The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is housed in a striking 1995 building by Swiss architect Mario Botta. At the heart of the building is a skylit atrium, a soaring space in which the striped patterns of the exterior are echoed in stripings in the marble floors, on the central, sculptural stairwell, on the surfaces of the information counters. Rich in pattern, textures, and materials, the design of the the atrium uses little color and even that little with great restraint.
With the opening of the Sol Lewitt retrospective, the first survey of his work in over two decades, color – bright, assertive color – arrives in the atrium, not like an invader, but like a triumphant ally taking a seat at the victory table. The museum commissioned Lewitt to create two new wall drawings specifically for this space. Arcs in Four Directions and Bands in Four Directions flank either side of the stairwell, high above the floor of the atrium. Bright washes of green, yellow, orange, red, and blue, in precise stripings, are arrayed in quadrants of curves in the former, and vertical, horizontal, and diagonal bands in the latter. What is especially remarkable is that the drawings – monumental in size and vibrant in color – do not conflict with the understated elegance of the atrium and, indeed, are remarkably sensitive to it, as if engaging in dialogue the pre-existing elements. Stripes comment upon stripes, curves reflect and articulate curves; a fine balance is struck. Catch a glimpse of the bright stripings reflected in the glossy marble stripings of the stairwell – a serendipitous effect, perhaps, but it lends credence to the harmony that has been forged here
The two new works, containing many of the elements that are core to Lewitt’s aesthetic, make a grand entryway to an exhibit of unusual richness and unexpected challenge. There are major wall drawings on the second and third levels en route to the exhibit on the fourth. The fourth level focuses on the 1960s and 70s, the fifth level on the 1980s and 90s. The works are arranged chronologically, with many wall drawings executed specifically for this show. While these are accessible works in the sheer impact of their scale (in combination with their extraordinary detail), the accompanying plans, like architectural drawings, elucidate Lewitt’s techniques and assist greatly toward an understanding of his aesthetic.
Curator Gary Garrells provides a useful analogy, comparing Lewitt’s work to that of a composer of music. The composer provides the notes, the meter, the design of the work, but the musician performs it, and for all the precision of the composing, there is room for variation among performances. Lewitt provides explicit instructions for each wall painting; the paintings are then implemented by teams of artists/painters. Garrells refines his analogy saying that interpretation of Lewitt’s instructions allows sufficient room for improvisation that jazz, rather than classical music, would better suggest the wide range of possibilities in the execution of these works.
Lewitt’s early work, initially called minimalist, later evolving into conceptual, was, in part, a reaction to the prevailing mid-twentieth century abstract expressionism, in which the connection between painter and medium was crucial. For Lewitt, ideas are at the heart of art; he needn’t put brush to canvas to convey his ideas. He designs and others produce the tangible results accordingly. So there is a certain coolness in these works, a disconnectedness from the immediacy of the artist/brush/canvas connection. Lewitt is often taking particular elements – arcs, squiggles, lines, stars – and exploring almost obsessively the permutations and combinations that are possible with each element, sometimes singly, sometimes in combination. Many of the early works, too, had little or just pale, subtle color and shadings. He uses pencil, crayon, and combinations of both. (In later wall paintings he moves on into washes of colored ink.) It is fascinating to connect with these schematic forms and techniques, but it is an exercise of intellectuality, rather than emotion.
Lewitt’s works of the 1980s and 1990s, influenced in part by his move to Italy, retain the elements of the earlier work but the range of variations and combinations broadens. He introduces more irregularity in shape and line, more complexity of elements, and an ever-growing palette of rich color – which is not to underestimate the stunning works in black and white (amusing "Loopy Droopy"), or the wall divided into flat and glossy black sections, meeting in a wavy curve. A 1999 "form" (as Lewitt refers to his sculpture), in fiberglass painted shiny black, evokes a sort of ebony Oz. Wall paintings around the form, pick up the squiggly outline of its base as an element of their composition.
The sheer volume of work – Lewitt is nothing if not prolific – and the sureness of his masterful artistry in the blending of color, line, and composition, combine to make this exhibit a very rich experience. But, in the end, for at least one viewer, Lewitt’s recent gouaches, where he pursues his ideas with his own hand and where the tactile sense of painter/brush/paint return, are the most satisfying of all. Those works, without in any way betraying the intellectual foundation of Lewitt’s main body of work, allow some emotion, some warmth, some sense of connectedness to creep back in as well.