Sol LeWitt

at Gallery 312, through June 14

Fred Sandback

at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, through June 14

Margaret Ponce Israel: A Retrospective: 1950-1987

at Perimeter Gallery, through June 7

By Fred Camper

Viewing Sol LeWitt’s 14-foot tower of concrete blocks and mortar at Gallery 312, one immediately wonders how they got it into the room–it’s much bigger than any of the entrances. But the viewer quickly realizes that LeWitt–long famous for site-specific wall drawings made to his instructions by assistants–had the tower built in the space, the only site-specific work in the exhibit. In fact, members of the bricklayers’ union did it, following the design LeWitt made after visiting the gallery. One also realizes that there’s no way to get the work out: it will have to be dismantled when the exhibition ends.

While Chicagoans who’ve seen LeWitt’s work will find many familiar modes among the 30 drawings, prints, and sculptures in this show, the tower–the first such LeWitt work to be seen here–is a surprising change from the open, airy, boxlike frames for which he’s long been known. The front of this structure resembles the steps to a pre-Columbian temple or the setbacks on an older skyscraper in Manhattan (where LeWitt lived for much of his professional life, before moving to Connecticut). Beginning with an arrangement of blocks that looks a bit like an armchair–or the Civic Opera Building–it rises in successively larger copies of the design, the “back” of the chair growing wider and wider.

Recalling the massiveness of Piranesi’s almost paranoid architectural fantasies, such as his prison interiors, the tower looms over the viewer. Though LeWitt wrote in 1967 that the conceptual artist’s objective is to make his work “mentally interesting,” and therefore usually “emotionally dry,” there’s nothing “dry” about this wryly humorous, almost frightening structure, which dominates the gallery space, its multiple setbacks suggesting that it might grow even higher.

The details of LeWitt’s site-specific tower connect it with the space, underlining the architectural conceit. The setbacks face the slightly curved edge of the gallery’s second floor, which overlooks the main space, rectilinear recessiveness meeting curvilinear concavity. The top of the tower is level with the balcony railing, suggesting that the wall somehow grew out of the room. The rear wall of the structure is almost as flat as the white board covering the wall behind it, and one can see at the board’s edges the brick wall, which itself includes four setbacks in its lower half. It’s as if the tower had magically sprouted up over a long weekend, spawned by the room itself.

Understanding LeWitt’s work has always involved understanding the process by which it was made, which is why many of his titles–Form Derived From a Cube, for example–name the work’s shapes or materials. While this untitled structure quickly leads to thoughts of bricklayers following a careful plan, there’s something about the work’s size, weight, and elaborate setbacks that gives it a surprising emotional impact. Has this artist, who’s always seemed to lead the viewer away from the physical and toward the realm of pure form, suddenly turned self-expressive?

This new work helped me understand other, more familiar LeWitts in a new way. Art historian Robert Rosenblum wrote presciently in 1979, long before LeWitt began building with brick, that his works seemed to “grow in and take over the very spaces in which we perceive them.” He also noted that LeWitt’s wall drawings were capable of “potentially infinite, multidirectional expansion.” Turning from the huge tower in this exhibit to 4 C, a grid of thin wooden bars limning the edges of stacked hollow cubes, I began to see this signature LeWitt accretion of open rectilinear shapes not only as an articulation of geometry but as a still-growing shape, a sort of honeycomb. Each quadrant has a different number, suggesting that the cubes could be piled up endlessly.

The best conceptual and minimal artists–LeWitt has been called both–make works that, however spare, have an initial visual appeal. LeWitt’s color prints, whose titles suggest a kind of inventory of forms, are visually at once cool and almost ravishing. The colors–the primary colors of printers’ inks, red, blue, yellow, and a gray that suggests black–are presented in similar shapes and in roughly equal amounts, creating a kind of balance and purity that underscores LeWitt’s conceptual approach at the same time that the eye is relishing the joys of pure color.

At first it seems obvious that no part of the viewer’s or artist’s emotional life is being appealed to in the color prints: it’s not as if one angle or color expresses anger and another, sadness. But there’s a kind of collector’s sensibility behind the combining of six different angles in Bands of Color in Different Directions/Diptych, a sensibility heightened by its pairing with Curved Bands/Diptych. This and similar groupings of prints reveal that LeWitt’s impulse is not only to return to basic forms but to collect all the possibilities, at least of a certain Euclidean kind, an obsessive approach that recalls, perhaps, the original Diderot encyclopedia. Together the abstract purity of LeWitt’s designs and the synoptic nature of his inventorying give his prints and smaller structures some of the imposing qualities of the concrete-and-mortar tower. And the primary colors give the prints a kind of completeness: filling the eye, they cancel out one’s affective life, LeWitt remaking the world in the image of his own mind.

In contrast to the grand ambitions of LeWitt’s work, Fred Sandback’s site-specific installations at first seem profoundly modest. Among the 13 pieces at Rhona Hoffman are four untitled signature installations, in which one or several strands of acrylic yarn are strung across part of a room, modifying the space. This is minimal art at its most minimal, and Sandback, a “nomadic” artist who now lives in New Hampshire, claims humble goals. “Around 1968, a friend and I coined the term ‘pedestrian space,'” he wrote in 1986. “Pedestrian space was literal, flat-footed, and everyday. The idea was to have the work right there along with everything else in the world, not up on a spatial pedestal.” Sandback also “had ideas of art and life happily cohabiting.”

One piece is a single strand of dark gray yarn rising from the floor near the wall to meet it almost 11 feet up. Angled from the floor to the wall, the strand is also angled about eight inches to the right of its contact point on the floor. These angles relate to nothing in the room I could see; instead they call attention to the gallery’s rectilinearity by their very differences, creating peculiar mind’s-eye triangular volumes. Contingent on both the gallery space and the viewer’s angle of perception, the work makes one aware of one’s position and movements as its appearance changes.

Sandback’s yarn ultimately has a peculiar presence, however, that is anything but modest. From close up one can see the yarn’s fibers jut out from the main strand, almost literally its “aura.” Though thin, the strands profoundly alter the space, creating variations on the same theme: Sandback wrote of “wanting to…make sculpture that didn’t have an inside.” But though his yarn installations have no inside, they do have an “outside”–they take over the space around them, especially the ones involving multiple strands. Like LeWitt’s idealized geometrical forms, Sandback’s shifting shapes and volumes remake the world into planes and lines.

In the two Sandback bas-reliefs on view here, linear incisions in small unframed wooden panels seem to extend into the space of the wall. Among his six untitled drawings, all of gallery spaces presented in idealized rectilinear form, is one of Rhona Hoffman in which lines connect the upper corners of the walls with the lower corners of other walls, filling the room with diagonals. Though both Sandback and LeWitt almost monastically abjure the organic, an approach that seems to obviate affective expression, the pure Euclidean forms they produce are themselves forms of expression. To say “Look at this rather than that,” as both artists do, is to impose their vision in a way that artists always have: they try to fill every corner of a room, or of the world, with their own forms.

Ultimately the assertiveness and potency of LeWitt’s and Sandback’s forms are what give their art its peculiar power. And though the two are very different as artists, their work can seem rather similar when compared with that of an artist who’s their genuine opposite.

Margaret Ponce Israel–a New Yorker who was killed at 53, in 1987, when she was hit by a bus while bicycling–created richly sensual, often figurative work that seems organic even when it’s abstract. Unlike LeWitt and Sandback, for whom conception precedes execution, she offers evidence of a hand always compelled to be making something. In contrast to the other two artists’ seemingly perfect forms, she offers a vision of incompleteness: her paintings and ceramics look as if they could include still more color, still more figures; in fact she often modified her work and her exhibits. Some claimed that the artist’s cluttered studio was her masterpiece; a partial re-creation of it, including 36 works, is installed in Perimeter’s downstairs gallery, in addition to the main exhibit of 33 Israel works upstairs. Though never a militant feminist, she produced art consistent with the feminist aesthetic of the early 70s, which Marcia Tucker has said involved “the use of a subjective, personal voice,…pattern and decoration, dream images,…and the dissolution of the differences between low and high art.”

Israel’s studio was below street level but had a window from which she could observe and sketch pedestrians, which led to the “Walking People Series.” In one untitled work from the series (number one on the gallery checklist), four rows of figures are painted in oil on a copper plate. Rough and abstract, these figures have a power that comes from the thick, tactile brownish paint, the contrast of the paint with the now-green copper, and the obsessive repetition of figures, row after row. A work on paper from the same series, Blackboard, shows three rows of people precisely outlined in white on black, each figure in a different pose, wearing a different outfit and often a different hat; a few have pets. The full, rounded curves of the outlines suggest not only motion but joy–much of the pleasure of Israel’s work comes from feeling how happy she seemed to be creating it.

Yet some critics have seen dark psychological implications in some of Israel’s work. In a World of Shapes consists of a large wooden frame hung with ropes that support a variety of ceramic objects: a head, arms, feet, and a large number of rounded pots. This disembodied figure, recently reconstructed from a photograph and materials found in her studio at her death, is reminiscent of others that have been interpreted as reflecting the health problems Israel suffered for years. Here, though, I saw only a playful and integrative vision; the rounded pots, suggesting bellies and hips and breasts, are as evocative as the gently curved ceramic torso also on view here (number 21).

While Sandback and LeWitt cite specific artists as influences, Israel’s inspirations–from Etruscan ceramics to botanical illustrations, Tiepolo to Leger–seem impossibly broad and eclectic. Her sensibility was in many ways childlike, her forms almost preintellectual. But there’s an ethos behind her formal approach, just as there is behind LeWitt’s. Rather than positing essential forms common to all, Israel–who friends say made art mostly for herself–celebrates her sensual experience in its particular moments: a brush stroke or clay surface is primarily the bearer of the joy she felt in making it. In her approach to imagery and media, Israel took no account of the modernist ideal that an artwork should articulate the nature of its materials. An untitled figural sculpture (number 28) is decorated with some of the bright, almost geometrical shapes that fill her Matisse-inspired drawings, two of which hang next to it: it’s as if the designs from the drawings had overflowed onto the sculpture. She also painted patterns over chairs and other objects she found and put in her studio, creating a whole environment. In one way she’s surprisingly like LeWitt and Sandback: all three artists set out to remake their environs into “a world of shapes.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sculpture by Sol LeWitt, From the “Walking People Series” by Margaret Ponce Israel.