The exhibition called Logical Conclusions: 40 Years of Rule-Based Art, organized by Marc Glimcher for the PaceWildenstein Galleries, has come and gone, but it has left in its wake an encyclopedic catalog that’s likely to remain a standard work of reference for a long time. In the near term, however, it’s certain to provoke controversy and dismay. Among its many claims on our attention, this remarkable study raises the question of whether the “rule-based” aesthetic that Mr. Glimcher so scrupulously explores in Logical Conclusions represents a significant artistic achievement or something else-the conversion of a modernist imperative into an academic convention.
It’s the nature of academies, after all, to establish rules, and it has been one of the principal functions of modernism to overturn them. What’s the likely outcome, then, when the exponents of modernism embrace one of the fundamental tenets of their traditional adversaries? Answers to this question are more troubling when the rule in question is reduced to little more than the principle of repetition.
Repetition is one of the things that rule-based art is really about. Another thing it’s about is anonymity or the elimination of personality in art. Mr. Glimcher prefers to speak of “axiomatic systems,” but that’s a distinction without a difference: In much of this rule-based art, the only discernible “axiom” is the principle of repetition-as, for example, in Andy Warhol’s Troy Donahue-9 Times (1962).
The epigraph that Mr. Glimcher has affixed to Logical Conclusions is Sol LeWitt’s dictum, “The idea becomes the machine that makes the art,” from his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967). This raises similar questions, for the word “machine” is a poor metaphor for what actually occurs in the execution of Mr. LeWitt’s mural-scale Conceptualist wall decorations. Each of these gigantic abstract mural projects entails the regimentation of whole crews of docile individual talents that can be relied upon to carry out Mr. LeWitt’s orders with an unfailing and expressionless exactitude. What this process resembles is not so much a machine as a lock-step drill. With Mr. LeWitt serving as the generalissimo of the project, a military metaphor might have been more appropriate.
Rule-based art is not itself a style; it’s a stylization of existing styles, which is to say a repackaging of images and procedures already familiar to us. It signifies an impulse that gives codification priority over creativity-an impulse that anticipates, if not creative exhaustion, at least a decline in expectation. This is bad news for the future of modernism, or would be if this kind of art succeeded in expanding its domain, which it may well do in the near future, though in the long term its failure is inevitable. Rule-based art is creatively infertile-a parasite wholly dependent upon artistic initiatives that it’s incapable of creating for itself.
Yet there’s no denying its historical significance, and no denying, either, that it portends an art in which rules are pressed into service as a substitute for imagination. In this respect, the movement that rule-based art most closely resembles is Minimalism, which has similarly exiled itself from the imaginative faculty. Both the Minimalist movement and rule-based art are thus reminders that modernism itself may be entering upon a slow, inexorable slide into Alexandrian parody of itself. There are certainly some signs of such a slide in the many ineptitudes and outrages that have been on display in the now-expanded Museum of Modern Art. Has any other art museum of comparable stature ever had to endure such a negative response from a devoted constituency?
MoMA has responded to the chorus of criticism with a massive advertising campaign, which has attracted the kind of crowds that are more responsive to publicity than to artistic quality or museological probity. It was to be expected, I suppose, that the high excitement and heady subjectivism of the Abstract Expressionists would be followed by a period of emotional retrenchment. This is, indeed, what’s happened, and rule-based art is very much a part of it. If you doubt it, try reading your way through the 188 pages of Logical Conclusions: 40 Years of Rule-Based Art.