You’d think that after two weeks in Italy, there’d be no better way to ease into the New York scene than Sol Lewitt’s monumental “Wall Drawing #564: Complex forms with color ink washes superimposed” (1988) at the Paula Cooper Gallery.
As Peter Schjeldahl writes in his New Yorker capsule review, the mural evokes “the surface-dissolving, light-fondling textures of Masaccio frescoes,” while the gallery press release reminds us that “LeWitt, who had moved to Spoleto, Italy, in the late 1970s credited his transition from graphite pencil or crayon to vivid ink washes, to his encounter with the frescoes of Giotto, Masaccio, and other early Florentine painters.”
But I’m left wondering whether such correlations are just a little too facile. There’s no arguing with the artist’s own account of how he conceived his ink wash drawings, but if Lewitt’s “encounter with the frescoes of Giotto” is the jumping-off point for the series, its startling newness sweeps away any backward glances or whiffs of nostalgia. The drawings may be rooted in historical awareness, but they are alien and alienated presences, sealing off the past as they reexamine the premises of visual art.
“Wall Drawing #564” is at once starkly cerebral and vaporously sensual. Its pleasures are both macro and micro: you can immerse yourself in the room-swallowing design or pore over the intricacies of pigment nestled in the pits and grooves of the minutely textured walls.
Originally conceived for the 1988 Venice Biennale, the work has been recreated here, as per the Lewitt playbook, by a crew of artists following a set of instructions. It is composed of window-like rectangles framed by black bands enclosing multihued polygons splayed against solid fields of color.
The shapes are drawn from the Cezanne-derived lexicon of Early Modernism, and in that sense Lewitt is every inch a classicist, but he subjects the geometric devices employed by his predecessors to a thorough reshuffling of the deck — a critique and reappraisal of the meaning of line, color and shape.
The polygons play with space and illusion without once departing from the flatness of the picture plane. Perspective is up for grabs, and there’s no telling where the various angles are supposed to go. The facets of the polygons continually flip inward and outward, and if you try to focus on a single shape, it flattens against the wall only to shift angles again as your eye moves away.
It’s easy to forget, as you lose yourself in the lushness of the color, that these drawings are fundamentally about the beauty of an idea. They exist outside of the artist’s agency and even, lamentably, his lifetime. In that regard there is really no comparison to older art. Lewitt’s wall drawings may share some surface features with quattrocento frescoes, but his cognitive splendor is the afterglow of a corrosive interrogation into art’s production and purpose. The deep-set communal narrative of Masaccio is replaced by the evolving structures of thought.
I suppose I’m a little impatient with reflexive invocations of the canon, which intentionally or not imply a standard for qualification or legitimization without acknowledging how much our view of the past has been distorted by the passage of time.
We look at Masaccio or Piero della Francesca through the same aesthetic and social lens that formed Lewitt’s wall drawings. We don’t find Piero in Lewitt, but Lewitt in Piero. The visual language deployed by long-dead artists may overlap with ours, but what they expected from their art is as lost on us as our expectations would be on them.
Sol LeWitt continues at Paula Cooper Gallery (534 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 12.
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