On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

NOTES ON SOL LEWITT 1978

Conceptual art? The very sound of those words has chilled away and confused spectators who wonder just what, in fact, this art could be about or whether it is even visible. For like all labels that awkwardly blanket a host of new forms and attitudes, this one could become an out-and-out deception for those who never bothered to took and to discriminate. But this is hardly unfamiliar. Could one ever tell from the word "Cubism" what a typical Cubist work looked like? (A Sol LeWitt modular cube looks more literally "Cubist" than anything by Picasso; fig 149.) Could one ever guess that one catchall phrase, "Abstract Expressionism," ended up by bracketing pictures that look and feel as different as, say, those by de Kooning and Newman? Indeed, wouldn't "Conceptual art" apply far better to the work of Leonardo da Vinci than to that of, say, Vito Acconci, a Conceptual artist who uses his very body and voice in his art? So yet again, one must be careful not to let vague and simpleminded words obliterate the enormous range of intentions and visible results placed under the same umbrella.

Perhaps one should be even more careful this time, since many so-called Conceptual artists have willfully tried to divorce themselves from inherited traditions of "object" art by implying or stating that art can remain gray matter in the mind and still be art. LeWitt himself has written, "Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical."I (But come to think of it, wasn't the physical fact of the Parthenon, experienced by relatively few people, infinitely less important than the idea of the Parthenon, which was to become a touchstone of Western civilization and architectural theory and practice? And wasn't this belief in perfect thought as opposed to imperfect and transitory matter shared by many Renaissance painters, sculptors, and architects who held that the tangible work of art was only a flawed reflection of an ideal concept, just as later, many Neoclassic artists prized the idea of a work of art more than its palpable materialization?) Some younger art historians, too, have supported the claims of total newness by sensing so drastic a change in the premises of Conceptual art in general and of LeWitt in particular that, as in the case of a recent critical combat (Kuspit versus Masheck) 2 of unusual erudition and intellectual fervor, the very question was raised of whether words and ideas like "beauty" or "style" have not become irrelevant or anachronistic in dealing with LeWitt's work.

Yet, as happens with most innovative art, the passage of time softens the blow of what at first seemed unrecognizably new, slowly uncovering traditional roots and continuities that were initially invisible. How many times in this century, not to mention the last one, were

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