Thursday, August 12, 2010

Can you tell me how to get off Sesame Street?

That dark blur is me fleeing the Sol LeWitt show.

I admit I was skeptical of the Sol LeWitt wall drawing "retrospective" (though many of the pieces had never been drawn before) at MassMOCA, even though - actually, perhaps because - it was met with universal praise.

And now that I've seen it, I'm even more skeptical. Actually, make that bored and appalled. And when I heard that MassMOCA was talking about keeping the damn thing in place for twenty-five years, I nearly threw up.

LeWitt is constantly described as "deceptively simple" and as "a master of conceptualism." Both these accolades seem highly dubious to me. First, there's nothing deceptive about him - he's just simple, pure and simple. And as for being a "master of conceptualism" - well, let's just say I could go with "a master of ANTI-conceptualism" just fine. Because the whole point of Sol LeWitt is that there IS no concept. Oh - I get it - that's the whole idea. Right.

Anyway, no one could ever say that Sol LeWitt isn't pretty. He is. He's the airheaded Andy-Warhol-starlet of minimalism, happily painting (according to very strict rules, mind you!) across acres and acres of virgin space. And thus he's beloved of a certain kind of art tourist, the kind that slowly turns around and says, "Now this is interesting . . ." even though their expression is completely blank. Don't ask them why it's interesting; they can't tell you; but one kind of optimistic void can recognize another.

Actually, scratch that - LeWitt is more like the Dr. Seuss of conceptualism than a blonde starlet of minimalism. Indeed, I kept humming to myself as I wandered through these galleries, "I can draw it round and round! I can draw it upside down!" Although I realize that's kind of a slur on Dr. Seuss, whom I adore, and who is clever and witty and anarchic, while LeWitt is just so dull you'd have to pinch yourself to stay awake, if the day-glo designs weren't burning permanent patterns into your retinas (below).

I will say that the show does point up how our perspective on minimalism has shifted over the years. Back in the sixties, confronted with the devastating example of Warhol, who could blankly deconstruct any kind of artistic stance with po-faced gay abandon, it seemed that art had to either be ironic, like pop, or blasted down into forms that irony couldn't reach. Minimalism offered a kind of safe haven, a space in which artists could still be macho by being mute. Sol LeWitt was an insider in this crowd - he actually worked at MOMA, in fact, along with other minimalists, and he was by all accounts the apotheosis of the "shy" networker, so it's not such a surprise that his career took off.

And of course he became more popular than people like Dan Flavin because he appropriated the color modes of that vibrant decade as his own (he favored either acid-trip saturation, or utter blankness, a la The White Album). And to be honest, his color fields do, still, pop in a pretty, Vogue-circa-1968 kind of way. And the zillions of students who actually drew these things did, I admit, maintain the required level of zen-like control; they're utterly pristine, like giant CDs still in their plastic wrap, gleaming with phony potential. Yes, it seems clear LeWitt's wall drawings now operate as a kind of SixtiesLand, a nostalgic setting, like Colonial Williamsburg, for a certain kind of American dream. (If only there were free hashish and a huge amp pumping out simple rock chords, it would be perfect.)

But I can't pretend that Colonial Williamsburg is a work of art. And except for that nostalgic sugar rush, there's really nothing to LeWitt. And twenty-five years??? What a waste of cultural space. Somebody hand me a paint roller, quick.