New York

Sol LeWitt

Sol LeWitt’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art is a retrospective that never calls itself one. It brings together works from 1962 to 1978 in an installation which, as good silent partner, doesn’t detract from the art on view.

It makes clear, for example, the absence of a linear development in LeWitt’s work at least after 1965, which I find refreshing. Ideas were picked up, dropped, works made, destroyed, made again at a later date; it is impossible to draw the deterministic line, to say it all went like this.

We’re faced with ideas for art and the forms they were given, in some cases, 13 years after their inception. How do they appear? They seem remarkably visual for works many have held for nonvisual, more often the form, the visualization, than the idea. And they have an integrity sometimes missing in works by others from around the same time. Take works made for the exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form” in Bern (Krefeld, London) in 1969, which for the most part overdepended on the space and lost their meanings once they were outside of it; LeWitt’s wall drawings self-destructed, and thereby saved themselves from becoming the sentimental leftovers of attitudes that were bound to change. Even LeWitt’s structures are still self-contained, complete and coherent enough in themselves to be readable in a museum basement. But how would rope look (Barry Flanagan, 2-Part Rope Piece) in storage, like art or like rope?

It you’re closer in age to art students than to LeWitt, you’re inclined to point out the contradictions: the triumph looks mixed at best. Is this proof of the resiliency of LeWitt’s ideas and forms, or of the effectiveness of his process of pickling? How is it that there are so many forms in the exhibition which, out of the context of the years during which they were developed, look like well-preserved monuments to ideas that shouldn’t need any?

And where’s the flexibility, where flexibility doesn’t mean being everything to everybody, as the three new wall drawings on colored grounds are everything to everybody? They yield a bigger wow, confirm a conception many have of what art should be, but they fail to advance the premise. And LeWitt? Is art that’s clear, complete, conceptual, and now colorful, witty too? What is funny, the postcards, A GANG OF COLONS for Jenny Licht, are kept, literally, in the wings. But what’s the point of wrestling further with a body of work that has its own answers built in? LeWitt himself has an explanation, which is often no explanation, for everything.

I question the relevance of this exhibition for a lot of people younger than LeWitt who have attitudes and approaches very different from his, people into art who aren’t as glib (they can’t afford to be), or as willing to produce work as consistent as a Chrysler. LeWitt reacted against his predecessors by moving in the direction he did in the ’60s, or at least so that story goes. I’m skeptical of theories like this, about LeWitt’s beginnings, that chart out about-faces in the way art has developed; I think they’re the concoction of people who’d make better war strategists than theoreticians. But, on the other hand, it’s fairly clear that (1) LeWitt’s art has too many of its own answers to constitute an alternative for anyone else, and (2) it can’t be a beginning, because it marks out a dead end. Is it LeWitt’s turn to be pre-empted?

Barbara Flynn