Art museums around the world are in the grip of a love affair. In what must be a record for a living American artist, in the last 10 years—in addition to 100 solo gallery exhibitions—Sol LeWitt’s had more than 50 museum shows. At 72, he’s the Cal Ripken Jr. of art, an all-purpose, steady-Eddie, go-to guy. To his credit and detriment, LeWitt’s the number one jewel in the postminimalist crown—the best of a good thing that started a long time ago, just kept going, and now has gone stale. Call it Installationism, our equivalent of the French Academy.
This nonmovement finds institutions filling exhibition halls, atriums, corridors, and stairwells with permanent or provisional arrangements that everyone agrees are works of art. Like the old academy, the new academy keeps mediocre artists busy, board members happy, and audiences from getting bored.
Now the Whitney Museum is loving LeWitt. Unfortunately, they’re loving him to death. Shoehorned into the museum’s lofty fourth floor, LeWitt’s retrospective isn’t what nearly every reviewer says it is: “beautiful.” Instead, it’s overcrowded, busy, and clipped—in a word: grim. At no point can you stand back and take anything in; there’s no sense of the enormous opening LeWitt created for other artists; little of the spirit that made John Baldessari sing all of LeWitt’s paradigmatic “Sentences on Conceptual Art” in 1973 or Carl Andre claim that LeWitt’s wall drawings were “an entirely new art form.” Here, many of those drawings look like bad airport abstraction, and the recent gouaches suggest he’s out of touch with his own art. Which is a shame, because the transporting strengths of LeWitt’s conceptual art are how opulently visual and how intellectually scintillating it can be. In the end, the room of 87 drawings isolated on the fifth floor is as effective as the entire floor below.
It didn’t begin this way. In the late ’60s, LeWitt was a principal player in one of the more excellent palace coups in avant-garde history. Back then, artists weren’t trying to build a new academy, they were trying to pare down the old one. Reducing art to various essences, taking it to aesthetic ground zeros, LeWitt drew on walls, Barry LeVa ran into them, Mel Bochner measured space, Joseph Kosuth exhibited definitions, Dorothea Rockburne folded paper, and On Kawara counted. Declaring minimalism “a dead end,” LeWitt laid down the terms of this insurrection in his “Sentences” and “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” “The idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work,” he wrote; art should be “emotionally dry” and “free from . . . skill,” “caprice,” “taste,” “whimsies,” and “subjectivity.” Basically, LeWitt is to conceptualism what Émile Zola was to naturalism: a founding father clever enough not to follow his own dictums too rigidly. Playing a classic Trojan-horse gambit, LeWitt partnered up with institutions, and opened the gates for everyone to follow. Unfortunately, nearly everyone did.
Most of the best moments in this retrospective come with the “Wall Drawings,” without which, I suspect, there’d be no Sol LeWitt, darling of institutions, and no 150 shows. His “structures,” as he calls his skeletal white sculptures, are lucid illustrations of sequence; they’re direct but feel very period on their own. Worse, in several galleries, the structures are a nuisance.
The nuts and bolts of LeWitt’s wall drawings are well known. Following a set of instructions—e.g., “Vertical lines, not straight, not touching”—a team of assistants renders a drawing directly on the wall. Since 1968, LeWitt has executed nearly 1000 of these works. Initially, only straight lines were used; subsequently arcs, circles, squares, and triangles were added, then isometric geometric figures. Materials went from pencil to chalk, crayon, India ink, and colored-ink washes.
Using this hands-off, guided-by-voices formula, LeWitt created an extraordinarily supple system whereby language generated form in ways that were simultaneously radical and classic, visual and stringent, unexpectedly rich and transparently complicated. So adaptable and intriguing is this method, it makes you wonder what would have happened had Rothko titled one of his paintings Two fuzzy rectangles, one red, one chestnut, one over the other, with orange borders.
The best part of LeWitt’s art, however, isn’t how it’s made, it’s what it does. The finest wall drawings—and these, by and large, were designed before 1993—render one of art’s most invisible qualities, content, visible. They make you understand architecture as material; why the wall is a subject; how image, abstraction, and text connect; what logic, authorship, and even capitalism look like when they’re thrown into question. This is no mean feat; it’s almost miraculous.
Nevertheless, as I made my way through this obstacle course of a retrospective, then went to his exhibition of prints, new gouaches, sculpture, and unctuous wall painting at Pace, then saw his dreary cinder-block constructions at Paula Cooper, I thought about the next to last of LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art”: “When an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art.”