From the time I was a sophomore in college fifteen years ago, when I first saw it, Sol LeWitt’s work has provided me with what I have often thought of as a measure of sanity. It is dazzlingly lucid, even when it involves chance. Back in those days, the way he made art or had others make it was still considered radical, and, though already familiar to many since the late 60’s his concepts and specifications, his process and its politics, were usually the focus of discussion. His insistence on “the idea” and on the disposability of the actual thing, together with his stalwart assertions that ideas “belong to whomever understands them,” made him seem the most elitist of populists, or the most populist of elitists–it was hard to tell which. Finally, of course, it doesn’t matter which.
The compatibility of these and many other LeWittian contradictions was demonstrated time and time again by the fact that his projects could indeed be realized by any number of people who understood his instructions. More important, the characteristic and sometimes extreme physical beauty of his work lent real glory to that rarefied democratic credo of his. In certain lights, in certain moods, in certain rooms, its aura was as good as visible. LeWitt’s work has, over the years, created a kind of special pass to Apollo’s court, where what you see or hear corresponds, with tonic effervescence, to whatever is clear in you. At times, LeWitt’s designs look like highmindedness incarnate.
The memory of his big exhibition at MOMA in 1978, and of his retrospective, in 1984, at The Stedelijk Museum and the Van Abbemuseum, in Holland, still has the residual effect of an elixir. More recent, random sightings of his exceedingly far-flung, often gypsy-transient work-on a vaulted ceiling at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on assorted gallery walls, in the sudden public space, the odd Manhattan loft–are apt to produce peculiar little rushes of relief. I experienced a similar sensation once in Ghent at the unexpected sight of a small row of 18th Century buildings holding their own against prevailing medieval phantasms. Those houses were lights in the forest. In this sense, and as possibly our outstanding contemporary exemplar of the neoclassical spirit, LeWitt’s work is an antithesis, or perhaps a necessary complement to what is fearful in religion.
His wonderful floating pyramids against grisaille, from the early 80’s, seemed to celebrate Euclidian values, not pharaonic or priestly ones. Earlier drawings with drawn lines accompanied by written descriptive/instructive lines appeal to what might be called intellectual craftsmanship. His vaguely Islamic stars of a few years back suggested an increased appetite on his part for the decorative and the artisanal–inspired no doubt by greater amounts of time spent in Italy, especially in Umbria, around Spoleto, where LeWitt, his wife Carol, and their two little daughters live part of the year. (Carol has an export business and a store on New York’s Hester Street in cooperation with the well-known Deruta ceramics manufacture, and LeWitt himself designed a set of Umbrian plates in the early 80’s.) The relationship of his structures to f functional architecture and design, as well as his ongoing role in the story of modern classicism are spectacularly apparent if one looks at a chair, the Selfman Chair, for example, designed in 1963 late in the life of the “early modernist” Rietveld, barely moments before LeWitt began to make his protracted series of cubic, Open Structures and his Incomplete Cubes.
The analogy between LeWitt’s work and music has often been remarked on. His wall drawings are conceived and realized much the way music is written, orchestrated and performed. (As his own interpreter, he is perhaps most closely analogous to certain musicians, such as Alfred Brendel or Maurizio Pollini, known as well for the encompassing lucidity of their playing.) If, through the 1970’s, he emphasized the linear properties of composition, its tonal and chromatic qualities have been of increasing importance in the last couple of years. LeWitt has long been underestimated as a colorist, with gray his quiet, subtly modulating ingredient, and transformer of hard walls into expansive, ephemeral paper. The influence of LeWitt’s chromatics, however, are beginning to be felt–the team of Andrew Ginzel & Kristin Jones, for instance, seem to have appropriated the porous tone of his walls for some of their installations, including one now on view in Battery Park City.
If twenty years ago LeWitt was “locating” lines, last year’s Four Colors and All Their Combinations marked yet a new point of departure, as well a sumptuously Italianate counterpoint to Albers’ famous, stringent precedents, which in retrospect seem somehow expressionistic. The designs for LeWitt’s recent wall drawings tend to resemble mosaic patterns or stained glass, and they suggest fractal rather than plane geometry–yet another system for locating clarity in chaos. LeWitt’s vastly variable wall drawings and his mathematically determined structures do not appeal to so-called spiritual cravings. He does not–ever– make icons or any other form of temple art. Even at their most elaborate and enveloping, LeWitt’s installations do not have the effect of cells or sanctuaries, but of a universe openly available to those who can think or see it.