High Concept

Sol LeWitt’s work doesn’t look the way radical art is supposed to look. Many of the wall drawings in his retrospective at the Whitney are exuberant and lush, even gorgeous. “Splotch,” the title of a recent series, has a comic-book sound, and each of these gooey fiberglass clusters suggests a family, forest, city, or cave dwelling modeled by a class of intent and unpredictable kids. Even the ascetically spare white cubic sculptures that helped establish LeWitt’s reputation in the seventies as a pioneering Conceptual artist are as much jungle gyms as they are geometers’ tools. Fantasy and play are no less welcome here than analysis and rigor. Children and adults, hedonists and mathematicians have a place in LeWitt’s universe.

These works do not exclude. This expansiveness is, in fact, essential to LeWitt’s radical ambition. He studied early-twentieth-century modernist developments such as Russian Constructivism, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus, all driven by a utopian hope that art could change the world. Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian believed their stripped-down geometrical abstractions could initiate new ways of seeing – and with them, new ways of being. LeWitt, born in Hartford in 1928, the child of Russian Jews, also wanted to begin again. “Our idea was to re-create art, to start from square one,” he told former museum director Martin Friedman. For him and other members of his generation, the emotionalism and grandiosity of Abstract Expressionism were dead ends. He knew that the impact of European abstract art was limited because it was accessible only to a select few.

In the catalogue, John S. Weber, a curator, emphasizes the word availability in his discussion of LeWitt’s work. Even when it is most puzzlingly analytical, it has a visual snap and energy that prevent it from being rarefied. One of the distinguishing characteristics of LeWitt’s sculptures and wall drawings – in homes and museums, parks and airports, from New Zealand to Lithuania – is that they desire people. They reach out with forms and patterns that are either incomplete or imaginary. The nine wall drawings spanning seventeen years gathered together on one wall include unexpected variations of cubes and pyramids that seem to be waiting to be plucked from their spatial compartments, eager to set the architectural and formal imagination in motion. LeWitt’s beautiful sculptures constructed with hundreds of small open cubes also invite participation. The cubes look like a child’s building blocks. Most of these lacy sculptures resemble architectural models. Each cube in any number of them, including the luxuriously delicate Double Tower (1999), could be a future dwelling, part of an apartment or city yet to be built.

LeWitt’s dreams of democracy and community are passionate, moving, and pervasive. For example, in the largest of the three Wavy Brushstrokes, from 1995, LeWitt packed a fifteen-foot-long sheet of paper with hundreds of colored curvilinear strokes that together suggest both a landscape (blades of grass) and the body (strands of hair). Somehow each line in this gouache maintains its integrity; none of the myriad overlapping strokes intrudes on any other.

LeWitt would not be so successful if he were just a dreamer. His shrewdness, intellect, and unrepentant playfulness are most apparent in the wall drawings that are rightly the heart of the exhibition. These works can be sold as certificates, with designs, diagrams, or instructions. The buyer is usually free to execute the work, but most often it is done by one or more of LeWitt’s assistants. Many of the wall drawings are ephemeral, created for a show and then painted over. Many of these, too, are executed by the artist’s assistants, though some must be done by amateurs.

The wall drawings function successfully within the art market and at the same time question some of the notions that drive it. Since the first version of a wall drawing has no more claim to primacy than any later version, or any exhibition copy, its impact does not depend upon the notion of originality. Since the wall drawings are not executed by LeWitt, their power does not depend upon the artist’s touch. In the end, it is the idea that is primary, not the image. “Ideas cannot be owned,” LeWitt famously stated. “They belong to whomever understands them.”

Not surprisingly, the rhetoric surrounding this show is unusual for a museum retrospective. On the first page of his foreword to the catalogue, David A. Ross, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and former director of the Whitney, uses the word honest three times. Gary Garrels, who organized this retrospective for the San Francisco moma (he is now a curator at the New York moma), begins his essay by describing LeWitt as a champion of the democratic values of equality, accessibility, open exchange, and public space.

Celebrating an artist’s humanity is definitely not an everyday museum occurrence. One of the testimonials included in the catalogue essay by the curator Andrea Miller-Keller is composer Philip Glass’s remark that LeWitt “supported so many people, but it wasn’t generally known because he never made a thing about it.” Another is the statement by the Conceptual artist Adrian Piper that “Sol was the moral center of the group,” referring to a downtown New York community that included such prominent artists as Hans Haacke, Robert Mangold, Dorothea Rockburne, and Robert Ryman. The essay begins with Piper’s ultimate tribute: “With all the recognition that he has received, people still don’t get how important he is. Sol is to art what Bach was to music.”

This exhibition proposes a different kind of artistic hero. LeWitt is not Jackson Pollock (“Jack the Dripper,” the press called him) or Andy Warhol (lovingly entangled in commercial and popular culture), although his work acknowledges both of them. He is a far cry from the compartmentalized genius who exploits anyone and anything in the service of his art. He’s no saint: With his early peep-show boxes that zero in on female bumps and crevices, the gigantic breast- and butt-round curves of his wall drawings, and his Rorschach-like gouaches that look like splattered arthropods, he is as much satyr and prankster as community builder and citizen of the world. In the end, he is a mensch whose art and life prove that it is possible to be both a model of artistic freedom and a responsible and caring soul.

This is all very useful to museums now. By sanctifying LeWitt, they can counter the increasingly prevalent assumption that they have sold out to glamour, controversy, and money. This exhibition gets out the message that a once-provocative institution like the Whitney really is committed to reinventing itself as a G-rated institution committed to innovative art while remaining safe for mothers, children, and prospective donors. Whatever the museum’s motives, however, LeWitt’s work is a joy. He deserves all the accolades he gets.

Sol LeWitt: Retrospective
Whitney Museum of American Art; through February 25.
See Art listings for details.

High Concept