Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Dry and the Wet: LeWitt, Dove, O'Keefe

In museums I've heard people say about contemporary art, "My grandchild could paint that."  If the grandchild were an adult, had a steady hand and patience, she could join a worker-bee team and paint a Sol LeWitt.  More than sixty people executed LeWitt's plans for paintings for the retrospective of his work at Mass MOCA in North Adams.  The exhibit will be up for 25 years.   There are three floors of wall drawings.  LeWitt wrote: "To work with a plan that is pre-set is one way of avoiding subjectivity.  It also obviates the necessity of designing each work in turn. The plan would design the work."  He also wrote: "The idea becomes a machine that makes the art."  LeWitt made art in order to "engage the mind."  

I was interested in LeWitt's drive to eliminate chance by the calculated repetition of patterns. The assistants who painted the walls succeeded in making his work "the results of his premise." But I did not warm up to his work.  LeWitt would have been pleased.  He aimed to remove emotion from the artistic experience.  Seeing his paintings, I experienced dry admiration for dry work.  

In contrast, the paintings at the Clark museum in Williamstown delighted me.   The oil swam across the canvas, whether or not the subject was water.  The abstractions of Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keefe--Dove was a major influence on O'Keefe-- glistened with feeling, shaded with surprising tints and curved in unexpected shapes.  Dove's is "Sunrise"; O'Keefe's is "Canna."    



  1. I understand that LeWitts works are huge. Way beyond room-size, perhaps ballroom-size, hence the need for the so numerous workers toiling away in the old factory. The question is what do these giants leave the viewer with? What I have seen of his work is completely intellectual in contrast with Dove and O'Keefe whose paintings, more conventionally sized, are full of sensation and experience. The contrast between these two approaches could not be better illustrated than in Miriam's post.

    I find the venues of the exhibits mentioned rich in contrast also. North Adams is the Massachusetts version of the rust belt, a manufacturing town whose jobs have disappeared. In the 1870’s it was the scene of union struggles where about 100 workers where brought all the way from China to break a strike. Now that is enterprise! So a look at the town’s history is the story of all the bumps of American capitalism right down to the present meltdown. MassMoca, a huge and wonderful, government funded arts center has brought some life to the town. Just a coincidence that Jane Swift, former lieutenant governor and then, briefly governor, represented the North Adams district in the legislature.

    Alas, all this glamour, while bringing art galleries to deserted storefronts and a few good restaurants has done little for the hapless workers. The town seems to have more than its share of condemned houses and idle, young men who appear bored and hopeless. At least, that’s how they look. Contrast this with Williamstown, just five mile away, home of the Clark Museum mentioned in Miriam’s post –- and Williams College, that ivy sanctuary where young people of the same age are singing madrigals and playing lacrosse.

  2. Bluedog, at night in North Adams, the streets were empty except for wandering bummed out teenage boys. In Williamstown the movie theater was filled with young people watching "Easy Virtue." Noel Coward is popular among the young in Williamstown.