In Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, the new exhibition at the Met Breuer, a relatively small painted balsa wood sculpture by Sol LeWitt — “13/3” (1981) from the Met’s own collection — sits inside a Plexiglas display case atop a white pedestal. Its label reads in full:
Upon first glance, 13/3 would seem to have little relationship to delirium. It is an abstract sculpture composed of identical modules assembled according to the simple plan documented in the title: a thirteen-by-thirteen grid from which three towers rise. LeWitt, however, did not consider his otherwise systematic work rational. Indeed, he aimed to “break out of the whole idea of rationality.” “In a logical sequence,” LeWitt wrote, in which a predetermined algorithm, not the artist, dictates the work of art, “you don’t think about it. It is a way of not thinking. It is irrational.”
The work’s balsa wood legs cast shadows that multiply and disarrange the modules. In addition, the modules act as frames that fracture the surrounding space. Overall, 13/3 creates perceptual effects both vertiginous and disorderly.
In her generous review of the exhibition for The New York Times, Roberta Smith recalls that LeWitt’s “irrationality and obsessive repetition was first noted by the critic Rosalind Krauss in a 1978 essay on the artist,” a text that, she tells us, was the inspiration for Delirious’s curator, Kelly Baum.
Smith is referring to “LeWitt in Progress,” published in the Autumn 1978 issue of October magazine. One of the more notable (and intrinsically ‘70s) aspects of the essay is the inexplicable (and, unless you check the footnote, uncredited) interruption of the text by passages from Samuel Beckett’s 1951 novel Molloy, namely the famous — and maddening — account of the first-person narrator explaining his systemic rotation of “sucking-stones” among the pockets of his greatcoat.
If the passages from Molloy, with their demented methodology, and Krauss’s intrusive introduction of them into the text, had affected the curator’s selection and arrangement of the art in the show, it is an influence that is hard to detect. Instead, the exhibition seems to be taking its cue from classic LeWitt, with innumerable variations on the box and grid, especially in the opening rooms, whose staidness and regimentation might at first glance (if not a second or third) persuade you that you are stepping off the elevator into the wrong show.
And in effect you are. If you want to see something truly delirious, go one floor down, while you still can, to Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical, with its orange walls and profusions of clashing patterns, candy-colored Roman ruins, ebullient forms, and ancient artifacts, not to mention Sottsass’s quintessentially Surrealist “The Societies on This Planet Bed” (1992), with its mock-cinderblock headboard and wavily top-heavy, gravity-defying pearwood footboard.
As Deborah Solomon commented in her perspicacious discussion of the show on the public radio station WNYC, Delirious “sorely under-delivers. It offers, in essence, a tame, academic view of a small swath of modern art – the Conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 1970s. As most everyone knows, Conceptual art emphasizes ideas and philosophy over visual pleasure. The mind matters more than the eye.” And what is remarkable about this show is how visually flat-footed it is, despite the unquestionable quality of much of the art. The selection process seems to have adhered to a dictum of LeWitt’s that Krauss quotes in her essay: “Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.”
The harsh but foregone conclusion is that, for the most part, the show’s overly intellectualized premise and procedures yield beautiful but comparatively polite works by such habitually transgressive artists as Piero Manzoni, Lee Lozano, Robert Smithson, Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse, Hannah Wilke, Martha Wilson, Lynda Benglis, Bruce Conner, Nancy Grossman, Peter Saul, and Jim Nutt, to name an even dozen, while the offerings that match the supposed temperature of the show — by Yayoi Kusama, Howardena Pindell, Claes Oldenberg, Paul Thek, Jacques Mahé de la Villeglé, Carolee Schneemann, Ana Mendieta, León Ferrari, Mira Schendel, Stan VanDerBeek, Wallace Berman, and the designated social-issues tag team of Nancy Spero and Leon Golub (it really is okay to show one without the other), to pick a baker’s dozen — feel isolated and forlorn. There is no connective tissue, none of the visual/thematic magnetism so evident in, say, the Museum of Modern Art’s recently concluded foray into the world of Robert Rauschenberg — an exhibition covering roughly the same period of time — that would draw you from one piece to the next or spin you around the room.
Interestingly, there are two works that succeed on distinctly different terms: the standard set by Rosalind Krauss in “LeWitt in Progress,” and the expectations aroused by the show’s title and even more pungent subtitle.
In her essay, Krauss states that LeWitt’s generational cohort viewed “a false and pious rationality [to be] the enemy of art,” and defines LeWitt’s “irrationality” in terms of his congenital inability to adhere to modes of logic in the formulation of his conceptual works:
His math is far too simple; his solutions are far too inelegant; the formal conditions of his work are far too scattered and obsessional […].
LeWitt’s offerings in this show don’t come close to “break[ing] out of the whole idea of rationality,” at least in terms of the visual evidence presented here. With all due respect to curatorial intent, I didn’t notice, as I studied “13/3,” the extent to which the shadows cast by the legs of the white balsa wood cubes “multipl[ied] and disarrange[d] the modules.” My attention was instead absorbed by the light glistening off the sculpture’s surface, the fierce repetition of the cubes, and the sublimity, even nobility, of their three-peaked structure.
The piece that is defined by a “far too simple” use of math, rife with inelegant solutions and scattered, obsessional formal conditions, is Alfred Jensen’s “Beginning Study for Changes and Communication” (1978). In this imposing, vertical oil painting, the words “Changes and Communication” are emblazoned at the very top of the canvas in black script on a white field, while the rest of the composition is taken up by multi-colored, zigzagging grids whose cells are jammed with numbers that increase by a count of two from the center out.
The wall label informs us that the painting’s concatenation of 16 grids “serves as a cosmic calculator of sorts, obsessively repeating a series of precise numerical progressions” in which an “underlying program based on odd and even numbers controls the reversal of color.” And yet Jensen’s rules need not be apparent to the viewer for the painting to pack a wallop. The numbering system evokes the runaway sequencing of a computer virus while the composition takes on the homeyness of a warm, quilted blanket, a disorienting sensation to say the least.
The painting’s odd numbering system may fall short of bumping up against the limits of reason, but it certainly lies outside the precincts of a “a false and pious rationality,” given that Jensen’s dazzling grid feels less like an ordering device and more like an instrument of aggression. If anything, it is the perfect encapsulation of the Greek-derived term “aporia,” or internal contradiction, which Krauss deploys to sum up LeWitt’s practice: “Aporia is a far more legitimate model for LeWitt’s art than Mind, if only because aporia is a dilemma rather than a thing.”
A “dilemma rather than a thing” is also a perfect description of Anna Maria Maiolino’s Super-8 film (transferred to digital video), In-Out Anthropophagy (In-Out antropofagia) from the series Photopoemaction (Fotopoemação) (1973-74). Anthropophagy is a term for cannibalism adopted by the Brazilian Dadaist/Constructivist movement of the 1920s, Movimento Antropofagia, which the Met’s wall label fails to point out. Based on the hybridization of cultures, the cannibalistic metaphor is used to imply the ingestion of the Other.
Cordoned off in its own darkened room, so that it isn’t defused by the competing agendas of the other works in the show, In-Out Anthropophagy is a succession of shots centered on smiling, grimacing, jeering mouths — one adorned with black lipstick, another wreathed in cigarette smoke, and yet another sucking in and spewing out various lengths of string — while a musique concrete soundtrack quietly worms its way under your skin.
A photo of the string-stuffed mouth is the poster image of the show, positioning the film as the proper (if misleading) standard-bearer of the exhibition’s alleged deliriousness, and it is indeed the one work in which you can lose yourself, allow your mind to go blank as its absurdist images play over you. You may not know exactly what you feel when you reach the end (the repetitious motifs are as hypnotic as the variations in image and expression are disruptive) but you will undoubtedly feel as if you were taken somewhere you didn’t expect to go.
Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason continues at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 14, 2018.