LeWitt’s Retrospective: Did He Want to Bore Us?

About the Sol LeWitt retrospective, which was organized by

the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and has now come to the Whitney Museum

of American Art, the first thing to consider is the artist’s credo. For Mr.

LeWitt has never been shy about making his intentions explicit. The

bibliography of his writings and publications on this subject is, indeed, one

of the most extensive in recent history. While other hands have frequently been

enlisted to execute his paintings and drawings, it is in his writings that we

come closest to hearing the artist’s own voice-the voice of a Minimalist who

found in the operational strategies of Conceptual art a perfect vehicle for the

creation of a copious production.

Here, then, is a paragraph from one of Mr. LeWitt’s key

texts, his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” first published in Artforum in 1967: “I will refer to the

kind of art in which I am involved as conceptual art. In conceptual art the idea

or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a

conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are

made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a

machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative

of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes

and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of

the artist as a craftsman. It is the objective of the artist who is concerned

with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and

therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry. There is no

reason to suppose, however, that the conceptual artist is out to bore the

viewer. It is only the expectation of an emotional kick, to which one

conditioned to expressionist art is accustomed, that would deter the viewer

from perceiving this art.”

To which should be added the following passage from the same

text: “To work with a plan that is pre-set is one way of avoiding subjectivity.

It also obviates the necessity of designing each work in turn. The plan would

design the work.”

For its current incarnation of the LeWitt retrospective, the

Whitney has supplied a text of its own, from which I shall quote only a single

sentence: “A key figure in the development of Conceptual art in [the 1960's],

LeWitt belongs to a generation of artists who, in their search for new

directions, found little promise in the hothouse emotionalism of the highly

venerated Abstract Expressionists of the New York School.”

Now you may not have thought of the paintings of Mark Rothko

or Willem de Kooning or even Jackson Pollock-never mind those of Ad Reinhardt

or Barnett Newman-as examples of “hothouse emotionalism.” And if, when you

visit the LeWitt retrospective, you take a look at the examples of Abstract

Expressionist painting from the Whitney’s own collection that are also on view

at the moment, you will find little to support this theory of “hothouse

emotionalism.” But never mind. This is what passes for deep thought at the

Whitney these days, and it is only meant to persuade us that Sol LeWitt has

never been guilty of such dreaded emotionalism, hothouse or otherwise. On this

point I am easily persuaded.

On another subject,

however-Mr. LeWitt’s claim that there is no reason to suppose “that the

conceptual artist is out to bore the viewer”-something more needs to be said.

For there is an immense quantity of

work in this retrospective-rooms and rooms of it-that this viewer found to be

almost unendurably boring. I am not suggesting that Mr. LeWitt has set out to

bore us, but a large measure of boredom is built into his depersonalized

method. When “the plan” designs “the work” and “the execution is a perfunctory

affair,” then boredom awaits us, whether or not the artist intends it.

It is worth recalling, in this connection, that back in

1967, when Mr. LeWitt published his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” boredom

was, so to speak, a hot issue in the art world. No less an eminence than Susan

Sontag had grandly proclaimed (in Against

Interpretation ) that “There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom.” She

was writing in defense of what she called “the new languages which the

interesting art of our time speaks,” which would then have included Minimalism

and Conceptual art.

It was left to Barbara Rose, however, to offer up the

grandest defense of boredom in art. In a widely read essay called “ABC Art,”

published in Art in America in 1965,

Ms. Rose wrote as follows: “If, on seeing some of the new paintings,

sculptures, dances or films, you are bored, probably you were intended to be.

Boring the public is one way of testing its commitment. The new artists seem to

be extremely chary; approval, they know, is easy to come by in this seller’s

market for culture, but commitment is nearly impossible to elicit. So they make

their art as difficult, remote, aloof and indigestible as possible. One way to

achieve this is to make art boring. Some artists, often the most gifted, finally

end by finding art a bore. It is no coincidence that the last painting Duchamp

made, in 1918, was called Tu m’ . The

title is short for tu m’ennuie -you

bore me.”

As Ms. Rose was then married to Frank Stella, she brought a

special authority to this proposition. It was undoubtedly in response to this

defense of boredom that Mr. LeWitt felt obliged to deny that “the conceptual

artist is out to bore the viewer.”

Still, as the viewer makes his way through this immense

retrospective, he may be persuaded that Mr. LeWitt was indeed one of the

artists who, at a certain point in his development, was “finding art a bore,”

and as a hedge against boredom-the viewer’s, if not his own-began to embrace a

kind of razzle-dazzle brand of color design as a substitute for artistic

thought. So the monkish Minimalism of the 1960′s was soon followed by the

atrociously vulgar color design that now covers so many of the walls of the

Whitney Museum, all of it executed by hired hands. “A perfunctory affair,”

indeed, and it remains on view at the Whitney through Feb. 25