Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawings Devour The Viewer

A retrospective at the Addison Gallery near Boston reaffirms his leading role

IN the late 1960s, Sol LeWitt made his mark in the art world with his spare and platonic Module Unit sculptures. Twenty-five years later the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., is celebrating this international artist for other kinds of marks, the ones made on walls.

This stately treasure of a museum a half hour north of Boston is generously housing a sprawling retrospective "Sol LeWitt: Twenty-five Years of Wall Drawings, 1968-1993." It is an expansive visual experience curated on a grand scale, the sort of progressive exhibition rarely attempted outside a major art center.

The truth is that Mr. LeWitt is neither sculptor nor painter, but a conceptual artist.

Two and a half decades ago he helped pioneer a movement that radically changed the face of art. It was the final triumph of the Modernist art revolution that began in the early years of this century, and it challenged and toppled some of the best-established conventions about what art was. The most cherished of these was the notion of the artist as craftsman, and of art as a physical product industriously toiled over by the artist.

Conceptual artists, however, shared a more philosophical and less tangible conviction about the creative gift. They asserted that it was an original experience that flowered in the artist's imagination, and that was where art "happened."

LeWitt clearly stated in 1967, and the quote is repeated in the catalog essay: "In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair."

As the result of this kind of priority and focus, teams of assistants, and not LeWitt, take to ladders and scaffolds with ink-soaked rag or chalk in hand to realize his vision. LeWitt's color notations and dimensions are translated into floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall paintings and drawings that transform the space into an experience-in-the-round.

While wall painting is the most ancient of practices, from cave paintings and Italian frescoes to Works Progress Administration murals, many people credit LeWitt with revitalizing and reclaiming this territory for his own, forging it into a modern idiom.

What is so immediately impressive about this exhibition is the way in which the work exists directly on the large museum walls, devouring the viewer within an odyssey of endless spatial manipulation, formal invention, rich color dialogue, jarring disorientation, and soaring geometry.

From skylit gallery to skylit gallery, all the forces of formalist Abstraction are at play, laid out like an amusement park inviting us to just get on and ride. It is that pure and simple.

As instrumental as his Modular Unit sculptures were in guaranteeing LeWitt recognition as an artist 25 years ago, it is the wall drawings that command attention today. The sculpture is structural and geometric; framework cubes arranged to form larger shapes, initiating a shockwave of echoing rectilinear patterns.

Even though LeWitt has been doing the wall drawings for almost the same length of time, and although they share similar formal concerns, their basic nature makes them less permanently visible. Since these works are painted or drawn directly on the wall, they are "temporary," and act as an installation that will be painted over when the exhibition ends.

This impermanence lends bite to the conceptual claims of the work, and some poetry as well, in a gesture of nonmaterialism that suggests an experience of performance and "happening."

Oddly enough, any problems we might find with this artist's work are suggested by the exhibition itself.

The museum elected to hang its American masterpieces in the main upper gallery, at the heart of a confluence of adjoining spaces devoted entirely to LeWitt. Then it crowned this installation-within-an-installation with a LeWitt "drawing" in the vaulted ceiling enclosing the skylight overhead. The result is a highly unusual juxtaposition.

It seems unfair that we're invited to look at Sol LeWitt in the light of Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, and Edward Hopper, and vice versa.

These painters share a dusty art-historical stage beneath LeWitt's crisp modernist umbrella; they band together to represent a commitment to art, nature, and their craft. What these artists painted was rooted in the very act of seeing, and making a connection with what they saw.

Next to these masters LeWitt naturally seems out of reach, more the architect, the inventor of perceptual experience. He does not touch his work, and so his touch is not in it.

LeWitt has created an art cut off from the intuitive and emotional possibilities that arise in the making, just as it is uncompromised by associations or references to things outside itself.

INSTEAD it is an opportunity to freely engage in a dynamic aesthetic experience based on pure form - the interaction of line, color, and shape. It is no-baggage and travel-light art; the ultimate expression of modern art's prime directive: art for art's sake. It would be pointless to pretend that the opposition created by the proximity of these two antithetical bodies of work were not at issue here. Even if it were not acknowledged, it would at least be implied. The juxtaposition impacts on both the old and newer work. In the end, this comparison makes this entire exhibit that much more fascinating.

What we get from all of this is a sense of history. How will conceptual art fare in the long view? Will it be a footnote, an aberration, or a watershed?

Will Sol LeWitt be seen as a father of '80s corporate-art careerism, or one of the principal architects of a true and brilliant vision?

After 25 years, the Addison Gallery of American Art is giving us a chance to take a another look.

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