at the Ace Gallery in 1995 warned us that he still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Still, those shows are only slices of the pie—large chunks to be sure, but by definition they could not afford the kind of exhaustive probing that might help solve the riddle: Who is LeWitt? The answer all depends on what “is” is, as someone cleverly remarked not long ago. Or to put it another way: LeWitt is plural.

Given the lack of a recent all-encompassing exhibition, one might not have noticed that there is a riddle: LeWitt’s work is taken for granted, and its diversity is not often reflected upon. Smithson remarked as far back as 1968 that “everything LeWitt thinks, writes, or has made is inconsistent and contradictory”—a prescient statement piously quoted by almost every commentator on the artist’s work, but most often as a way to avoid thinking about this insight (quotations can be used as shields). At the time of the MoMA show there were the beginnings of a polemic (between Donald Kuspit and Joseph Masheck in the pages of Art in America) concerning LeWitt’s “stylelessness” that at least looked promising, but little came of it since both writers busied themselves, pace Smithson, ascribing a consistency to LeWitt’s output. One hopes that, in attempting to show us LeWitt whole, SF MoMA will inaugurate a reconsideration of the artist’s work, perhaps even casting some doubt on the very idea of the wholeness of his oeuvre. At least that possibility exists, for the San Francisco exhibition, curated by Gary Garrels, will present the artist’s production in a range of media: structures (with an emphasis on sculpture from the ’60s and ’70s), wall drawings, photographs, artists’ books, and a large number of works on paper. LeWitt might appear as an artist heroically in search of a reconciliation of contraries, or he might come out as one who wants to have his cake and eat it too (which is not as bad as it sounds—there is a long tradition of this in American art, with Jasper Johns as its master). At least we’ll have at hand the evidence to be able to ponder the issue: That’s what retrospectives are for.

Here at least are a few knots that I hope the forthcoming show will help untangle:

(1) How can the humoristic, even satirical dimension in LeWitt’s work cohabit with what I would call its pompous side?

(2) How can an enterprise supposedly based on the preeminence of “ideas” come up with works that are so ostensibly crafty, often to the point of fussiness?

(3) Much as LeWitt downplayed subjective taste in his early output (seriality being, among other things, a means to underscore and thus criticize its arbitrariness), it now seems to be given ever fuller rein in his work: Is this a turnaround, and if so, when did it occur?

Questions like these stem from my purely idiosyncratic (subjective indeed) take on LeWitt’s work (Is one not entitled to be ambivalent about a production that has aporia as its subject matter?). More precisely, they are rooted in the fact that I honestly just don’t like the hundreds of “recent” (post–MoMA retrospective) Quattrocentesque fresco-looking wall “drawings.” I find them silly and pretentious. Though they speak of a timeless dialogue with Piero and his peers (“I would like to produce something I would not be ashamed to show Giotto,” LeWitt once said), their place is that of corporate headquarters. Many end up in museum lobbies, but one would be hard-pressed to make a case for them as “institutional critique,” a “genre” that itself is rapidly becoming an obligatory form of spectacle (the fact that MoMA hung its own survey of this cottage industry, “Museum as Muse,” is the kiss of death). I have to pass by one of the artist’s fresco-like murals every time I go to work in the mediocre and utterly dysfunctional building of the Sackler Museum in Cambridge, a space that was LeWittified a couple of years ago: I can only hope for the patrons of SF MoMA that the two commissioned twenty-nine-by-thirty-two-foot wall drawings destined to remain permanently in the huge atrium of Mario Botta’s building are not yet more examples of the “italianate follies” kind. For me, these perfectly illustrate the artist’s own 1969 dictum: “When an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art.”

So an enormous amount of LeWitt’s production from the early ’80s to the present is lost on me. The last wall drawing I’ve seen that I would call an unqualified success dates from more than a quarter of a century ago: number 260, called All Combinations of Arcs from Corners and Sides; Straight, Not-Straight, and Broken Lines, first drawn in 1975 and now part of MoMA’s collection. (The work can be seen in its most recent incarnation in the “People” part—God knows why—of that institution’s trilogy celebrating the end of the twentieth century. Did the curators see faces or limbs in the shapes engendered by the system-generated positioning of the lines?) As in LeWitt’s best wall drawings, the system that presides over the distribution of the four types of line is grotesquely simple, yet one gets lost in the side effects of unexpected but preordained juxtapositions and superimpositions. One “reads” LeWitt’s user’s guide (a chart that functions as a caption, as usual drawn somewhere on the wall itself) and, time permitting, takes pleasure in checking that all goes according to plan—but sooner or later one abandons the skeptical probing and begins to revel in the hilarious absurdity of it all. The squiggliness of the “not-straight” lines adds to the tongue-in-cheek quality of this work, which makes me think of Buster Keaton’s deadpan earnestness.

LeWitt as comic—one doesn’t read much about it. Is that because his art was labeled “conceptual,” which connotes something dry and somber, and because critics are afraid to be caught mistaking an “idea” for a joke? But who said the two were incompatible? The humor of Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance But Little Value, 1968, should not escape anyone—it is on a par with Ed Ruscha’s 1967 Royal Road Test, my favorite spoof of forensic inquiry (and thus a send-up of a certain form of historical scholarship). But at the same time, LeWitt’s piece, which today consists of a grid of nine photographs documenting the event described by the title, affirmed more clearly than any other work that Conceptual art was in part conceived as an attack against the preeminence of the visual in modernist art. Or read his I AM STILL ALIVE, ON KAWARA, a 1970 “poem” consisting of sixty-four different variations on the ostensibly redundant title phrase (found on a telegram he received from the artist On Kawara as part of a project by Seth Siegelaub). Each “verse” uses one or more of the words of the title, the criterion being that in some situation the particular utterance would make sense (so the phrase “Am, On” is barred but “Am I On?” or “Still, I am On Kawara” or “On Kawara, I am still” are admitted). Nothing could be more Molièresque than this litany of verbal bubbles sprouting up from a simple sentence—but at the same time nothing could be more eloquent in asserting the resilient nature of meaning. Or consider LeWitt’s 1980 Autobiography, a little-known masterpiece of the photo-book medium consisting of the entropic documentation, nine images per page (disposed in a grid, of course), of LeWitt’s habitat. In showing us details as banal as the electric plugs of his loft (two pages) or his collection of pots and pans (four pages), it deliberately mocks the autobiographic genre (and, by extension, the whole biography industry, that calamity of an age that confuses literature with spectacle) while reminding us that artists are not the demigods the market would like to make of them: They still have to plug in their appliances for them to work.

I could summon other examples of the kind of dry humor at which LeWitt excels. Yet most of the wall drawings of the last two decades, with their luscious surfaces and subtly soft-pedaled colors (not to mention the elaborate ink-wash technique), are too skilled and tasteful to allow for such comic relish, and my guess is that, given the contradictions in his work and practice, LeWitt often feels ambivalent about his late artiness. He certainly tried to counter it in some recent work: The series of kinky Styrofoam installations he began making in 1993 could not be further from the Quattrocento ideal (those works have a definite Pop ring to them—is there an allusion to Johns’s flagstones?). But parody is always a double-edged sword, and one can easily get caught in idealizing what one wants to deflate. The last drawings on paper shown at the Boston MFA retrospective looked like mock Color Field paintings, allusions that must have been entirely lost on the audience. Did this invite us to revisit this (relatively) forgotten moment in postwar American art? And if so, why spend so much energy caricaturing it?

There is not much point here in rehashing what remains for me the best interpretation of early LeWitt—Rosalind Krauss’s delightfully crisp “LeWitt in Progress,” published in the pages of October in 1978 as a response to the MoMA retrospective. There she rebukes what was then the standard idealist take on the artist’s works as diagrammatic representations of Reason, an interpretation that has sustained the view of LeWitt commentators from Kuspit to Lucy Lippard, and links what amounts to kindergarten math to the obsessionality of Beckett’s bum Molloy endlessly counting “sucking stones.” But—and this also goes in the “have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too” ledger—it should be added that LeWitt himself is partly responsible for the neo-Platonic, neo-Kantian, neo-Cartesian, neo-whatnot gibberish that has long accompanied his work.

True, in his early years he always insisted on the difference between rationalism and logic (the potential irrationality of logic fascinated him as much as it did Lewis Carroll), and it is clear that, right from the start, his “serial attitude,” to borrow Mel Bochner’s phrase, was a strategy fomented against the cogito ergo sum of Western metaphysics. But his persistent use of the term “idea” to refer to the simple “systems” organizing his sequential permutations certainly confused the matter. For this very term does unleash a whole range of associations with the idealistic philosophical tradition he sought to undermine. As Krauss pointed out, to list all the possibilities of drawing a cube in space with fewer than twelve “edges,” or arres, is precisely not to have an idea (it is, rather, mindlessly to follow a prescription). Finding the axiomatic rule from which all the variations could be deduced, on the other hand, would be, as would choosing among the variations a few that best sum up the system—but that is precisely what LeWitt, faithful to his antirationalist stance, refuses to do (Krauss: He deliberately ignores the human capacity to say “etc.”). Which is not to say that LeWitt’s art is devoid of ideas: Most of the early works brilliantly enact an oxymoronic sense of meaninglessness, and meaninglessness is an idea.

And that’s far from the only idea in his art. Contingency is another. LeWitt has often said that his “ideas” for wall drawings were like musical scores: There are variations due to the different interpretations given to them by the different “performers” who carry out his instructions in different architectural situations. But does that mean that the wall drawing represents the diagram provided by LeWitt-the-composer to his myriad assistants? How does one characterize the mode of existence of the “realized” wall drawing? Is it the Platonic shadow of a pure “idea”? Of course not, because the line in the diagram is as material as the line on the wall. My favorite LeWitt quote is perhaps: “Obviously a drawing of a person is not a real person, but a drawing of a line is a real line,” a fabulously concise statement that packs in so much of the history and theory of this century’s art (from Rodchenko, say, to Manzoni). It’s akin to early Stella’s “what you see is what you see,” but with a kind of Magrittean twist on the nature of representation as a teaser. At the same time, by underscoring the “reality” of the line (as opposed to its nature as sign), it subscribes to the utopian dream that one could, by sheer will, escape the orbit of metaphysics.

The fresco-like wall drawings do not partake of this radical optimism—far from highlighting facticity, they welcome spatial illusionism of all sorts and quote any number of antecedents from Giotto to De Chirico. Did LeWitt lose faith in the possibility of abjuring faith altogether? Did he hit a wall? I think he did—I’d like to place the event at the time of the MoMA show (a retrospective often has a violent aftereffect on the celebrated artist). The italianate wall drawings, and some of his last sculptures, notably the very airport art–y series Irregular Progressions (most realized in Italy in 1996–99 and apparently not included in the SF MoMA exhibition), seem symptoms of a prolonged midlife crisis: Their strategy of denial (“No problem, sir, and anyway the show must go on”) courts decorative arbitrariness, that absolute no-no for the early, hard-core LeWitt. I am not suggesting bad faith, not a bit (one doesn’t need a ton of Freud to know that denial doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with bad faith). In fact, when LeWitt stumbles on the dark side of this aggiornamento, he exposes it under full light.

Or rather, he shows it fully, but the light is gloomy. This is at least how I remember the Ace exhibition of 1995: Once past the tiny door, one was plunged into a tank of grayness. On each side of a wide, empty corridor were several rooms of uneven proportions, each occupied by an immense structure built out of drab cinder blocks and echoing the proportions of its room. Immense isn’t the right word, but they were towering, and one could not enter them (furthermore, there wasn’t much space between the structure and the walls of the room—one felt squeezed). The vocabulary was of utmost simplicity: Walls of about two or three feet high delineated a closed geometric figure on the ground (a square, a grid), and at each intersection or corner a thick pillar rose almost to the ceiling. Neo-classicist monumentality was summoned, of course (hello, Masheck!), but more than anything one thought of Auschwitz’s grim chimneys. This was no paean to logic as a means to debunk the claims of reason, but rather a stark recognition that the dreary reunion of the two had been one of the main sources of human disasters in recent history (and remains so today). There could not have been a more poignant rejection, on LeWitt’s part, of the premises that had sustained his art and that of his Minimalist associates three decades ago.

In the sensuality of the italianate wall murals that have come to dominate his work of the ’80s and ’90s, could LeWitt be telling us in another way that it’s better to laugh than to cry at the horrors brought forth by the logic of instrumental reason throughout the past century? If so, this is in no way a cheerful message. Then again, Buster Keaton was a tragic figure. The San Francisco show should be able to help us determine if LeWitt is his true heir.

Yve-Alain Bois is a contributing editor of Artforum.