A Taste for Desert Landscapes?

A Taste for Desert Landscapes?

A review of Sol LeWitt's Autobiography.


In memory of Van Quine

About halfway through the installation of Sol LeWitt's art on the fourth floor of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, a small alcove gallery is given over entirely to Autobiography, a work from 1980. Autobiography consists, by my calculation, of 1,071 simple black-and-white photographs, arranged in 3×3 square grids. The pictures are of an almost striking banality, with a degree of photographic distinction near zero, and they show, for the most part, the most ordinary of objects: tools, balls of twine, shoes and articles of clothing, kitchen utensils, snapshots, books, houseplants. Except for the flat-files and drafting instruments–triangles, T-squares, templates, protractors, rulers and the like–their counterparts would have been found in most households of the Western world at the time. The inventory defines domestic normality for persons of a certain class–not too wealthy, not too poor. More metaphysically, the objects participate in what Heidegger designates as Zuhandenheit–the "Ready-to-Hand"–the kinds of things one notices only when they are not ready to hand, their absence impeding the smooth flow of daily life. Their inventoried presence accordingly testifies to the orderliness of this household, in which everything is present and accounted for, and to the organizational disposition of Sol LeWitt, whose household it was.

The personality itself, of course, is not a further item in the inventory. We know from external sources that LeWitt was about to vacate his living space in 1980 and move to Spoleto, Italy; and that he wanted to photograph each object with which he lived. In a video interview, Sol LeWitt: Four Decades, on continuous view outside the lobby gallery, the artist tells the exhibition's curator, Gary Garrels, that a far better picture of him can be gotten from the photographs of all the things he lived with than from an ordinary portrait. The question has been raised as to why he did not then title the work Self-Portrait. My sense is that it is because "autobiography" implies the concept of a life, and a life is something lived. The ordinariness of the objects inventoried further implies that there is nothing out of the ordinary in LeWitt's life, that it could be the autobiography of Whoever, Wherever. It may be remarked that there is no photograph in Autobiography of Autobiography itself–though it would be philosophically daring to have included the representation of the life as a further item in the life represented. I cannot forbear observing the philosophical significance of the fact that Autobiography fails to include a photograph of LeWitt himself. "When I enter most intimately into what I call myself," the philosopher David Hume once wrote, "I always stumble on some particular perception or other…. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception." There is no experience of the self, Hume concludes, and so the term is without meaning.

Still, not everyone would photograph each of his possessions, as if for a yard sale, and organize them into a set of 3×3 grids. Nor can the work be rid of one's own subjectivity by organizing its components meticulously. If anything, character and disposition are revealed through the order or absence of order in one's life. In a way, the LeWitt exhibition could itself be titled Autobiography. It is difficult to believe that someone who took and arranged the photographs as compulsively as LeWitt appears to have done would leave the content and organization of a life's worth of his art to another. "If you require a monument," Sir Christopher Wren inscribed in St. Paul's Cathedral in London, "look around you."

The relevance of this to LeWitt's oeuvre, in whole and in part, lies in the philosophy he articulated in a crucial text, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," first published in Artforum in 1967. In the late 1960s there would have been relatively little to appreciate in the work other than the way it exemplified the theory. In its own right it was what the Italian critic Achille Bonito Oliva recently called "minimalial," even if it was not Minimalist in the strict ideological meaning of the term. It is true, however, that as LeWitt's art has evolved it has become decreasingly important to know much about that philosophy in order to respond to the work. Stand near the elevators at the Whitney and observe the expressions of sudden pleasure when the doors open and visitors see the marvelous wall painting Loopy Doopy behind the airy wooden structures in front of it. Few of those stepping out can be veterans of the theoretical debates to which "Paragraphs" belonged or know much of the subsequent history of Conceptualism as an artistic movement. For all its genesis in theory, LeWitt's work affords such instantaneous pleasure that it must appeal to an innate aesthetic sensibility that really does belong to Whoever, Wherever. This, together with the fecundity of his invention, is part of LeWitt's greatness as an artist. But even if the philosophy enters less and less into the content of what we experience, it belongs to the historical explanation of even the most recent, least apparently theoretical work.

"When an artist uses a conceptual form of art," LeWitt wrote, "it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair."

The implication is that the work of art is the transcription of an idea, in the medium its idea specifies. In 1967 it would have been LeWitt's practice to transcribe his own ideas; but later, when he began to do the wall drawings that were to become the genre most distinctive of his work, he more and more left the transcription of his ideas to what he terms "draftsmen." In a text from 1971 he wrote, "The artist conceives and plans the wall drawing. It is realized by draftsmen. (The artist can act as his own draftsman.) The plan, written, spoken or a drawing, is interpreted by the draftsman." It is fairly clear that between "artist" and "draftsman" there is a functional distinction involving different skills, and that it is in no sense necessary that a single individual incorporate both functions.

An example of a work for which the plan can be spoken is Wall Drawing #51: All Architectural Points Connected by Straight Lines. Blue snap lines. A "snap line" is a length of chalked cord, tautly stretched along a flat surface. It is plucked, like a violin string, leaving a straight line, the color of the chalk. The number of vectored lines will be a function of the number of "architectural points" the lines connect. Wall Drawing #51 was done in 1970 and "installed" that year in the Museo di Torino in Turin, Italy. Its latest installation, done in 2000, can be seen on the extreme north section of the east wall of the fourth-floor gallery, where the viewer will initially register it as a network of pale blue straight lines connecting corners with corners. It may have been done at other times, on different walls, and one hopes it will go on being installed, transcribed by different draftsmen, when we are all long gone. The installations themselves can be painted over or destroyed in other ways, but the plan itself has only the reality of a concept. And it need never have existed in the form of a drawing. It would have been enough for it to be a plan, scribbled down as an instruction to the draftsman or communicated by phone or on a tape, and so need no more resemble the set of its embodiments than a set of scrubbed floors need resemble the injunction "Scrub the floors!" Neither must the transcriptions resemble one another, as long as they comply with the plan. The distribution of "architectural points" will differ from actual wall to actual wall. I find it delicious that there are lines that connect the corners of the room with the corners of the alarm systems that happen to be placed in the wall chosen for the present installation of #51–and perhaps chosen to illustrate the point. In the catalogue illustration of the same work, the lines densely converge on the electrical outlets near the floor. It looks like the maps of airline routes one sees on in-flight magazines, shown radiating out from hubs.

There is an unmistakable skill in using snap lines to make nice, clean vectors on the wall, and there is no reason to suppose that LeWitt himself has such skills. The aesthetic of #51 is really inconsistent with casual, smudged marks, and part of the pleasure of the work derives from the impeccability of its execution. Compare it, though, with a 1972 work that shows a page from a publication about art, and indeed the art of certain of LeWitt's contemporaries–Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Jasper Johns and several others. It addresses the topic of "human control," which of course plays a central role in LeWitt's philosophy. I don't know who the author is. In any case, the plan of the work is in effect its title: From the Word "Art": Blue Lines to Four Corners, Green Lines to Four Sides, and Red Lines Between the Words "Art" on the Printed Page. My hunch is that the draftsman of this work was LeWitt himself, using colored ink and pencil, and perhaps one of the straightedges we see in Autobiography. But anyone possessing the minimal skills required to execute diagrams in high school geometry class could do this work. Who but LeWitt, however, could or would have formed the concept of connecting the word "art," as an isomorphic set of physical entities composed of ink molecules, with the perimeters of the physical surface on which they are deposited, as well as with one another? The work is witty, slyly deflationist of the concept of art as well as some of its theories, and exceedingly arch in the way it refers, as work, to the content of the text it unites with its page. The pleasures here, as with #51, are only marginally sensuous. They are largely conceptual pleasures, and perhaps best appreciated by those who belonged in the same intellectual atmosphere to which the works themselves belong. (I have to say that I love these works!)

But let us return to LeWitt's credo, and to the polemical atmosphere in which it was composed. What is actually implied by the severe disjunction between conception and draftsmanly enactment? First, it implies that art is a form of mental thought. "Mental thought" may seem redundant, but in the era in which "Paragraphs" was written, there was an overall philosophical tendency to deconstruct the idea that thinking is something that takes place exclusively in the mind. It was argued that painters, for example, or pianists, think with and through their hands and fingers–that a carpenter thinks with the saw and hammer, a dancer with his or her body, and that it is through the body that these people express themselves. Certainly, it might have been said, dancing does not transcribe through movements a terpsichorean plan in the dancer's mind! Certainly the clarinetist riffs in public space, and does not mechanically perform a privately inscribed score! Indeed, when this position was being argued in such philosophical texts as Gilbert Ryle's magisterial The Concept of Mind (1949), artists, especially those of the New York School, were expressing themselves in sweeping gestural movements on canvases laid on the floor or pinned to the wall of their studios. Painting was something that happened out there–not something that takes place in here. One begins with a mark, another mark, a third mark–a splash, a smudge, a drip–until the whole work energetically completes itself and the artist can then see what has been achieved. It was not something in which "all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand" with "the execution a perfunctory affair"! How could Pollock's Autumn Light have been planned? Or de Kooning's Woman I! In Abstract Expressionism, hand and eye were everything, and for those who can remember that era, the intellect could hardly have been more suspect. The painter's studio and the philosophy seminar room were at one in repudiating the "ghost in the machine."

LeWitt, by contrast, was an unabashed mentalist. "It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator." And, on a note that must have been infuriating to those who saw it as the aim of painting to express and arouse feelings of the most visceral order, LeWitt adds that conceptual artists would "usually want [the art] to become emotionally dry." It need not be boring–"It is only the expectation of an emotional kick, to which one conditioned to expressionist art is accustomed, that would deter the viewer from perceiving this art." Wall Drawing #1, first installed in the Paula Cooper Gallery in 1968, is not in the Whitney show, but you can see the plan for it in the catalogue. It is a composition made up of four rectangular areas, overlaid by a network of vertical and horizontal lines, drawn with graphite sticks, which would have had the visual exhilaration of window screens were it not for the superimposed diagonal lines, drawn at 45-degree angles, forming an overlay of nested diamonds. Wall Drawing #1: Drawing Series II 18 (A&B)–to give it its full name–is, one might say, almost aggressively dry. But it would have had great contextual excitement in 1968. It is often said in retrospect that Abstract Expressionism as a movement was finished in 1962. But it still tended to define what one expected to experience in galleries in the later sixties. Pop Art used the brash, lurid colors of commercial logos clamoring for the attention of consumers. So it would have been astonishing to enter an avant-garde space like Paula Cooper's and see something that is "perceived first as a light tonal mass…and then as a collection of lines." From the perspective of its historical moment, Wall Drawing #1 has to have been seen as provocative–a feeling that has faded with the evolution of the art to which LeWitt has so greatly contributed: We are living in a conceptual art world. On the evidence of Autobiography, meanwhile, one cannot but feel that there is an aspect of LeWitt's personality present in the neatly drawn, evenly spaced, repeated uninflected lines. It is a disposition transformed into an aesthetic, to be found throughout his work–though it is by no means the whole of the LeWittian aesthetic, which has become increasingly sensuous (as in the marvelously interlaced red and purple of Loopy Doopy) and hardly calculated to give pleasure to those with what the great logician W.V.O. Quine–who died on Christmas Day at age 92–once spoke of as a "taste for desert landscapes."

One cannot imagine Loopy Doopy as having been done by LeWitt in 1968. He has penetratingly observed that "the difference between the sixties and now is that those years were a time of very strong ideology, politically, aesthetically, and every other way. In order to break with the past and make new things, you had to begin with some kind of ideological framework." The work, one might say, has become decreasingly ideologized, and though the same distinction between plan and execution remains in place, there would be little inclination to consider the execution "perfunctory." LeWitt rarely serves as his own draftsman any longer, but he closely monitors those who carry out his plans.

Consider in this light LeWitt's sculptural–or, as he would say, "structural"–works. His 1964 Standing Open Structure Black is one of the defining sculptural works of the twentieth century: a simple wooden structure, painted black, with nearly square cross-sections, ninety-six inches tall. It is like a three-dimensional diagram of a geometrical figure, since it consists only of edges and corners. It could have been selected as a furnishing for the house that Ludwig Wittgenstein built and designed for his sister in Vienna. Typically, LeWitt's structures are variations on cubes used as modules, painted black or white, and looking, I suppose, like skeletal models for pieces of architecture or perhaps for molecules. They do not always stand on the floor–sometimes they are hung from walls or even suspended from ceilings. They all give the sense of being reductions of complex objects to their elementary constituents. Speaking again of the sixties, LeWitt observes, "I could never have made a colored sculpture. It was something I just couldn't do…. But now I say, so what? If it seems to promise some kind of interesting result, why not do it?"

Perhaps he is referring to such works as Non-Geometric Form #8–more engagingly titled Splotch (color). It is a gaily painted, irregularly curved object, like a cartoon mountain range, which is in a side lobby on the ground floor at the Whitney, the walls of which are no less gaily decorated with bands and arcs. It is an example of what LeWitt's friend Lucy Lippard called Eccentric Abstraction, the greatest exponent of which was LeWitt's protégée, Eva Hesse, the young sculptor who died in 1970. For all the tragedy of Hesse's life, her work was full of mirth, and it is very much as though, in relinquishing ideology, LeWitt took her as his model. Splotch, Splat and Blob are names that LeWitt uses. They belong to the lexicon of comic strips, in one of which Loopy Doopy could be the name of a character. This is a joyful show, full of fun and beauty, a gift to the world. The Whitney looks as if it had been expressly designed with LeWitt's ideological work in mind. The later work will brighten the dour interior until February 25.

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