City Hall Park is an excellent venue for Sol Lewitt’s sculptures. In the white cube, the problem is that the artist’s three dimensional structures can blend in precariously well with the similarly minimal geometric space, camouflaging their distinctiveness from the viewer. It is good to see Lewitt’s work contrasted with the park’s lush greens and lavish beaux arts architecture. In this context, his works appear like precious and unique islands of understatement.
Getting into the zone with Lewitt’s art is a zen opportunity to slow down and savor the simplicity of lines, shadows and shapes. Much of the work invites the viewer to pause and explore subtle variations and slight permutations of form. Almost every structure appears different depending on how you look at it, which gives every footstep the power to breathe a new life into the viewing experience.
For example, 1984’s “Three X Four X Three” is one of the tallest sculptures in the park and explores the variations produced by stacked cubes. Walking around it, one can appreciate and admire how wildly different it appears from various vantage points. At some angles, the lines scrunch up together like lattices of a tightly wound cage. From other views, the lines are so distant that the work looks transparent — as though one is gazing out into the park through a series of open windows.
In Lewitt’s work, the smallest differences and variations can become significant. For example, there is a relatively tame row of stacked white cubes near the fountain, “Three-Part Variations on Three Different Kinds of Cubes 3 3 2″ (1967). Some of the cubes’ faces are open while others are closed, which creates an alternating pattern. At first glance, the effect can be underwhelming. But when seen from the right angle, these variations create a flickering effect as light concentrates in certain areas while thick shadows are cast across others. One advantage to the quiet whites and cubic shapes is they allow these subtle light variations to stand out. Lewitt draws attention to the subtler visual effects that only such basic permutations with cubes can reveal.
In another corner of the park, a series of cubes with missing elements greet the passersby. “Incomplete Open Cubes” (1974) still looks and reads like cubes even though each structure is missing elements. It’s an intriguing effect that our brains still perceive them as cubes by filling in the blanks in our mind eyes.
The absence of narrative subject in abstract art like this throws some people off and makes them think that there is no deeper meaning in Lewitt’s works. But just as there is more than one road to Rome, there are other roads to content besides allegorical imagery or narrative. But it demands an active thinker to travel down these other roads. The key is to drill down into what drives your visceral perceptual experience of the work instead of just reading a press release or blogazine that tells you how to think.
For example, “Three X Four X Three” is all about perspective and how a different vantage point can change everything. Just as when a film’s plot twist reconfigures the meaning of the past hour in a unexpected way, life is laced with moments that coax us into seeing people and events from a new perspective. Lewitt’s work lets us control this process of changing perspective with our footsteps.
“Incomplete Open Cubes” (1974) can takes us from forms to Freud. Despite the fact that these structures are more suggestions of cubes than complete forms our brains still perceive them as cubes. This is a strident example of projection, which is fitting the present into psychological patterns we already known from the past. We have all seen cubes where in fact there were no cubes. In case you missed it, cubes is now a metaphor.
Lewitt’s formal understatement and content to be discovered like a detective differs from what most expect from art. Alexander McQueen’s wild popularity this summer affirms that the most interesting objects are often the ones with sumptuous forms and dense allegory. But quieter objects deserve more credit just like quieter people. Just as sometimes the quietest person in the room can land the best joke of the night, there is something to be said for understatement’s potency.
Sol Lewitt: Structures, 1965-2006 is on view at City Hall Park through December 6, 2011.