In the Thick of Thingsby George Stolz
YALE UNIVERSITY ART GALLERY
“Do you think that art should have a social or moral purpose?”
“No. I think artists should have a social or moral purpose.”
Sol LeWitt, interviewed by Andrew Wilson1
The first thing one sees upon entering the Yale University Art Gallery—which re-opens fully to the public in December after a 10-year incremental renovation—is a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. “Wall Drawing 614,” from 1989, consists of a series of white rectangles of various dimensions, all meeting at right angles, and separated from one another by bold three-inch bands of black India ink. The wall it cover—and it covers the entire wall—is not in the museum’s galleries but rather in its lobby, facing the entrance, next to the information desk, across from the rack of postcards, flanked by passageways to restrooms and temporary storage lockers and the water fountain. In other words, it stands alone, but is also in the thick of things.
More of LeWitt’s work is on view upstairs, in the newly renovated and newly installed contemporary galleries. The new gallery installations are intelligent, sure-handed, often calmly beautiful, with sensible groupings predominating over metrical distributions or over-arching canonical categorizations. The architectural renovations (by Ennead, formerly Polshek Partnership) are ingenious and discreet, successfully integrating the three contiguous buildings—the 1953 Kahn building, the 1928 Swartout Hall, and the 1864 Street Hall—into a graceful whole, yet without compromising the buildings’ individual characters or compromising their aesthetic and architectural differences.
Another LeWitt wall drawing greets visitors near the elevators, at the edge of the modern and contemporary section, where it segues into the work of contemporaries such as Eva Hesse, Robert Mangold, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Brice Marden, and Chuck Close. Many of these artists attended Yale in the late ’50s and early ’60s (their fellow alumnus Richard Serra’s sculpture is installed just outside), and most later continued on to New York, where they coalesced into an informed, engaged, and busily cross-pollinating downtown avant-garde—in other words, very much in the thick of things.
Art often consoles itself with the notion that it reflects its time and place, and in the New York City of the 1960s, politics were at a high pitch. Yet in the artwork produced within the milieu to which these artists belonged, politics rarely if ever surfaced. As LeWitt described:
The Sixties was one of the most art-generative times, but even though there was a political and social upheaval, the art represented more of an aesthetic than a political upheaval. There actually wasn’t much political art being done at the time. Not nearly as much as now.2
LeWitt distinguished between himself as citizen and as artist. He, by his own estimation, was political; his art was not. Yet there were exceptions. For instance, it is difficult to overlook the implicit politics of resistance and even defiance of his “$100 Drawings” of 1977, which were stipulated to be sold and always re-sold at that exact price. And adding the sub-title “(Monument) for the Missing Jews” to the black stone structure placed directly in front of the Munster Palace during the Skuptur Projekte in 1987 was a clear attempt to drape the aesthetically minimal object in a dark and politically provocative mantle.
But those were exceptions, and it is certainly possible to follow LeWitt’s argument; that the vocabulary of his work, the cubes and arcs and lattices and lines in four directions, was not a political vocabulary, nor capable of transmitting political content. But on the other hand, this vocabulary was not—or at least not in the fashion that LeWitt employed it—an abstract vocabulary. To the contrary, it was literal and real, deeply so, even to the point of staking out an ethical position in and toward its own non-negotiable reality: as LeWitt himself once said, “Obviously a drawing of a person is not a real person, but a drawing of a line is a real line.”3
From such ethics, politics. And with such content, context—which, in terms of the polis—is all.
A case in point: LeWitt made his very first wall drawing—combinations of straight graphite lines in four directions, drawn thin and faint on the gallery walls’ unsmooth plaster—in October 1968, a few weeks before the election that brought Richard Nixon’s toxic presidency to a wounded, festering, unhealed nation. The wall drawing was LeWitt’s contribution to a benefit exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery—indeed, it was the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, and was organized by Lucy Lippard and Robert Huot. Other artists in the exhibition included Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Jo Baer, Donald Flavin, Robert Ryman (most of whose work today is so intelligently exhibited in the Yale Museum Art Gallery). All were committedly “non-objective artists” and explicitly selected for the benefit exhibition as such: for their specific objects; for their cuts in space; for their white-on-whites; for their real—utterly, undeniably and above all ethically real—drawings of lines that were in fact lines. And the beneficiary of the sale of this morally and socially purposeless art? The Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
As LeWitt had written a few months earlier, in June, 1968—after Martin Luther King’s assassination but before Robert Kennedy’s; after the Tet Offensive but before the end of the Prague Spring; after the student strikes in Paris and New York but before the shooting of Andy Warhol; after, before, and during riots in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and Newark:
“The artist wonders what he can do when he sees the world going to pieces around him. But as an artist he can do nothing except to be an artist.”
In other words, to stand alone—but in the thick of things.
1. Wilson, Andrew, “Sol LeWitt Interviewed,” Art Monthly, London, no. 164, March 1993. Reprinted in Sol LeWitt Critical Texts, Adachiara Zevi, ed. Rome, I Libri de AEIUO, 1994.
4. Weber, Nosei , Anna and Hahn, Otto, eds. “La Sfida del Sistema,” Metro, Venice, no. 14, June 1968. Reprinted in Sol LeWitt Critical Texts, Adachiara Zevi, ed. Rome, I Libri de AEIUO, 1994.