Sol LeWitt

After viewing this remarkable exhibition of 25 years of wall drawings (1968–93), one might say that Sol LeWitt has realized, with whatever conceptual perversity and ironical perfection, the avant-garde’s great dream of decorative abstraction. The goal was a formally fundamental, transcendentally sublime, and subversively expressive art. Like music, its pure forms were to lift us out of the world of ordinary experience and bring us to consciousness of usually unconscious, extraordinarily intense emotions. It may seem strange to begin a review of what is billed as a conceptual tour de force on this regressive note, but the sheer visual complexity and sensual scope of the exhibition made it an expressive as well as an intellectual triumph.

The key to the whole show was the official first room, in which hung Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland, 1897, by Thomas Eakins (LeWitt’s favorite American artist). Rowland, who discovered the color spectrum in electricity, is shown contemplating his discovery, his lifelong assistant in the background. On the frame Eakins wrote the various formulas involved in his research. The geometrically grounded realism of his work, and the colors of the abstract spectrum suggest the theoretical and practical poles that merge in LeWitt’s own work: the use of a formula as the basis for each drawing; the “realistic” treatment of abstract geometry (which as LeWitt’s work developed became a matter of “sensationalizing” and giving “body” to geometrical form by means of color, variously toned, from very bright to sultry); and the execution of the formulas (the concept) by assistants.

Under the four eaves of this large room LeWitt drew 20 figures in color-ink wash, which comprised “Wall Drawing #713,” January 1993, entitled On a vaulted ceiling, 20 irregular five-sided figures. Each figure had the regularity of being five-sided but was, as the title indicates, irregularly shaped. Conceptually simple and tight, LeWitt’s wall drawings were nevertheless visually complex and expansive, often with the help of colors that made both geometrical figures and lines project in a hallucinatory way—abstract expressivity carried to reductio ad absurdum from which there is no return to geometrical rationality.

The work filled nine rooms in all, with the ninth room on the same axis as the first one, inviting the viewer to sight along it back to Eakins’ portrait, in effect returning to the origin of his or her journey. Whereas the head room was grandly simple for all the eccentricity of the geometry, the tail room was magnificently complex—the grand climax of the exhibition. “Wall Drawing #260,” June 1975, On black walls, all two-part combinations of white arcs from corners and sides, and white straight, not straight, and broken lines, was the visual antithesis of “Wall Drawing #713” in the first room, however technically—theoretically?—reconcilable with it. The exhibition became a kind of panopticon: the walls stared us down.

Between the first and the last rooms, there were seven other rooms, and a hallway, each wall covered with what seemed like a unique but related, drawing. Indeed, the play of difference and sameness held true for the colors as well as the geometry. LeWitt created a cosmic, pyrotechnical display of geometry and color. At once illusionistic and abstract, evocative of uncalculated feeling and coldly calculating in its implied randomness, it was one of the masterpieces of the century, albeit a temporary one: the walls were restored to pristine white after the exhibition closed, making it a truly grand illusion.

Donald Kuspit