Sol LeWitt at PaceWildenstein and Kate Shephard at Galerie Lelong
Sol LeWitt: Structures 1962-2003
PaceWildenstein until March 27
32 East 57th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues, 212-421-3292
PaceWildenstein until April 17
534 West 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-929-7000
Kate Shepherd: Wall, Floor, Rocky Crag
Galerie Lelong until March 20 (528 West 26th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-315-0470).
Early in his career, Sol LeWitt coined the phrase “art that’s smart enough to be dumb.” But later, as he turned increasingly towards sumptuously chromatic wall drawings, he spoke of wanting to make something he’d be proud to show Giotto. From iconoclast to mural painter: the story of an American avant-gardist.
The “structures” are among his most hermetic works. An at once packed and airy installation of around 50 of them at PaceWildenstein’s Chelsea gallery surveys a period of four decades.
Mr. Lewitt’s seminal 1960s statement, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” seemed to define the triumph of idea over thing. More properly, however, his own work still belongs with minimal art, the last modern movement rather than the first postmodern one. For it was conceptualism, which followed minimalism, that dispensed with reification (the actual making of things) and truly moved art into another paradigm.
Another way of looking at this is that, if Modern art was one grand, inevitable journey towards lightness of being, conceptual art was the tunnel at the end of the light.
Mr. LeWitt’s objects are generally more cerebral seeming than his murals, but both proceed from similar minimal premises. In his “primary structures,” the cold, serial, affectless, constructions based on overtly banal math, Mr. LeWitt took reduction to a seeming point of no return – “boring enough to be interesting,” in Donald Judd’s phrase.
Take a work like “1 2 3” (1978), which places in sequence three adjoined open-form squares in painted aluminum: the first is a single cube, a few inches square; the second is made up of four cubes the size of this first one, squared;the third is nine cubes squared. In other pieces, slightly more complex sequences offer structures of marginally more elaborate density. There’s a vicarious aesthetic distraction of sorts in the build-up of scaffold seen from different angles, but that never quite seems the main purpose of the work.
The actual fabrication of such an object is intentionally cold to the point of seeming, ultimately, optional. That said, how interesting it is to see some of Mr. LeWitt’s earliest pieces, before he started working through assistants and fabricators. The handmade quality, however banal, lends an aura to these initial efforts. It becomes clear that reduction itself is more properly the “work” than the actual object; yet here they are, things in the world – indeed, in an art gallery.
In works mercifully absent from this show, LeWitt wrote mind-numbingly tedious instructions about how a drawing or a structure should be made, a radical iconoclastic gesture aimed at demystifying art for the counter-culture generation. But if the mystery of art had nothing to do with its making, it was still there, for Mr. LeWitt: “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot match”, he wrote at the time. This sentence is aptly quoted by art critic Dave Hickey (the Vasari of the vacuous), as the epigraph to his catalog introduction, which makes a joyous, mystifying leap of its own – from Sol LeWitt to the superrationalism of Thomas Jefferson’s Federal Land Ordinance of 1785.
What would happen if you took Mr. LeWitt’s severity and bent for reduction but added humor, skill, color sense, and perceptual observation? The answer, one block away at Galerie Lelong, is Kate Shepherd.
Of course, any partisan of minimal art will find this a philistine assertion with more holes in it than a LeWitt structure: If reduction is the point, how can you then add to it? But generations of artists, arriving at the scene awed by minimal art’s *non plus ultra* reduction but wanting to make their mark and move art forward have had to live with this paradox. And minimalism didn’t invent coolness, spareness, or economy: These virtues are to be found in great art of a minimal bent from neolithic carvings through Ellsworth Kelly.
Ms. Shepherd is in many ways a very traditional painter: She trained at the New York Academy and has a virtuoso beaux-arts draughtsmanly handling to show for it. Her typical work brings together a Kelly-like arrangement of several panels, but she paints them in a luxurious gloss and in closely related hues of sumptuous color that would be out of place in the older abstractionist. Upon this ground, she draws grids in a hand of exquisite poise, taking her structures from the observed world of parquet flooring, tile work, marquetry, and architectural detail.
There is something of the humanly tempered in the rational severity of Ms. Shepherd’s line that recalls Ruskin’s observation, that “All beautiful lines are drawn under mathematical laws organically transgressed.” Like the errors intentionally introduced by Islamic carpet-weavers as an act of devotional humility, the quirks she makes (or tolerates) animate her otherwise cool perfectionism. More than the artful misregistering of linear design to colored panel, these errors tenderize the tough meat of the artist’s minimalism.
Ms. Shepherd is a post-minimalist, reconnecting the most severely iconoclastic movement to the fine art values it eschewed but absorbing the aesthetic virtues of its efforts to do so. In addition to six new paintings of remarkable diversity (considering her pared down and silky sealed language), she has created an installation of her drawings in a separate gallery, set against trompe l’oeil “wallpaper” stenciled onto the wall-.a pretentious but harmless flourish that doesn’t unduly mar the exhibition.
If Mr. LeWitt is the early renaissance of minimalism, Ms. Shepherd is surely its mannerism, and yet I suspect Giotto would feel more at home with Ms. Shepherd’s art than Mr. LeWitt’s.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, March 4, 2004