On the Colorful Idea
of a Conceptual Scheme
in New York City
Sol LeWitt and Dennis Oppenheim
What happens when a conceptual artist takes leave of his senses? For Sol LeWitt, it means trying a bit too hard these days for the sensual. It means that his latest work takes over his retrospective. The choice casts a taint of glibness on a long and distinguished career.
Meanwhile, Dennis Oppenheim truly has lost his mind—and he loves it. One had better learn to handle some sensory overload. In fact, one had better learn when to duck. Yet once one does, a small retrospective gets one thinking freshly about concept and process in art. It gets one thinking about conceptual art like LeWitt's as well. So, as a postscript, does his death in 2007 and a powerful posthumous creation.
The question cuts both ways. Suppose that 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? Yet in plain English, the phrase means madness, the loss of conceptual coherence. And LeWitt excels at using words plainly to direct his art.
In other words, things are not as they seem, because words, concepts, and perceptions can spill over their boundaries. That gets at the special place of LeWitt in his generation.
Amid such artists as Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman, or Eva Hesse much less Piet Mondrian, 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 metaphors 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. A proper Postmodernist, this artist hardly exists outside the museum as workplace, with paid staff. Like a post-industrial office manager, LeWitt 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 surprising loss of symmetry, because it shares a changing physical space with the viewer. Last, in ringing the changes on such simple, accessible concepts, the work takes on an added openness. It recalls the playful encounter with a changing landscape in Modernist series, from Monet to Mondrian. Suppose I 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, but with emphasis on that word play. 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 De Stijl—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.
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.
LeWitt, too, places everything in the hopper at once.
I like that, but I have to admit that the surprises get a bit glib. At times, one could easily mistake his work 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.
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 is just what happens with the recent work. I enjoy them well enough, and the color stripes enliven enormously the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which has made them a permanent lobby decoration. However, my reservations are increasing, too.
Worst of all, 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 lighter-weight artist than he deserves.
LeWitt creates conceptual art that focuses on the process of construction. Dennis Oppenheim's idea of process art does the same for destruction. This is art with a vengeance.
Ace gallery's long corridor and maze of rooms has defeated many a decent artist, even one as great as Robert Rauschenberg. This guy makes the place feel crowded. One room even comes with a huge warning to keep out. Oh, really? Really!
Two big wooden shields at opposite corners hide skeet guns, and every minute clay slams simultaneously against both shields. The noise, a feature as well of his video art, stays never less than startling. The impact litters the entire floor, right out to the doorway, with colored shards. Each day, the gallery sweeps the floor and changes the color. One can hardly believe that it is not landing on one's lap.
Elsewhere, a row of wax effigies stands against a wall—or rather, progressively doubles over. From left to right, they bathe in harsher and harsher sun lamps. The flat figures, like three-foot tall gingerbread men, bear the artist's effigy, so that the work serves as self-immolation. But then, some years ago he just ate cookies with (well, more or less) his face, and earlier he suffered severe sunburn himself for hours. (Gee, next he will turn himself into chocolate.)
Oppenheim has something in common with the self-punishment, self-parody, and blatant self-promotion of such intriguing performance artists as Chris Burden or Nayland Blake. Mostly, however, he leaves pain and performance to icons of the artist, simplified icons at that. He owes something to elements of chance and experience in what a famous critic termed "action painting." However, he parodies the whole idea, reducing painterly color to broken fields of clay. Ace does well, too, to stress process and parody over the artist's sculptures.
Dada once called a work "object to be destroyed," but it is still around. Here process art involves constant recreation of both work and artist. Meanwhile, with its imagery, it mimes that same process as a kind of puppet show. All the danger only puts greater stress on the closed circle of artist and work, since it keeps the viewer physically at bay, and the humor does the same mentally. Oppenheim and LeWitt might get into a great shoot-out over conceptual art. Maybe more of those Plexiglas Splats will result.
A postscript: after Sol LeWitt
I wrote my very first art criticism about Sol LeWitt, and I embarrassed even 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 halfway 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. Finally dealing 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, starting with the review here of his 2000 retrospective. A second article used him as a kind of case study. There I asked how one could know if he or his assistants really did follow his text, whether a mistake or a lie should alter one's impression of the work, and what that says about new media that purport to map the world in real time. Somehow, even the problem of representation circled back to the process of reconciling abstract ideas, abstract images, and abstract objects.
The first review does not sound terribly favorable, but then the retrospective had its flaws. The Whitney's previous regime had its problems, and I gather that SF MOMA did a better job. Still, the review suggests how flaws in structure became for me the most interesting part. I hesitate to say that writing about LeWitt or Marden was cathartic. After all, that would violate the rigor of the concept. Does his death add to the chaos or deprive art of some of its hardest and roughest edges?
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 this spring 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. I remembered that 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. Pace in midtown 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 Pace 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. Still, will shows like this continue, at what point does the dealer become the active agent, and should a postmodern critic of authenticity and art institutions feel pleased or dismayed? I have no idea. For now, however, LeWitt has left the deeply penetrating, freehand mark of his own erasure, like the signature on a living will.
"Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective" 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. Dennis Oppenheim's show melted and exploded at Ace through February 28. Donald Davidson's "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme"—first published in 1974, when LeWitt's lines ran in all directions and Oppenheim's mechanical marionettes were making their "Attempt to Raise Hell"—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.