Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Sydney has cause to reflect on LeWitt
The death in New York of Sol LeWitt may not figure hugely on many Australian radars. But with our public values more than usually stretched, this very disconnect should prod us awake. Does art, especially public art, still matter? What does public mean, anyway, in art? And what etiquette governs its manners in a time of babel?
LeWitt, regarded as one of the 20th century’s most influential American artists, was a pioneer conceptualist. For him, the idea in a work far outweighed its thingness. Known for his bright, stark geometries, LeWitt pioneered a technique of drawing directly onto gallery walls – which Bernice Rose, the curator of the Museum of Modern Art, called “as important for drawing as Jackson Pollock’s drip technique was for painting”. Sadly, though, since neither wall drawing nor drip technique is encouraged in juveniles, LeWitt’s Sydney work involved neither.
LeWitt’s man in Sydney was Harry Seidler who, being a respectable muralist, made a point of commissioning A-list artists: Le Corbusier, Victor Vasarely and Alexander Calder at Australia Square; Josef Albers and Charles Perry at the MLC Centre; Frank Stella at Grosvenor Place; Lin Utzon at the Capita Centre. LeWitt’s contribution came with the 2003 Australia Square refurbishment: the panelled mural that replaced Corbusier’s fading but still joyous tapestry with the high-chroma potato sticks now visible from the 434 bus.
The question it raises is one that drove and bedevilled the modern century. If art must have meaning (not just beauty) where does that meaning originate? With the artist? The viewer? Or in some magical meeting of the two?
LeWitt was not the only conceptualist, nor the first. But he was one of those who, even as they premiated the idea, insisted on making it inordinately obscure. Other forms of abstraction had given at least a hint of emotion, but midcentury conceptualism gave nothing away. Nothing.
The names didn’t help. LeWitt, cooler than calculus (though less lovely), tagged his impenetrable works with equally impenetrable titles: Four Cubes, X with Columns, and the perennial Untitled. Like Sleeping Beauty, he then encircled his glass coffin with a scratchy thorn belt of aphorisms, justifying the lot by murmuring that “conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They lead to conclusions that logic cannot reach.”
It was a stance much favoured by the great men of modernism. The architect Louis Kahn, who struggled for an architecture of LeWittian abstraction, was equally fond of aphorism’s effect on the young and adoring. Widely revered as architecture’s mystic, Kahn must have been secretly amazed at the cover a mumbled haiku can afford. He managed famously to laud architecture as “a reaching out for a truth” even while running three families, only blocks apart but all under the impression that Dad was just very busy at work. LeWitt’s mystic cloak may have hidden fewer beneath-the-blankets ructions but its cover, if only of virgin hollowness, was no less complete.
The effect of all this mystery was that, while critics like Susan Sontag might rage famously – Against Interpretation – the public had no choice. It was interpret or nothing. You brought your ideas or you went home happy that the blank canvas, pile of bricks or bucket of pee was the idea. The Renaissance had Caravaggio; we had pee in plastic buckets. That’s fair.
The 20th century changed how we see art, and what we expect of it, perhaps forever. After Duchamp’s Fountain urinal of 1917, that was it. Suddenly, anything was art – which was Duchamp’s point. By the same token, nothing was. A Camel billboard, a tape-bound construction site, a rotting apple; that art was all around meant, in a sense, it ceased to be possible. Even the fabulous velvet rust of a clanking Richard Serra offers little that you couldn’t find, better, in a working shipyard. Then came Warhol, with his flaky I’m-just-in-it-for-the-money vainglory.
The upshot, though, is that we, the art public, are no longer satisfied with innocence. We no longer want someone who can simply paint like an angel. Chances are a Caravaggio, working now, would end up in some third-rate suburban showroom. We expect message; need it even. But the big text of a Rosalind Krauss or Geoffrey Smart no longer moves us.
What does? Around Sydney, it’s usually the works with loose animate suggestions. Kan Yasuda’s 20-tonne marble Touchstones at Aurora Place, whispering fertilely of seeds, eggs, testicles; Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley’s Edge of the Trees, a diagram fleshed with forest voices; Albers’s MLC Centre mural, relying wholly on its title, Wrestling, to send its interlocked prisms into life-or-death struggle.
When no organic reading is offered – as in Bert Flugelman’s Pitt Street Shish Kebab or Ken Unsworth’s Kings Cross Poo on Sticks – we invent one, tickling our emotions with sentience. It could be just puerile cartooning, this, or desperation to avoid conceptualism’s inscrutable flatland. Or, just possibly, an intuitive recognition that, right now in the human narrative, our vestigial common language sups from the mother of all mysteries, life itself.