A Beauty Really Bare

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Does the ancient puritan connection between virtue and boredom still run beneath the glitzy, pleasure-roiled surface of American culture? For the answer, go and visit the retrospective of Sol LeWitt, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City until Feb. 25. It will dispel your doubts, without necessarily offering you lots in the way of superior pleasure. The Puritans, as descendants of the men who tried to destroy the whole legacy of English medieval art, exalted the Word and the Idea and distrusted the visual icon. It was blasphemy to represent the face of God, idolatry to gaze on any likeness of his saints and angels, loathsome vanity to employ the arts for sensuous gratification. Hence the legendary discomfort of early Massachusetts furniture-and the almost total absence of any kind of figurative painting, other than the "shades," or family likenesses, that were needed for dynastic memory.

This strain of Puritan denial of the graven image seems never to have quite vanished from American art. But how can you create a way of painting that is devoid, or at least as short as possible, of the delicious pleasures of light, shade, drama, color and suggestive texture-not to mention the primal infantile pleasure of smearing colored mud around on a virginal surface-associated with making a picture? The piety of this search, seen as an act of exemplary denial, is the ghost that haunts the machine of American abstraction-and the emotionless grids of LeWitt's work in particular. Not all abstraction, of course, some of which (most famously, Abstract Expressionism) is as lush as Fred-eric Church's skies or Marilyn Monroe's cleavage. But enough of it to make up a distinct subspecies of American abstraction, the big effusion of which came to be known, in the 1960s, as Minimal Art.

The austerities of Minimalism were taken to be the drastic and morally bracing purge needed after the increasingly routine, splish-splosh indulgences of the would-be heirs of de Kooning, Pollock et al. One thing that late AbEx clearly showed was that nothing is easier to feign than the marks of intense emotional feeling. Those marks too become conventional signs, like the rococo trills of an energetically dying diva. You may enjoy them, but not as unmediated passion.

So, the Minimalists asked, what about an art in which "feeling"-other than the feelings of boredom and of nagging guilt at being bored-was, if not quite eradicated, at least not paramount? Wouldn't that be more honest? An art that, like Euclid in Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem, proposed to look "on Beauty bare"-in the utterly plebeian form of stacked cinder blocks, logs of Styrofoam on the gallery floor, industrial scrap, identical stripes without end or even just arrays of numbered cells on sheets of paper. Wouldn't this surpass the "bourgeois" desire for art as rare commodity and democratize the whole artmaking process (since, in some cases, almost anyone furnished with the right instructions could copy a simple piece and thus share an "unownable" idea rather than merely committing the sin of plagiarism)?

The answer to such questions turned out to hover somewhere between "Maybe" and "Uh, no." The lesson of the past three decades, since Minimalism hove on the horizon (soon to be followed by Conceptual Art, which even got rid of the cinder blocks and left only a residue of words), is that in art people love rarity, singularity, fully realized handcraft, fine materials and interesting content-the last not to be confused with mere storytelling. To most of them a pile of bricks à la Carl Andre is just that, a pile of bricks, and nothing, especially nothing written in the strained jargon of "modularity," "sequentiality" and "factuality" favored by critics in art magazines, is going to lift it into the same category of experience as a marble carving or a bronze.

Still less is the austerity of a Minimalist work going to be seen as an affirmation of virtue, like a hair shirt on a saint. Rightly or wrongly, it is more likely to be seen as the Emperor's new clothes-a lack, a way of frustrating expectations with arid polemics about the arguable limits and nature of art itself. Between (say) the bricks, the cinder blocks and the parallel stripes on one hand and (say) the gilded statue of General Sherman on horseback at the corner of Central Park by Augustus Saint-Gaudens on the other, a vast gulf of experience is fixed. Even if viewers twig that the artist has generous and even noble intentions, it is idle to suppose that anything will persuade them that the stripes come within a mile of the Sherman, let alone have some evolutionary edge over it merely because they appear 70 years farther down the history of art. For though art changes, it does not evolve.

Which brings us to Sol LeWitt at the Whitney. There is no doubt of the probity and generosity of this artist, born in 1928 to Jewish immigrant parents and trained at Syracuse University and at New York's School of Visual Arts, with an additional background of architectural drafting in the offices of I.M. Pei. Every one of the seven essays in the show's thick catalog pays effusive tribute to the sum of LeWitt's virtues, his "openness" and his "honesty," his recoil from the cult of "heroic" personality and his generous encouragement of a score of his contemporaries, from the sculptor Eva Hesse to the critic Lucy Lippard. Selfless, sober, rational, public spirited-what, one is frivolously tempted

to wonder, is such a paragon doing in the Whitney, an institution more noted in the '90s for staging tributes to delinquent cult figures like the late Robert Mapplethorpe and the equally late and even more overpraised Jean-Michel Basquiat? Not even the most obsessed Christian Fundamentalist could find much to burn in LeWitt, except a few tufts of pubic hair in some of the early serial closeups of nudes, done in homage to the sequential-motion studies of the 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and about as erotic.

Actually, Muybridge's influence is a useful clue to LeWitt's intentions. Those photo strips of humans, horses and birds moving in space, their movement chopped into small progressive stages, are the direct ancestors (with cubes or grids substituted for the live subjects) of structures like LeWitt's Incomplete Open Cubes, 1974, which squeezes more variations out of a six-sided figure than you might have thought possible. And yet this solemn undertaking has more the air of a stubborn exercise than an imaginative act. Indeed, there are times when, as in The Location of a Line, 1975 (in the catalog but not included in the Whitney incarnation of the show), the written instructions sound like a mad, pedantic maths teacher droning himself and everyone else within range into a coma. Compared with this boilerplate, Euclid reads like Mickey Spillane.

More engaging, because more romantic and genuinely beautiful, are the big accretions of small, white, open cubes, which look like the Platonic idea of ziggurats or ideal cities and recall LeWitt's interest in real-world architecture. Most of the mural-size "wall drawings" on display are fairly inert; their main characteristic is a sort of soothing, high-minded laboriousness that stands in for energy of conception. Still, their depiction of colored solids often has the decorative charm of the geometrical illustrations in old emblem books, and the color, saturated and speckled, is a big step up from the normally posterish hues, alternating between bland and blatant, of LeWitt's earlier work.

But does all this add up to a major and sacrosanct achievement, as the art historians who have compiled the catalog so vehemently claim? To feel so, you would need to think that ideas about art equal art.