Sol LeWitt, “Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes,” 1974, painted aluminum.

Sol LeWitt, “Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes,” 1974, painted aluminum.

“Sol LeWitt: Incomplete Open Cubes”

THE WADSWORTH ATHENEUM'S RECENT Sol LeWitt exhibition included just one of the artist’s projects—and everything else in the museum. Curator Nicholas Baume scattered LeWitt’s 1974 “Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes” throughout the Wadsworth’s venerable galleries and then invited viewers to wander the building, discovering the stark white objects in conversation with their surroundings. It turns out they had a lot to say.

In contrast to the breadth of LeWitt’s exhaustive traveling retrospective, the Wadsworth’s focused approach afforded viewers a chance to consider the unfolding of a single major work in a variety of its manifestations. One of the exhibition’s galleries contained a group of methodical studies that demonstrated the artist’s dogged pursuit of the basic serial premise governing the “Incomplete Open Cubes”: the elaboration of every variation of an open-sided cube missing between one and nine of its edges. LeWitt eventually arrived at 122 such permutations, which he realized in a variety of media and formats, including wooden structures, schematic perspectival drawings, photographs, an artist’s book, and forty-inch aluminum units—a wide selection of which were displayed here. LeWitt’s exhibitions rarely expose his multilayered method to this extent, more often presenting his work as the immaculate execution of an entirely predetermined concept. However, seeing the Wadsworth’s accumulation of studies, models, and documentation suggested a more fluid process, raising the important question of where exactly a work’s “conception” ends and its “execution” begins.

Even before arriving at the explanatory gallery of models and drawings, visitors to the Atheneum would have stumbled on forty-inch cubes inexplicably plopped into rooms of American and Old Master pictures. These incongruous settings allowed one to perceive the peculiarities of the variations’ individual forms, which are ordinarily understood merely as functions of the work’s overall serial logic. Once divorced from that generative schema, LeWitt’s individual cubes appeared less systematic than arbitrary (dare one say even compositional?)—an impression heightened by the way their parts seemed to thrust and flail in sympathy with the precariously balanced massing in the Wadsworth’s celebrated Baroque canvases. Conversely, a few witty pairings highlighted the paintings’ frequently linear designs, as in a seventeenth-century image of St. Francis Xavier, whose cowering body, bent at right angles, evoked the three-part cubic structure placed before him.

Wherever LeWitt’s large variations appeared, they acted as powerful barometers of a room’s architectural atmosphere, while revealing unexpected qualities of their own. In one particularly comic example, a cube was dropped like an alien visitor amid the tufted sofas and porcelain figurines of Major Goodwin’s nineteenth-century reception room. This florid domestic setting dramatically amplified the cube’s scale and brightness, qualities that would seem unremarkable in the kinds of spare and spacious galleries where LeWitt’s art is usually seen. Despite the initial antipathy between the cube and its context, the object’s presence slowly attuned viewers to serial systems concealed in the repeating vines and rosettes of the carpets and wall coverings. Other cubes functioned similarly throughout the museum, making it nearly impossible for viewers to ignore an endless proliferation of geometric structures emerging from the patterned flooring or popping out of the woodwork. Given that LeWitt himself has photographed “found” grids from wire mesh to radiator grilles, it was easy to imagine that seeing one’s surroundings through the cubes was a little like seeing the world through the artist’s eyes.

Apart from this dialogue between LeWitt’s structures and their settings, Baume also established pointed juxtapositions among the cubes themselves. In the models and graphic presentations by which the work is primarily known, the variations are grouped strictly according to their number of sides. However, by assembling thirty of the forty-inch units (the most ever exhibited together), the curator was free to create new subsets of the larger series. In one room he placed a five-part cube and its seven-part complement, which after some finagling could be mentally joined to form the twelve-part whole. Another gallery contained six symmetrical variations, while directly across the hall an identical space housed six asymmetrical ones. Far from arbitrary, these arrangements emphasized concerns central to LeWitt’s working process, since the artist originally deduced variations in complementary pairs and struggled to identify the peculiarities of symmetrical units, the mirror images of which, unlike those of asymmetrical units, did not constitute new forms. Like subtle riddles, each of these combinations coaxed viewers into discerning the hidden link between the given cubes. Sometimes the task was difficult, prompting either a deeply satisfying flash of recognition or impatient recourse to helpful wall labels. Of course, a similar interpretive problem has long been central to LeWitt’s art, which often demands that viewers reconcile their knowledge of a work’s a priori concept with their baffled apprehension of its form. Yet Baume’s specific curatorial achievement was to restage that experience with respect to new conceptual frameworks, such as complementarity and symmetry, rather than asking us to understand LeWitt’s structures simply in relation to their now familiar serial schema. By subjecting the cubes to these novel, sometimes disorienting organizational principles, Baume forced even the most jaded viewer to grapple afresh with the fundamental perceptual challenge of LeWitt’s art. Rarely does a curator conceive of an exhibition that so tactfully expands on the logic of its contents, allowing us to encounter such well-known work as though for the first time.

“Sol LeWitt: Incomplete Open Cubes” travels to the Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME, July 8–Aug. 26; and to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Sept. 23–Dec. 30.

Scott Rothkopf is curating an exhibition of Mel Bochner’s photographs for the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA.