Thursday, July 21st, 2005

Sol Lewitt and Summer Group Show at PaceWildenstein, Phong Bui at Sarah Bowen

Pace Wildenstein until August 25 (534 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-929-7000).

Sarah Bowen until August 7 (210 N. 6th Street, between Driggs and Roebling Avenues, Brooklyn, 718-302-4517).

Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing #1166 Light to dark (scribbles) and #1167 Dark to Light (scribbles) July, 2005 black pencil 16' 8" x 34' and 16' 8" x 27
Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing #1166 Light to dark (scribbles), July, 2005 black pencil 16′ 8″ x 34′


Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing #1166 Light to dark (scribbles) and #1167 Dark to Light (scribbles) July, 2005 black pencil 16' 8" x 34' and 16' 8" x 27
Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing #1167 Dark to Light (scribbles) July, 2005 black pencil 16′ 8″ x 27

For all his extreme, at times arid, cerebrality, Sol LeWitt has a soft spot. The Minimalist who helped define “conceptual art” – literally, in landmark statements of the 1960s, as well as visually – Mr. LeWitt creates works that are severe, reductive, and anti-expressive. Yet the echt geometrician is nevertheless a sensualist at heart: Both the romantic and classic sides of his artistic personality come across in his latest murals, his largest to date, which show him both at his most sumptuous and rigorous.

Wall-drawing has been a key component of Mr. LeWitt’s output. Early in his career, they were part of the fashionable drive against the bourgeois, conventional easel picture: Rather than produce a commodity, the drawing was an event. The purchaser received an artwork intentionally balanced between idea and thing.

A trademark characteristic of a LeWitt wall drawing is that it be executed by a team of assistants. In place of anything so old-fashioned as a “touch,” what came from the master’s hand was a set of instructions. The usual results entailed serial blandness: dull, even-paced hatching or grids, and simple math.

But at a certain point Mr. LeWitt, famous for the stated ambition of making “art that’s smart enough to be dumb,” added to his aspirations the desire to make something he could show Giotto with pride. By the 1980s, a new sensuality set in. His murals became gaze-enveloping installations of saturated fresco color. His stand-alone drawings, often large-scale gouaches, admitted vaguely loose, wobbly lines and shapes, with a gestural or at least vaguely organic shape vocabulary.

The new murals, site-specific, or at least site-sensitive – they fill the available walls, at 16-1/2 feet high and 27 and 34 feet wide – have relentlessly matter-of-fact titles: “Wall Drawing #1166 Light to Dark (Scribbles)” and “Wall Drawing #1167 Dark to Light (Scribbles).” His titles are not merely descriptive but instructional. Made by a team of 15 assistants, these works are built out of loose, irregular scribbles. While this allows for some personality in the line, the fact of a whole platoon of scribblers curtails individual expressivity.

Density is tightly determined by the artist, who stipulates the number of layers and the H and B factor of the graphite pencils used within gridded-out circles. The light areas are barely touched with oscillating lines, giving the faintest sense of activity. The thickly clustered darker areas are animated by little flecks of whiteness where wall remains inviolate. The murals, placed at 90 degrees to one another, read like pulsating orbs: a giant eye and an exploding sun.

These huge works evoke a sense of mystery, not despite but because of the transparent, simple, contained way in which they are made. The squad of doodlers under Mr. LeWitt’s meticulous but trusting direction have lent their labor to a sublime mix of ego and egoloss, wildness and control. As such, the murals belong in a religious tradition of art as a picture of the universe. Can’t speak for Giotto, but I was impressed.

Mindful, perhaps, of its reputation as a valhalla of graying avant-gardists, PaceWildenstein has a summer group show of relative youngsters, many of them newcomers to the stable. Although not officially acknowledged, the selection seems a deliberate complement to Mr. LeWitt, if not an homage. Tim Hawkinson, for instance, an inventive humorist in the tradition of Jean Tinguely, has a giant eyeball whose iris is made from converging green disposable pens, some of them icons of design from the era of Mr. LeWitt’s entry upon the scene. It almost reads like a riff on the Minimalist’s new murals.

Mr. Hawkinson’s giant, 10-foot-by-12-foot “Studio Wall Drawing: JANUARY 2005; “ALL FROM ONE (PROTOTYPE ZIGGURAT)” PIECE FOR DIONYSIAC SHOW AT P” (2005), whose colon like squiggle-shapes also read as a sardonic comment on the purposive doodling of the LeWitts. “Nebulous” (2004), a floor piece of honeycomb structures in Scotch tape by Tara Donovan, a pair of untitled pigment ink-jet prints by Corban Walker of computer-generated circles – one proceeding from light to dark, the other from dark to light – an uncharacteristically broadbrushed gouache by James Siena, and an elegantly sparse Kiki Smith of bronze-cast doilies and poetic text all look too much like spin-offs of Mr. LeWitt to be a coincidence.


Phong Bui Hybrid Carnival for St. Exupéry 2005 installation, mixed media, variable dimensions Courtesy Sarah Bowen Gallery
Phong Bui, Hybrid Carnival for St. Exupéry 2005 installation, mixed media, variable dimensions Courtesy Sarah Bowen Gallery

Mr. LeWitt isn’t the only artist in town presenting a modernist slant on frescos: Phong Bui, showing at Sarah Bowen in Williamsburg, has an installation that’s a kind of walk-through cubist collage. Mr. Bui is a legendary force in the art world, not least as the founder/publisher of the Brooklyn Rail, an art and literary journal of record.

In fact, he is so ubiquitous a figure on the scene and so active in many fields that you could be forgiven for assuming that actual art-making must now be his violin d’Ingres. Recent installations – “Night Flight #1” in last winter’s American Academy Invitational and now “Hybrid Carnival for St. Exupery #2” – put paid to that prejudice: Spunky, zestful, historically informed, and personally inventive, these genre-busters are in equal measure physically, formally, and emotionally ambitious.

The installation features boldly colored triangles which tease the walls with varying degrees of flatness, trompe-l’oeil depth, and actual, architectural protrusion. The experience evokes the heady, early years of Modernism: Along with Cubism, “Hybrid Carnival” is pleasantly haunted by Schwitters’s “Merzbau,” Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International,” and Van Doesburg’s “Cafe Aubette,” making it a kind of Lascaux of the infancy of abstraction.

In addition to his potpourri of nursery and primary colors, Mr. Bui has added text and texture to his installation by playfully inscribing in florid, delicate lettering the names of all the historic figures and living art-world personalities that have influenced him: a gesture true to many people’s experience of the artist as an incorrigible name-dropper.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, July 21, 2005

LeWitt and Summer Group Show

Bui until August 7 (210 N. 6th Street, between Driggs and Roebling Avenues, Brooklyn, 718-302-4517).