WILLIAMSTOWN — In the 1950s and ’60s, a rash of American artists revolted against the idea that art should express emotion. They all of a sudden wanted art to be cooler, more detached, more rational and objective.
Some, like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, turned to found objects, photography, and other forms of mechanical reproduction. Others, like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, embraced the aesthetics of machines and industry.
Still others sought refuge in the purity of rational ideas, in systems and seriality. The greatest and most rewarding of these was Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), whose work is the subject of an exhibition at Williams College Museum of Art called “Sol LeWitt: The Well-Tempered Grid.”
Organized by Charles Haxthausen, a professor of art at Williams, the show explores LeWitt’s long obsession with the grid, which he used, writes Haxthausen, as a “generative matrix” of his art. At the same time (although more in the catalog than in the show), Haxthausen examines LeWitt’s affinity with the logic of musical composition, and especially that of J.S. Bach (hence the allusion in the title to Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier”).
It’s a relatively small show, but it contains a surprising variety of work made over half a century. There are sculptures on floors, walls, and plinths, drawings, prints, wall drawings, furniture, paintings, photographs, models, diagrams, and artist’s books. We trace the development of LeWitt’s work from early, clumsy-looking paintings that riff on the sequential photographs of humans in motion by Eadweard Muybridge (Muybridge presented his photographs in the format of a grid) to grids in two and three dimensions that grow in complexity according to all kinds of intriguing logic.
Ideally, you should go from seeing this show to the retrospective of wall drawings that stretches over three floors at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in nearby North Adams. Even if you’ve already seen that astonishing installation before (I have walked through it more than a dozen times since it opened in 2008), you’ll see it with fresh eyes after “The Well-Tempered Grid.”
The timing of the turn away from the subjective in art is fascinating. On the one hand, society was about to enter a state of unprecedented upheaval. It would be an era of high passions, of radical — and radically indulged — subjectivity, with liberating but anarchic consequences. A counterreaction in art toward something cooler, steadier, more emotionally detached might therefore begin to make sense.
But on the other hand, if the 20th century had taught humanity anything about itself, it was surely that the application of unbending logic, and blindly following orders, could result in astounding barbarity. Trench warfare, gas chambers, suicide pilots, “mutually assured destruction” — there was apparently no limit to the carnage that an idea, logically executed, could unleash.
Why, then, were artists so eager to cultivate an art that sounded so willfully inhuman? Why did LeWitt talk so blithely of “letting the system do the work”? Why did he seem so happy to emphasize that “once the idea is established in the artist’s mind . . . the process is carried out blindly”? And why did he choose, most famously, to insist that “the idea is the machine that makes the work”?
Wasn’t this a strange — and, given recent history, strangely timed — rebuke to the suspicion of ideas and abstractions that had once held sway over American art and poetry (summed up in William Carlos Williams’s “No ideas but in things”)?
In histories of postwar art, the cool, detached art of the minimalists and pop artists is usually explained as a reaction to the romantic mythology of the Abstract Expressionists — artists like Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko.
Which is fine as far as it goes. But something wider was going on. Artists, like everyone else, were looking for a bulwark against encroaching chaos. They found it not only in industry, science, and the logic of mathematics, but also in the art of the past. There was in the ’60s, most notably, a renewed interest in the remote classicism of Piero della Francesca. Piero met a craving, as Bernard Berenson put it, “for the inexpressive, the ungrimacing, the ungesticulating; for freedom from posing and attitudinizing.” Posing and attitudinizing, it suddenly seemed, were a real danger.
Art historian Kenneth Clark saw Piero as an antidote to “the frenzied and fitful character of modern painting.” And Philip Guston wrote: “Without our familiar passions, [Piero] is like a visitor to the earth, reflecting on distances, gravity, and positions of essential form.”
As for LeWitt, some of his earliest extant drawings, made in 1958, are studies of Piero’s frescoes at Arezzo. “When I made these drawings I had reached a low point of my art-life,” he said. “Piero appealed to me for his sense of order.”
These drawings are not included here. But what I hadn’t considered before this show was the susceptibility of artists in the ’60s to another genius of remoteness, another investigator of essential forms, and an enemy of posing and attitudinizing: J.S. Bach.
Now that I have, LeWitt (and this is surely the mark of an important show) makes sense to me in ways he never did before. If Haxthausen hasn’t exactly discovered a key to LeWitt’s work (many people — not least the artist himself — have made the connection between his creative methods and musical composition) he may be the first to pick up that key and actually unlock a door with it.
In what way were LeWitt’s methods similar to a composer’s?
When most people make the connection, as Haxthausen notes, they talk about the wall drawings. The wall drawings derive from written instructions that are subsequently executed on walls by other people. The analogy with musicians performing a composer’s score is obvious.
LeWitt enjoyed the fact that his wall drawings required the involvement of other people (as LeWitt scholar Veronica Roberts emphasized in a recent lecture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts). He relished the fact that each version of a wall drawing was bound to be in some way different from the last, and that the “performance” of his wall drawings could take place in multiple places and would continue after his death.
But it goes deeper. LeWitt relished the tension between the ideas that generated his art (which tended to be simple expressions of permutations applied to geometry and color) and the visible manifestation of those ideas. The source of that tension is that, while the idea behind a work can often be sensed, it is not always possible to see, or fully grasp.
Exactly the same holds for the music of Bach. You may know, if you have been told, that his “Well-Tempered Clavier” is divided into two books, each made up of 24 preludes and fugues, arranged in pairs progressing in an ascending scale through every possible key, from C major to B minor. But how many of us could grasp all this and explain it to others just by listening to it?
It’s the same with much of LeWitt’s work: A lot of the time, although the work is the logical outcome of a given set of rules, those rules cannot be grasped simply by looking at it. Only after you have read the instructions, or looked at one of LeWitt’s diagrams parsing the work, does it fully make sense. And yet even without the benefit of having it all unpacked in this way, it’s possible to grasp the presence of an idea, a structure, and the beauty of its manifestation just as it is in Bach.
LeWitt once quoted Charles Ives approvingly: “Who said music had anything to do with sound?” It’s the same in his art (and in art generally): What is invisible, and even what is difficult cognitively to grasp, can wield enormous power.
The key here, as Haxthausen writes in a very satisfying catalog essay, may be the idea of “invention.” Bach, of course, used the word in some of his titles (“Two Part Inventions,” “Three Part Inventions”). Musicologist Laurence Dreyfus describes the “invention” as more than just a thematic idea: It is an actual mechanism for discovering ideas and triggering elaborations.
So this is what LeWitt meant when he talked about the idea as a “machine that makes the work.” What this show is really about is how the grid was, for LeWitt, the “invention,” the mechanism for triggering a veritable cascade of variations and elaborations.
As always with LeWitt, what comes as a surprise is how hypnotic, engaging, and witty his work can be. I loved, as an example of the latter, a gridded sheet of paper titled “A Square for Each Day of the Seventies,” and dated 1980: It is eight tiny squares short of a perfect square. I enjoyed, too, the play of shadow created by his various cubic sculptures, and I was mesmerized by the many drawings and prints that build up gossamer networks of cross-hatched lines, always according to LeWitt’s implacable logic.
It’s hard not to pick up on a pedagogical streak in LeWitt’s work — a teacher’s delight in building patiently on first principles, taking art from simplicity to complexity, and taking the rest of us along for the ride — or as far as we are able. (It’s surely no coincidence that the most famous book of art pedagogy, John Ruskin’s 19th-century “The Elements of Drawing,” begins by setting a task that involves creating, by means of cross-hatching, a consistent field of tone in a square. Very LeWitt.)
What I found myself querying was the notion that — as Haxthausen puts it, and as the wall text in a nearby, related exhibition about the grid in art reiterates — the grid is a “neutral framework.” The grid is not, of course, as neutral as we like to think. It exists nowhere in nature. Instead, it has a track record as an incredibly potent framework — an “invention,” you might say — for the human domination of nature (and of fellow humans).
LeWitt, I don’t believe, thought about it in this way. But since his work expresses in some way a dream of purity, it is occasionally worth slapping ourselves awake from that dream, lest it take us where we don’t want to go.
In the end, this intelligent and thought-provoking show reminds us, if nothing else, that the idea that art should aspire to the condition of music, as Walter Pater put it in the 19th century, inspired artists well into the second half of the 20th — and it still does.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.