New York

Sol Lewitt

Dwan Gallery

Behind Sol Lewitt’s latest sculpture, 46 Three-Part Variations on 3 Different Kinds of Cubes, lurks the idea that even though the individual elements from which works of art are built are in themselves empty and meaningless, they are not irretrievably so. With enough vigilance and enough rigor one can render them meaningful by making them integers of a logical system—a system whose own lucidity will permeate the lifeless skin of otherwise dead forms, filling them with meaning. Faced with the sculptural poverty of LeWitt’s work, one tends to think of 19th-century academic painting, where it was hoped that a similar kind of formal vacuum could be filled with a clearly defined and delimited kind of content.

The one sculpture, which entirely fills a room of the Dwan Gallery, represents the finite series of unique combinations and permutations possible, given a predetermined set of rules. The system is made up of stacks of units of a standard size: a 15-inch cube of which there are three types (closed, open on two opposite sides, and open on one side only—three types which represent the only topologically distinct variations which a cube can yield); and a standard unit of combination: a stack three cubes high. The variables of the problem of combination and permutation which determines the system are a) the possible orientations, and b) the possible placements of each kind of cube within any one stack. The stacks are ranged in eight rows, each successive row setting out the possible solutions in a fixed order of permutation. That is, the first row establishes all the possible permutations when each stack contains only one of the three kinds of cubes. (Within this and the following rows, variations in orientation precede variations in placement.) The second row establishes all instances when the first type of cube is the predominant member of the stack; the third and fourth rows do the same for the cases where the second type of cube is the predominant member; and the last four rows exhibit the number of possibilities given the predominance of the third type of cube. LeWitt maintains the integrity of each row’s completeness as a subset within the over all system by mounting the members of that row on a continuous strip running along the floor of the gallery.

Although this strip only functions within LeWitt’s system like some kind of abstract connective tissue—like the words “after” or “between” for which there are no corresponding objects in the world—and is therefore logically irrelevant to the system, the presence of the strip is central to the actual experience of viewing the sculpture. Stationed along the strip like so many members of a regiment, the stacks of cubes appear rooted to the ground and responsive to gravity in the same way the viewer’s body is. In fact their actual orientation to the ground appears to be the most important thing about them. But here the viewer and his experience are at irremediable odds with the “logic” of LeWitt’s system. For one of the rules of the system is that orientation to the ground is irrelevant. So, for example, if the only legitimate variation on the series abb is bab and not also bba it is because the last term is the same as the first turned upside down. Standing in front of the stacks of boxes, with their appearance of earthbound, monolithic stolidness, one might wonder where this hypothetical rotation (the proof that bba = abb) might take place. And the obvious answer is: in the mind.

The stacks of boxes are not meant then as physical things at all but as intellectual integers whose real existence is mental. The argument toward which LeWitt’s sculpture points, an argument that meanings are mental entities which somehow attach themselves to real objects is not only philosophically naive but is, as well, part of a long-standing esthetic dialogue that is noteworthy for its peculiar irrelevance to the formal insights which have generated the best painting and sculpture of the present and recent past.

It is a dialogue that was opened by the Action theory of painting which maintained that every mark on the surface of a canvas could be—and in a successful painting was—a carrier of meaning. The most vehement counter to this theoretical assumption was embodied in the paintings and combines of Rauschenberg which again and again undertook to flush into the open, to expose, the essential meaninglessness of images. His strategy was similar to that of a speaker who by repeating a word over and over again manages to render it into noise. By actually experiencing a word as noise he produces in himself the sensation of meaninglessness, the feeling that word and meaning have parted company.

As images nudge each other within the confines of Rauschenberg’s canvases they seem to be insisting on the pointlessness of trying to see relationships between them. There are relationships between objects or images in his works—relationships generated by similarities of shape, or similarities of function, or similarities of substance—all of them put there by Rauschenberg himself. But if after noting the similarities one tries to read the painting by means of them, the result is nonsense. And in the harsh glare generated by the futility of this attempt at “reading,” each individual image seems to have been stripped of whatever shroud of associations, or roles within a convention, which might have been the source of its meaning. By putting into question its power to represent anything Rauschenberg seems to have undermined the image’s capacity to mean.

Rauschenberg’s demonstration of meaninglessness stems from two notions: first, that pictures depend for their legibility on the functioning of images as signs, and like a set of words, images and ultimately whole pictures are meant to be read; and second, that the conventions of painting are no longer adequate to the task of breathing meaning into lifeless, inert signs. But the fact that Rauschenberg’s questions about meaning are couched in a particular visual grammar (that of Cubism), makes it apparent that Rauschenberg’s very question, with its accompanying notions about words and images, is somehow specious. For, as it has been demonstrated by the most ambitious recent painting, it is in the grammar itself that answers to such questions lie.

Sol LeWitt represents the second generation of this debate about meaning; and he comes to it equipped with the completeness or totality of a mathematical system to fill in the absence of meaning left by Rauschenberg’s “proof.” There are many questions one might want to ask about this new systematic totality, questions like: where does this new totality reside. Is it in the diagram of the system which the viewer can take in at one glance? Or in the title 46-Three-Part-Variations-on-3-Different-Kinds-of-Cubes pronounced as one word? Or the mathematical formulation which determines the series which one carries around in one’s head and presumably recites as one moves up and down the row of stacks? And how do any of these meanings attach themselves to the boxes? But there is really only one question that is finally relevant and that is: what does this cumbrous, mechanical joining or filling of content with form have to do with the enterprise of art?

Rosalind E. Krauss