On the Colorful Idea
of a Conceptual Scheme

John Haber
in New York City

Sol LeWitt

What happens when a conceptual artist takes leave of his senses? For Sol LeWitt, it means aiming for the sensual. It means, too, that his latest work takes over his retrospective.

Still, it one thinking freshly about concept and process in art. So, as a postscript, does his death in 2007 and a powerful posthumous creation. Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawing 1242/Scribbles 1 (PW) (PaceWildenstein, 2007)

Whoops—it spilled

Suppose I take leave of my senses. Critics often do, you know. Literally, I forego the tactile, the visual, the sensual. And who more than LeWitt understands the literal? He excels at using words plainly to direct his art. Yet in plain English the phrase means madness, the loss of conceptual coherence. For for him things are not as they seem, because words, concepts, and perceptions can spill over their boundaries.

Amid artists as Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman, and Eva Hesse, LeWitt may well seem uniquely austere. No dense surfaces and optical subtleties. No careful variations in handling. No soft materials. No mark of the artist, period. Yet none so excels at visual surprise and sheer play.

Wooden grids, painted a particularly drab white, form boxes, pyramids, and towers. Few birds have had plainer cages. Concrete blocks forbid human entrance. Modern drawings reduce rooms to an imagined coordinate system. Turned out right on the walls, they disappear as soon as the show ends.

Hands, none his own, connect the dots, in a manner that has inspired Casey Reas to spin out the metaphor of data-driven art on computer. So much for avant-garde claims to authenticity. They exhaust a title's conceptual pattern, one permutation after another. LeWitt hardly exists outside the museum as workplace, with paid staff. Like a post-industrial office manager, he brings to the gallery system a chilling obsessive-compulsive disorder.

My description, like the ones in LeWitt's titles, is utterly essential to the work but misses the experience. For one thing, one has to head for the titles just to figure out what one sees. For another, the work takes on a visual reality and a loss of symmetry, because it shares a changing physical space with the viewer. Last, in ringing the changes on simple, accessible concepts, the work takes on an added openness. It recalls the playful encounter with a changing landscape in modernist series, from Claude Monet to Piet Mondrian. Take each of those marvels in turn.

The end of play

Who knew that those boxes ran through all the variations on inside and out? Who knew how that bewildering network of lines found its way onto the wall? For many of LeWitt's contemporaries, what you see is what you get served as a mantra. Here the formula works, but one has to read the subtitles in order to see what one did get. How perfect for art from the golden age of intellectual foreign films.

In the viewer's head, things change anyhow. As one walks past a tower, the slats appear to move past each other. Foreground against back, they create shifting patterns in space. On the wall, thin pencil lines blend into soft fields of floating color.

Last, LeWitt enjoys watching a scheme play itself out, like Lee Ufan and Mono-ha an ocean away. I overheard a docent comparing one sculpture to the dizzying grid of the big city just outside and the egg-crate ceilings by Marcel Breuer above. The claim sounds childish, like going to any lengths to attract a museum crowd. Does any artist so despise representation? It reminded me, though, that New York seduced Piet Mondrian to new heights of permutation and play. LeWitt could work as Mondrian for the age of simulated 3D flybys.

Yet he does break with the past. In place of composition, he offers rational patterning. In place of the spiritual in art, he brings ideas to earth, with no existence apart from its materials. In place of a modernist's signature, style, and movement, he has his work team. In place of a series, a single work runs down every possibility. In place of an object of contemplation, the object exists only as part of a process—from a concept to its perception. The viewer cannot stand outside this process, and it implicates the viewer in the museum's paranoid reach.

Minimalism also functioned, however, as a last gasp for Modernism. In its insistence on process and the material thing, LeWitt's art connects to the ideas swirling around Jackson Pollock and others of his time. Besides, when Minimalists like Robert Smithson wrote about chaos, they enjoyed letting things happen. LeWitt takes everyone back to grade-school math, but then, at that age I preferred playing.

People sometimes mistake LeWitt's art for either bare concept or execution. At LeWitt's best, the play comes from their interaction, the refusal to return to raw, sensory intuition or sheer, abstract ideas. In the play between them, his art takes life. It is maximizing Minimalism.

Pages of illustrations

Donald Davidson, a philosopher, criticized "the very idea of a conceptual scheme." He meant the theory that Hopi Indians—or dead white modernists—see this world differently than people now. He meant the theory that groups organize in their own special way an independent, unknowable realm of experience. Davidson argued that one can never disentangle ideas from experience:

In giving up the dualism of scheme and world, we do not give up the world, but re-establish unmediated touch with the familiar objects whose antics make our sentences and opinions true and false.

Sol LeWitt, too, places everything in the hopper at once.

At times, one can mistake his work for a rote lesson on the gap between wall label and perception, the observation that "a violent order is a disorder." ("Pages of illustrations," as Wallace Stevens added.) The work's nonexistence apart from a wealthy institution—the gallery, the museum, the buyer's apartment—can make it seem that much more conservative. His retrospective has taught me to admire him at last, but still not as my favorite Minimalist. But okay, perhaps that just reflects me, faced with an important artist.

LeWitt's Wall Drawing 340 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1980)More seriously, LeWitt's wall paintings are getting simpler, in arbitrary squiggles or big Loopy-Doops of color. As I suggested at the start, conceptual art has all that much more at stake when the concept goes out the window. The sensual experience flattens out along with it. That risks making art into lobby decoration.

Color stripes enliven enormously the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Yet at times new floor pieces amount to waist-high Plexiglas stalagmites. Some come in black, some splattered with color. If these have any of LeWitt's formidable logic behind them, it sure escapes me.

The Whitney's layout does not help. LeWitt stresses his earliest work and his very latest, at the expense of the visually stimulating pieces from the 1970s. Departing from chronology, he keeps returning to the old wooden grids, then leaps ahead. The juxtaposition no doubt illuminates his whole career. Still, overall, I shall remember a less startling artist than he deserves.

After Sol LeWitt

I wrote my very first art criticism about Sol LeWitt, and I embarrassed myself. Maybe the attempt helped. After that I had to keep looking, reading, and learning, and I held off words for a very long time. Indeed, I still do not often write on the spur of the moment, like blogging.

I was struggling to find a modicum of sense in the art that inspired my closest friends to make it their lives. How was I to understand the blank rigor of art in New York around 1980? How was I to reconcile it with the cloudy, chaotic texts that motivated artists, from declarations like Robert Smithson's to post-structuralism or post-analytic philosophy? This once, I must have wanted to throw in the towel. I must have wanted to declare my independence in writing. I picked on LeWitt, as perhaps the ultimate text on reconciling concept with art.

Neither the banality of his titles nor the mess they produce in a gallery bothered me. Rather, I demanded, why dwell on the obvious? Why make such a fuss about how systems, pushed far enough, eventually unravel—whether in text, in logic, or in vision? I did not need LeWitt, Jacques Derrida, or Gödel's theorem to tell me that. A friend read what I had written and shrugged. Whatever I had caught, he presumed, I would get over it.

In a sense, I never did. In writing about Jeff Wall, I started with the same paradox of a violent order. And ever since, I have been trying to explain why LeWitt, among others, became so meaningful to me. I have taken longest to say anything about the artists with whom I struggled most then. I could not write about Jasper Johns or Paul Cézanne after this webzine began in 1994, not even after their retrospectives. Dealing at last with Johns's Catenary series, Cézanne's work alongside Camille Pissarro, his portrait of Ambroise Vollard, or the early encaustic and oils of Brice Marden all amounted for me to a kind of atonement.

LeWitt died of cancer in April 2007, at age 78, and perhaps I never did understand. However, at least twice I could express what it now meant to me not to understand. How could one know if he or his assistants really did follow his text? Should a mistake or a lie alter one's impression of the work, and what does that say about new media that purport to map the world in real time? Does his death add to the chaos or deprive art of some of its hardest and roughest edges? Somehow, even the problem of representation circle back to the process of reconciling abstract ideas, abstract images, and abstract objects.

LeWitt's living will

Two final shows provoke the same questions, in a kind of living will. Not everyone gets to design his own monument. Even the tomb over which Michelangelo struggled for forty years belonged to a pope. LeWitt may not even have intended it, but the pillar rising from the center of Paula Cooper gallery, almost six months after his death, has the look of a stele and the mass of a pyramid. The black scrawls covering most of its surface only add to its gravity. It has no trouble coping with Chelsea's tallest gallery.

Perhaps all artists want their work to outlive them. Not every artist can keep producing from the next world, though, because not every artist has relied so much on assistants. A few early sketches, in the front room, serve as a tantalizing reminder that LeWitt ever executed work by hand. Ironically, his death has produced his most completely conceptual art ever—but also his most physical and gestural. For once, his wall drawing covers a free-standing object, and it takes a moment to recognize it as a cube. Tony Smith called his own black cube Die.

Usually LeWitt's geometrically precise instructions lead to something approaching visual chaos. It may even suggest organic growth. Here, freely drawn curves in pencil leave broad white parallels against a black field. The white paths run horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, exhausting all four possibilities on the four faces of the cube. For a last twist, the white paths necessarily have ill-defined edges and dimensions, but in the handwritings of others. The black areas look like washes from a distance and like a fine grid up close.

If Chelsea takes care of the body, the soul must have risen to 57th Street. A midtown gallery exhibits more Scribble Wall Drawings. Most consist of between two and four scribbled rectangles surrounded by plenty of wall space. More than downtown, the edges of the broad lines soften further, and the white of the drawings seems to glow. You may find yourself looking at least twice to convince yourself that they share the same grubby white as the rest of the wall. You may find yourself looking again, too, to confirm how much scribbling crosses the white areas even at their centers.

The scribbles again run through geometric possibilities. One work might have a horizontal and a vertical within the segments, while in another the white paths supply borders right up against the actual white wall. However, LeWitt for once is again allowing intimations of expressive choices, maybe even of the sublime. In one case, the principal vertical sits asymmetrically near the left, like one of Barnett Newman's zips. The illusion of contrast seems to lift the shaded segments off the wall, like physical panels. The largest adds up to an X, and I tried hard not to think of it as a Greek cross.

At some point, the paradoxes of conceptual art, personal traces, and product become hard to contemplate. He did plan these, and a LeWitt always allows for its own reproduction. The assistants all get credited, and I can only imagine how many hours over three months the scribbles took. At what point does the dealer become the active agent, and should a postmodern critic of authenticity and art institutions feel pleased or dismayed? For now, LeWitt has left the deeply penetrating, freehand mark of his own erasure, like the signature on a living will.

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Sol LeWitt ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through February 25, 2001. Additional shows of his latest work ran at PaceWildenstein's midtown space and at Paula Cooper. Pace displayed a mural and fiberglass sculpture through February 3, and Cooper put out a concrete block construction through January 13. Donald Davidson's "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme," first published in 1974, appears in his Inquiries into Truth & Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 1984). The "Scribble Wall Drawings" ran at Paula Cooper through October 20, 2007, and at PaceWildenstein through November 3.


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