sol le witt by sabine russ

Sol LeWitt: New Structures ACE Gallery

New YorkIn the six rooms of the ACE Gallery New York, which branch off from a long majestic hallway and which evoke imagination of postmodern castle architecture rather than a traditional gallery, Sol LeWitt installed his New Structures. Solidly built out of regularly laid concrete blocks, these structures, despite their enormous dimensions and physical heft, are suffused with a lightness and even a kind of fragility. At first they seem imposing, crowding the space with their sheer massiveness. But gradually their fundamental order becomes clear, an orderliness that is both architecturally sensitive and mathematically exact. Precisely calibrated, their bases repeat the dimensions of the floor, although on a reduced scale. From each square, rectangular, or cross-shaped base, which rise to about waist height, either one, two, four, or 16 pillars stretch upward, pretending to support the ceiling, which, however, they do not. This is an allusion to the sometimes narrow but distinct border between art and architecture, but even more than that, it’s an indication to look behind the physical qualities and characteristics of the structures to their conceptual basis: a possible, but by no means pre-ordained, development of an infinite system within limits imposed on it by the found architecture.

One first enters what seems like a triumphal auditorium or order a big square room with a kind of foundation laid aboveground—the grid, which has long figured in LeWitt’s work—on top of which rise 16 identical towers. Parts of this central structure are quoted in the other rooms and although fragments, as objects and symbols they are completely independent (a challenge that LeWitt with Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes, 1974, accepted to the extreme). One can walk around these concrete objets, perhaps quickening one’s step like someone lost, and increasingly uneasy, in a labyrinth of logic. And what one suspects at first is that this room is inhumanly perfect, it needs no audience, neither does the next one, and the following is also enough, in and of itself. Size, variability, and the multiplying character of the structures seem to dominate the viewer, but then a key role is given to the viewer and the viewer’s perspective. Moving around the structures, one becomes an active part within the geometric system. According to the angle of vision, one can make out countless variations of forms, fluctuating between two- and three-dimensional as he is with the rhythm between volume and emptiness, between statics and kinetics. And while there is something timeless and unchanging about his New Structures, they are vibrant because of these rhythms, and their expansions into the rooms have an element of speed and therefore an element of time. Also, depending on the time of the day, statics and order are overcome by the sunlight that falls through the skylights as well as by the shadows that the structures cast into the room, introducing diagonals that interact with the vertical and horizontal lines of the structures.

LeWitt addresses his words to the mind of the viewer, and less to his or her eye of feelings. Certainly, the physical examination of his work provokes an intellectual one, wherever that might lead in the end. Even so, before one attempts to locate the conceptual stating point of the artist, at first there are experiences of the senses and also emotional ones. Here, although one of the premises of conceptual art is not to draw attention to the materials used, entering the space an intense smell of mortar makes one immediately aware of the raw materials. And even though conceptual work is not out to evoke metaphorical associations (for the structures are supposed to be exactly what they are), a host of associations accumulate around LeWitt’s New Structures, for instance pyramids, medieval castles, and ancient monoliths. While employing traditional (perhaps even ancient) building techniques, his structures don’t mimic age, or the effects of age, but instead are thoroughly new. At the same time, however, they seem like intact contemporary ruins, and as such they pay homage to both decay and construction.

While LeWitt’s structures are undoubtedly beautiful and sublime, even graceful in their austere order, the open secret behind this is the absurd, the megalomaniacal, and the ridiculous. LeWitt often uses the encyclopedic discipline in his serial works to the edge of fanaticism (not without a playful curiosity, though, concerning when the house of cards might collapse), yet his structures here reveal a kind of mercy, a certain hospitality, which, however, shouldn’t be confused with harmony, for they remain edgy and challenging. More immediately restrained by the spaces they inhabit, they are mentally easier to comprehend as a whole than his multiplying grid structures, open cubes, or wall drawings (which often seem to end out of the viewer’s sight, if they end, and which at times threaten to physically overtax the wall).

Within the borders chosen for these works there is no room for chance or accident, yet still it is not logic that triumphs here. There is consistency within the chosen order but there is no final proof. The fortress of reason remains revocable. LeWitt once suggested that the possible contents of his projects involve the idea of error, the idea of infinity, the idea of the subversive. With the help of arithmetic and number sequences (and perhaps also with exuberant laughter) he propels his serial works toward the collapse of the constructed order, and his impeccable systems conceal, but do not eradicate, a sense of impending chaos and wildness. With these temporary monuments LeWitt celebrates neither the rational nor the irrational but their charged, constantly fluctuating crossing.