New York

Sol LeWitt

As masterful and ironic as ever, Sol LeWitt has maximized his Minimalism by making his geometrical forms both more monumental and complex—multifaceted pyramids, sometimes truncated at the top—and setting them in an ambience of moody, smoldering color that makes them seem impenetrably dense. Apart from the complex tension generated by inscribing multiplanar “solids” in a resolutely flat wall plane, the pyramids seemed to exist to contradict and offset the Corinthian columns that demark and “support” this space. It was a perfect way to inaugurate a new space, to make it seem “miraculous” in its newness.

Ponderous and rugged, LeWitt’s illusionistic, hovering pyramids contrasted vividly with the actual slender, ornate columns rooted in the floor. Each was intransigently fixed and complete in itself, and at the same time interactive, almost to the point of bizarre intimacy, with the other. Their balletic competition was of the exhibition’s essence, but less for formal than for psychosymbolic reasons. It was as though two ideologies were dramatically played off against one another, the columnar one humanistic and traditional, the pyramidal one antihumanistic and Modernist. LeWitt, wittingly or unwittingly, used his concentrated pyramids as a theatrical background giving fresh significance to the humanistic column. He made the column seem lyrically meaningful, as fresh as a daisy, while his pyramids unwittingly rendered homage to its more delicate, dreamy nature. LeWitt gave his spectator a choice of identities—the eternal or the human—but, paradoxically, by powerfully articulating the eternal he used it to frame and elevate the human in the column’s dream form.

LeWitt’s installation was also a brilliant apotheosis of Modernist mentality. Recalling Henri Rousseau’s distinction between his “modern manner” and Picasso’s “Egyptian manner,” we can say that LeWitt combined them: his manner, always Egyptian, at last became fully Modem, having realized the surreal effect it always secretly pursued—here mainly determined environmentally. LeWitt used a remarkable economy of means to achieve this effect, the only effect truly equal to horrific modem reality. This fresh compacting of less and more—the use of minimal “cause” to achieve maximum effect—generated a sense of inscrutability. LeWitt’s art has always been inscrutable behind its mask of simplicity and forthrightness. Now its inscrutability came out into the open, almost as a mannerist effect. It was clearly connected to his art’s surprising power of synthesis. He united not only the Egyptian and Modern manners, but the “great abstraction” and “great reality” that Kandinsky tried to combine. Their convergence ended the project of Modernism; it was LeWitt’s greatness to have made the union seamless, to have created a flawless “abstract realism” or “surreal abstraction.”

LeWitt’s eternal pyramids,theatrically dominating the gallery’s interpersonal space through their coloristic projection, became oddly ornamental—a decadent effect appropriate to their mannerist elegance. (The pyramids were strutting performers, or perhaps wings on the heels of invisible gods, helping them to transcend.) By decadent, I mean they achieved that rare doubleness of function: they existed simultaneously as fantasies and as absolute objects or realities. Egyptian art has always been the ultimate art in that it projects a fantasy of eternity—the desire for omnipotence in disguise—through the most objective of forms. To use, as LeWitt did, the eternal as a setting in which to rejuvenate the human—to make the classical column seem young and “modern” again—is to show the therapeutic possibilities of art in a most unusual way. Magically transformed by LeWitt’s installation,the space became a subterranean chamber, a tomb in which the spectator, pharaohlike, was reborn eternally young and upright by being buried alive in color.

Donald Kuspit