How To Talk About Art

How to Talk About Art: Brevity Is Not Sol LeWitt Edition (#H2TAA)

Sol LeWitt at Paula Cooper Gallery, "Wall Drawing #564: Complex forms with color ink washes superimposed" Photo via New York Times, LeWitt Estate Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York City
Sol LeWitt at Paula Cooper Gallery, “Wall Drawing #564: Complex forms with color ink washes superimposed” (image via New York Times, LeWitt Estate Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York City)

Did I hear you sigh with half relief/half regret thinking you would never have to talk about Sol LeWitt again? Poor fool, that time will never come! LeWitt is ensconced in the canons of art history like a tick in a bull’s groin, my friend, and it is your duty to know his talking points, to dote on the critic’s careful praise, and every year or so, to remark upon the latest installation with proper reverence.

Even as we speak, Paula Cooper Gallery awaits the tongue-tied public with sparse echoing rooms that play host to some very sober ghosts of breakthroughs past. Focusing on LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #564,” which has not been exhibited since it was presented at the 1988 Venice Biennale, the show is as dry as the perms of that same year, and just as serious!

So put on your Beethoven face, and let’s take a look!

Listen, kid, it’s best you know now. This is not going to be easy. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, LeWitt’s oeuvre isn’t art; it’s homework.

And like Birkenstocks on jailbait, the show at Paula Cooper will ensure that, if you don’t know the subject already, you won’t be tempted to get too familiar. Arcane white “structures,” LeWitt’s mean response to sculptures that proved too generous of “illusion” for the school marm in him, stand in thresholds and corners like guards against fancy. They are there to admonish you in case you should smile a bit at the inadvertent levity provided by a smattering of goofy sketches and an hideous gloppy painting of what looks like gummy worms.

Not to worry. #H2TAA is here to provide a few talking points!

Sol LeWitt: The Talking Points

• Call him a pioneer minimalist, and a leader of the conceptual art movement

Few will contradict you if you say that Lewitt ushered in minimal art, or that he invented” conceptual art. However, there is one smarty boots in every crowd who will remind you that no one person invents a genre. There are, however, those who rally and carry signs. And LeWitt was one of those. He liked to make pronouncements. He made them in his artist’s statements and in interviews, essays, and books. He was a man of many manifestos, and much of what he said was taken down as though from Yahweh himself.

• Behave Yourself

At the dawn of the sixties, Modern Art was not quite ready for the minimalists, much less conceptual art. Rapping knuckles had sort of gone out of favor for a while and everyone had been painting whores and throwing paint around. Feeling, seeing, defying tradition, and breaking rules were what we’d come to expect from modern artists, and we’d grown fond of feeling lofty about it. So when LeWitt and his staunch crew of shushing librarians swung in, they took everyone by surprise.

While minimalism sought to eliminate distractions, erase frivolity, and make us pay proper attention to form, conceptual art one-upped the ante by naming materiality as the ultimate clutter.

What’s more, everyone fell for it heavily. Not right away, mind you; just like the church, the apologists for minimalist and conceptual art had to use a bit of muscle in order to wrestle charm, meaning, sex, and freedom out of the shaking hands of the drug-addled, flesh-loving, beatnicks.

By the time they were done, however, skill and originality — in fact any notion of the artist’s genius — all of those excuses for nasty behavior became regarded as sheer sentimental detritus, the grandma’s heart-shaped lockets of the art world.

So when you talk about Sol LeWitt, remember to behave yourself; you mustn’t squirm or complain of boredom lest you unmask yourself as a kitsch-loving philistine.

Pretend that you find deep and abiding delight in the handful of quaint intellectual toys the man provided for you in the form of sheer geometrical beauty and intellectual machinery.

• Scorn “Illusion”

That means that you understand and appreciate that a honking nude, no matter when it was pasted up, is a frivolitly, an extra, and a bit kitschy. Even a DeKooning is rather indulgent next to a wall of whispery graphite lines that is here today and gone tomorrow. Whether on a hag’s face or a canvas, paint pretending to be what it ain’t is bad mojo, my friends.

• Say he rescued art from object

You DID NOT build this, and neither, likely, did Sol LeWitt. The erasure of the artist’s hand is the ULTIMATE arrow in the conceptualist quiver. And, dear reader, a harbinger of appropriation art!

When he stumbled upon the device of using teams of trained assistants to realize his concepts, LeWitt separated art (the guidelines and diagrams that comprise a wall drawing or a structure) from object. This turn (always call it a “turn” if you want to do post-modern semantics) led to the ultimate denial of authorship, paving the way for the Richard Princes and Sherry Levines of this world. So be grateful?

• Give him his propers +

Which leads to the most important and universal of all talking points — a tip for future discussions, one might say: give the artist his propers — and then give her more credit.

The more future movements you can bind to your artist’s mast, the more she looks like she’s breaking waves!

• Use music metaphors

Sure, it’s a chestnut, but hey, everyone still does it.

Wall drawings are a concept built with instructions and diagrams, much like a musical score. The musical performance is simply one of many possible realizations of that score. Yadda, ditto wall drawings.

I don’t mean to be dismissive (hand aside, mouthing ‘yes-I-do’): the music metaphor is, in fact, important because it ties Sol LeWitt to performance — oops, make that time-based — art. (Tongue protruding with concentration whilst I tether all future Biesenbachs and Jay Zs to our mast with sailor knots of sheer discourse!)

• Say 2D

A canvas, people, is a three dimensional object in that it can be carried and placed in the gallery and then sold and taken home. A wall drawing cannot. Er, be carried, I mean. As to selling? Well, we’ve got that all taken care of these days.

• Say “Giotto”

Yes, at Paula Cooper, you will be looking at a room with walls painted in geometrical slices and rhomboids. And yes, it will seem to you the furthest thing from the early renaissance depictions of puppet-stiff saints wearing saturated dresses while bending awkwardly toward deflated Jesus. But those colorful LeWitts were done after the man had moved to Spoleto, Italy, where he clapped eyes on some frescoes and decided to get all Masaccio on us.

So when he said that frescoes inspired his color ink washes and that he wanted “to produce something [he] would not be ashamed to show Giotto,” we all wrote that down and will never ever let it go.

Tying the artist to the classics, especially when they’ve rejected everything those artists stood for, is the very best way to talk about art. It shows you know your history and, sweetness, that may be all you have left.

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Sol LeWitt: Selected Works continues at Paula Cooper Gallery (534 W 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 12.

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