A Taste for Desert Landscapes?

By Danto, Arthur C. | The Nation, February 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Taste for Desert Landscapes?


Danto, Arthur C., The Nation


ARTHUR C. DANTO

SOL LeWITT

In memory of Van Quine

About halfway through the installation of Sol LeWitt's art on the fourth floor of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, a small alcove gallery is given over entirely to Autobiography, a work from 1980. Autobiography consists, by my calculation, of 1,071 simple black-and-white photographs, arranged in 3x3 square grids. The pictures are of an almost striking banality, with a degree of photographic distinction near zero, and they show, for the most part, the most ordinary of objects: tools, balls of twine, shoes and articles of clothing, kitchen utensils, snapshots, books, houseplants. Except for the flat-files and drafting instruments--triangles, T-squares, templates, protractors, rulers and the like--their counterparts would have been found in most households of the Western world at the time. The inventory defines domestic normality for persons of a certain class--not too wealthy, not too poor. More metaphysically, the objects participate in what Heidegger designates as Zuhandenheit--the "Ready-to-Hand"--the kinds of things one notices only when they are not ready to hand, their absence impeding the smooth flow of daily life. Their inventoried presence accordingly testifies to the orderliness of this household, in which everything is present and accounted for, and to the organizational disposition of Sol LeWitt, whose household it was.

The personality itself, of course, is not a further item in the inventory. We know from external sources that LeWitt was about to vacate his living space in 1980 and move to Spoleto, Italy; and that he wanted to photograph each object with which he lived. In a video interview, Sol LeWitt: Four Decades, on continuous view outside the lobby gallery, the artist tells the exhibition's curator, Gary Garrels, that a far better picture of him can be gotten from the photographs of all the things he lived with than from an ordinary portrait. The question has been raised as to why he did not then title the work Self-Portrait. My sense is that it is because "autobiography" implies the concept of a life, and a life is something lived. The ordinariness of the objects inventoried further implies that there is nothing out of the ordinary in LeWitt's life, that it could be the autobiography of Whoever, Wherever. It may be remarked that there is no photograph in Autobiography of Autobiography itself--though it would be philosophically daring to have included the representation of the life as a further item in the life represented. I cannot forbear observing the philosophical significance of the fact that Autobiography fails to include a photograph of LeWitt himself. "When I enter most intimately into what I call myself," the philosopher David Hume once wrote, "I always stumble on some particular perception or other.... I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception." There is no experience of the self, Hume concludes, and so the term is without meaning.

Still, not everyone would photograph each of his possessions, as if for a yard sale, and organize them into a set of 3x3 grids. Nor can the work be rid of one's own subjectivity by organizing its components meticulously. If anything, character and disposition are revealed through the order or absence of order in one's life. In a way, the LeWitt exhibition could itself be titled Autobiography. It is difficult to believe that someone who took and arranged the photographs as compulsively as LeWitt appears to have done would leave the content and organization of a life's worth of his art to another. "If you require a monument," Sir Christopher Wren inscribed in St. Paul's Cathedral in London, "look around you."

The relevance of this to LeWitt's oeuvre, in whole and in part, lies in the philosophy he articulated in a crucial text, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," first published in Artforum in 1967. …

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