LeWitt's 'Brushstrokes' is free and painterly.
Those unfamiliar with Sol LeWitt have an unusual opportunity to get to know him as both artist and collector in side-by-side shows running at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art through Jan. 14. 'LeWitt x 2' encompasses 'Sol LeWitt: Structure and Line' and 'Selections from the LeWitt Collection,' illuminating two aspects of this influential figure in contemporary art.
Now 78, LeWitt is associated with the post-World War II art movements of minimalism and conceptualism. But don't let those dry-sounding terms scare you off. The paradox of LeWitt's art is that it can be intellectually rigorous yet easily readable, with its familiar geometric forms. The austere and the sensual intermingle in his work.
'Structure and Line' spans over 40 years of LeWitt's career, from the mid-1960s to the present. In his younger days, LeWitt and his friends shrugged off the freewheeling approach of Abstract Expressionism for something they hoped would be more stripped down and elemental. The earliest work on view is a 1965 wall-mounted sculpture ' or 'structure' in LeWitt's preferred parlance ' with the typically prosaic title 'Modular Wall Piece With Cube.' It's an open, lattice-like structure, and the open cube form recurs throughout LeWitt's work.
Yet as the years have progressed, LeWitt has become more open to color and irregular lines. As visitors first step into the galleries, the 1965 sculpture faces off with a 2006 drawing created just for MMoCA, one of the artist's famed 'wall drawings,' which is exactly what it sounds like ' the drawing is created directly on the surface of the gallery wall.
The MMoCA wall drawing, like most others, has been done by assistants following LeWitt's specifications. What appears to be a frenzy of scribbles quickly reveals a certain rhythm ' logic, even ' in the way lines of pencil loop, intertwine, build up and lose density. Although one longs to reach out and touch the smudgy, smoky graphite, the drawing is protected by a coating, at least for now. When the exhibition closes, the drawing will be painted over. The wall drawing plays with notions of chaos, order and impermanence.
While LeWitt's earlier works generally seem truer to the conceptual approach of clearly and dispassionately setting up a plan and then executing it, his later, looser work has more instant appeal. A standout in this section of the show is 1999's 'Irregular Grid,' a large gouache painting on paper. (Gouache is similar to watercolor but includes a chalky or whitish element in the paint, making the results more opaque.) More than five feet on each side, it's an eye-popping jolt of thick, squiggly red lines on a yellow ground. The pattern made by the lines resembles a maze or a circuit board, and it's surprisingly engrossing.
LeWitt's other works around this time include the 'Horizontal Lines' and 'Brushstrokes' paintings ' thick, wavy bands of color, again in gouache on paper. While still working from a concept or system, LeWitt has opened himself up to something more free and painterly.
After viewers pass through the 40-plus LeWitts on dis- play in 'Structure and Line' ' all pieces from LeWitt's holdings of his own work ' they are greeted by 'Selections From the LeWitt Collection,' taken from the massive collection owned by the artist and his wife, Carol Androccio LeWitt.
Although the couple's collection spans many eras, the selection here highlights the period concurrent with LeWitt's own art-making. While it's not meant to be a comprehensive survey of the last 40 years of modern art, it's wide-ranging and beguiling. Even those who may not be drawn in by LeWitt's own work will find something to love in his collection.
Photography in particular stands out. Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs lush, ornate old movie palaces in crisp black and white, allowing for a long exposure time so that the film screen doesn't show any particular frame, but rather glows a ghostly white. No moviegoers are visible in the seats, and the light from the screen helps illuminate architectural details in the otherwise dark movie houses. The effect is eerie, rich and beautiful, particularly in the Chinese-style 'Fifth Avenue Theatre, Seattle' of 1997.
Although they are represented by nature photographs, Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and Thomas Joshua Cooper share Sugimoto's ability to invest places with mysterious, almost mystical qualities. The inky darkness and strange pull of Cooper's small photos make them worlds apart from the mundane, isn't-this-pretty? approach to nature photography.
The Iranian artist Shirin Neshat is represented by a large black-and-white still from her 2000 film 'Fervor.' She depicts a Muslim gathering in which men and robed women are separated by a black curtain. The attendees seem unaware of (or are ignoring) the camera's presence, offering the viewer an intriguing tapestry of candid faces and gestures.
But there is much more to Sol and Carol LeWitt's collection than photography, as good as that sampling is. Included is a 10-inch cube by the German-born Eva Hesse, with whom LeWitt shared a close friendship until her death in 1970. Unlike LeWitt's open cubes, defined only by the edges where their planes meet, Hesse's cube is dense and a little foreboding. It's made of perforated, galvanized steel; black rubber tubing is carefully threaded through the openings. The ends of the tubes reach into the interior of the cube like tiny tentacles.
Hans Haacke offers yet another take on the cube ' one of LeWitt's quintessential forms ' in 'Condensation Cube' from 1963-65. A clear Plexiglas cube has a small amount of water sealed inside, and, depending on the conditions where the box is displayed, the condensation inside reacts differently. Haacke bridges the gap between the artificial, manmade object and the organic.
Other high points include Juan Munoz's strangely compelling, cast-bronze 'Double Lamp,' Gene Beery's witty 1961 painting 'Out of Style' ('Sorry/this painting/temporarily/out of style/closed/for updating/watch for/aesthetic reopening') and a surprisingly sensual Donald Judd in crimson-painted steel.
While LeWitt has pursued a steady vision throughout the decades, his taste as a collector is clearly not narrow. There are some clunkers in 'Selections from the LeWitt Collection' (for example, a typed conceptual piece by Dan Graham, 'Exclusion Principal,' comes off as trite self-absorption masquerading as profundity). As a whole, however, the show is genuinely exciting in its variety and has the kind of unpredictable, catch-all feel that I enjoy in the museum's signature 'Wisconsin Triennial' exhibitions. It's unreasonable to expect to like everything, but there is plenty here from both big names and less-familiar artists to leave one energized.
The man with a plan
The 'LeWitt x 2' double exhibition was organized by Dean Swanson in concert with the staff of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. An independent curator and art consultant who lives in Minneapolis, Swanson was Walker Art Center's chief curator from 1968 to 1978 and later director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art. A full'color, 80'page exhibition catalog for 'LeWitt x 2' includes essays by Swanson and Martin Friedman, retired director of Walker Art Center.
'There's never been a Sol LeWitt show in Madison, so it makes sense to do both side by side,' says Swanson of showcasing the artist's work alongside pieces from his collection. With a gleam in his eye, Swanson describes Sol and Carol LeWitt's collection of roughly 10,000 items by 750 artists ' housed in a state'of'the'art storage facility in their small town of Chester, Conn. ' as 'Ali Baba's cave.'
Although the small portion currently on display at MMoCA focuses on the 1960s to the present, the LeWitts own Japanese prints, furniture by De Stijl great Gerrit Rietveld and many other treasures. 'The collection had become so enormous over the years,' Swanson says. 'Some artists are really represented in depth.'
Although some pieces in the collection are purchases or gifts, the lion's share was acquired through Sol LeWitt's trades with other artists. ''Selections from the LeWitt Collection'' is about his connections with people,' Swanson says. 'Most of these artists are his friends. And it isn't necessarily work like his. There's figurative work, work in materials he's never been interested in using, and work by people much younger than himself.'
In the end, it's a portrait of the artist/collector as a member of a larger community and an unflagging supporter of other artists. 'LeWitt is so loved by other artists and so unassuming,' Swanson says. 'He's quietly, modestly benevolent.'
Commenting on the terms 'minimalism' and 'conceptualism' ' art jargon that might repel some museum'goers ' Swanson argues, 'Minimalism is not a term that any artist really used. It's about simplifying what painting has been, and not dealing with imagery at all.' As for conceptualism: 'It's a return to something that wasn't just visual, but an idea that existed before the art was made. It's about process and idea, not imagery: starting out with an idea and verbalizing that, establishing that process, trying it out and seeing what happens.'
While recognizing the changes in LeWitt's work over the decades, Swanson zeroes in on LeWitt's consistency and sustained exploration of form: 'Clarity runs through all his work.'