Here comes Sol Lewitt, artist and thinker, logician and showman, whose famously stripped-down drawings and sculptures connect with mathematicians and mystics, the art cognoscenti and the general public. He is a pioneer of conceptual art; a founder of Printed Matter – the New York-based nonprofit that specializes in artists’ books; and an idiosyncratic collector whose post-sixties art collection is coveted by museums. “Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art (December 7-February 25), gives New Yorkers their first comprehensive look in more than two decades at one of postwar American art’s most rigorous and generous figures.
For all his radicalism, LeWitt, 72, has become an institutional fixture. You would be hard-pressed to find a major museum that didn’t include his cool cubic sculptures and his warm, earth-toned or psychedelic-hot wall drawings. Sculpture exhibitions and sculpture parks all over Europe and the United States want his deceptively simple abstract work that calls attention to the vocabulary of visual language – the cubes, right angles, primary colors, and curved and straight lines with which they are made. LeWitt’s plain-speaking monumentality has come to represent for many people, at home and abroad, an ideal of American post-1960 artistic integrity and the possibility of an art that can appeal to the lay person’s needs for aesthetic accessibility and participation, as well as to the art professional’s compulsion to understand why art that looks so damned simple can be so complex.
Like many other conceptual artists, LeWitt resists permanence (works created for exhibitions are painted over), “hierarchy” (they may be constructed with a multitude of similar or identical components), and the artist’s hand (his wall drawings are executed by others), which explains why the very mention of conceptual art can still make defenders of traditional painting act as if a skunk had just entered their living room.
Even more characteristic of conceptual artists, LeWitt is primarily concerned with the clarity of an idea. Some are formulated in words that are at once matter-of-fact, intricate, and poetic; for example, the title of his wall drawing – Ten thousand not straight lines – provides the most succinct instructions for the people who execute it. But that not in the middle makes the title a bit of a brain-twister, and the visual result can be a linear swarm suggesting an organic wildness that seems to have no relation to the prosaic instructions that prompted it.
In LeWitt’s work, the final image is never fully known beforehand; because of the distinctness of each site and individual interpretations of “straight lines,” the same instructions inevitably produce different works. The jump from the clarity and definition of the concept to the unpredictability and sometimes the irrational heat of the image underlines site-specific as well as human distinctions. It also asks fascinating, not to say disconcerting, questions about the best-laid plans, or about the ability to know for sure what happens when any clear idea – or theory – is executed by human beings in the everyday world.
In LeWitt’s compellingly modernist work, reason can be the pathway to the irrational and the ecstatic; and the most reduced visual language can provide access to fundamental desires and questions. In a moment of unbridled museum spectacle, a show of such richly thoughtful, hard-to-market work is particularly welcome.