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The first mention of LeWitt in the New York Times came in 1961, when he was earning less than $1,000 a year on his art. (Neal Boenzi/The New York Times/Redux)

Lary Bloom on Sol LeWitt’s Rebellion

By | Wesleyan University Press

By Lary Bloom

Fifty years ago, Sol LeWitt published his second manifesto, further upending centuries-old assumptions about how art is made. The effect of “Sentences on Conceptual Art” was minimal at the time, as LeWitt and his circle of rebels were dismissed by influential critics, and their practices had yet to spread much beyond the Lower East Side where they lived (in many cases, as with LeWitt, illegally).

LeWitt saw his role similar to that of a composer or architect whose work is largely done when the score or drawing is finished, leaving the completion to others.

Yet over the last half century, LeWitt’s vast body of work (nearly 1,300 wall drawings and hundreds of “structures” as well as other forms) and his ideas about art have become arguably the most influential as those of any 20th century figure. His name is always attached to two movements, minimalism and conceptualism. Though he often decried such labeling, his writings and practices firmly connected him to the latter category. Moreover, he argued often in public that for the contemporary artist, the brain is much more important than the hand.

By the time of his 1978 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, LeWitt had long since farmed out wall drawing installation to assistants. But he joined the crew in this instance. (Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

His worked showed that, as he was seldom involved with physical installations, leaving that to his crew chiefs and the thousands of young artists he hired over the decades. But it also became central to the installations themselves.

For example, just a few years before he died in 2007, he explained to me that he was asked to do a site-specific installation at an abandoned synagogue in Stommeln, one of the few in the country that hadn’t been destroyed by the Nazis, but which in recent years had been home only to art installations.

His idea was not traditional art at all. That is, no painting, no sculpture, no physical element except for one crude construction: a brick wall. The wall was to be placed inside the entrance, fulling blocking the sanctuary from view. But though visitors to the exhibition would not be able to see what’s inside, they could hear voices. These were the recorded “Lost Voices” of German Jews praying, which I translated from Hebrew into English, along with our friend Reuven Clein. So, the effect was to demonstrate a strong sense of humanity inside, even if it was in the form of ghosts reciting liturgy.

Indeed, the project demonstrated LeWitt’s commitment to the end of his career of what he argued in “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” – that art can be art even if never becomes a physical manifestation and that for artists, “Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically,” that “bad ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution,” and that “It’s hard to bungle a good idea.”

After Wall Drawing 370 went up at the Met, it prompted millennial selfies. (Richard Levine/Alamy Stock Photo)

Thus, he amplified what he had written two years earlier, in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” published in Artforum. LeWitt had focused on inception and inspiration rather than what happens afterward. “The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” The physical creation of the art, he said, is “perfunctory.” In this, he saw his role similar to that of a composer or architect whose work is largely done when the score or drawing is finished, leaving the completion to others.

In “Paragraphs,” his opening salvo challenged conventional thinking of the time, and challenged his peers to seek their own truths rather than the ones defined by critics or market trends: “The editor has written me that he is in favor of avoiding the ‘notion that the artist is a kind of ape that has to be explained by the civilized critic’ This should be good news to both artists and apes.” And he held the view that critics use a secret language meant to impress each other and bamboozle the public. (“Reading art criticism is like chewing glass,” he said.)

LeWitt wrote “Sentences” in 1969 around the time Paula Cooper, a pioneer in SoHo, produced her first show.

LeWitt used “Sentences” to clarify points made in “Paragraphs” and further push the view that artists, far from being fringe societal figures whose talent is expressed by disciplined hands, can do their best work when hands become irrelevant.

LeWitt wrote “Sentences” around the time Paula Cooper, a pioneer in SoHo, produced her first show at her gallery with the assistance of Lucy R. Lippard, who as a writer on contemporary art that had championed the LeWitt circle. Fourteen artists were chosen to participate in the “Benefit for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.” Aside from LeWitt and Andre, others selected included Dan Flavin, Robert Ryman, Robert Mangold, Donald Judd and the lone woman, Jo Baer.

Advertisement for benefit show at Paula Cooper (The New York Times via Wikimedia Commons)

At the time, LeWitt was still doing most of the physical work himself.  Cooper told me in 2012: “Sol came [to the gallery], and he picked a freestanding awful wall, you could see my storage was behind it—the worst space, and he came and made a drawing on it. It took him two days.” He drew with black pencil the straightest parallel lines he could, in an arrangement that would pre-figure the ideas in many of his works to come — horizontal, vertical, and diagonal.

All of the works at the show were for sale.  The asking price for Andre’s sculpture was $1,500; for Flavin’s fluorescent light arrangement, $2,000; for Mangold’s trapezoid $2,500, Ryman’s monochrome painting, $900. The price listed next to LeWitt’s wall drawing was “by the hour.” And even then, any prospective buyer (there were none at the time) couldn’t take the piece off of the wall and carry it home.

Indeed, Cooper’s biggest shock came when the show ended, and the artists came to get the pieces that hadn’t sold. She called LeWitt and asked what she should do with the wall drawing. He told her to paint over it. “I can’t do that,” she replied. So, he went to the studio and did the task himself. It was among his first efforts at the dematerialization of art, and the demonstration that the idea is more important than the execution, a view that would manifest in the system of verification; the only value of a LeWitt wall drawing is in the certificate of ownership itself. The physical piece is worthless.

Or as he would eventually say, among his many wry commentaries, “A wall drawing is permanent until destroyed.”

A twenty-five-year-long retrospective opened at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008, featuring a hundred LeWitt works that collectively covered more than 27,000 square feet of wall space. (Randy Duchaine/Alamy Stock Photo)

In all, “Sentences” and its forerunner, “Paragraphs,” words that, according to their author, are not meant to be art itself, have changed basic assumptions that had lasted centuries. At first, as in all revolutions, it was considered fringe. Nowadays, LeWitt’s views don’t seem so extreme.

Thousands of young artists around the world adopted his views and joined his installation crews. They now see LeWitt, who died in 2007, as the artist who has had the most influence, inspiring them to rely more on their heads than their hands. More than 2,000,000 visitors have seen LeWitt’s wall-drawing retrospective (running until 2033) at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art may attest. But as detailed and meticulous as LeWitt’s work and process could be, he was not one to explain the mystery of how or why his art works. When a student at the University of Hartford asked him, “What is art?”, he replied, “It’s a big, fluffy thing.” And, with that, and all he had written down in “Paragraphs” and “Sentences,” he ended his explanation.

 

Lary Bloom is the author or coauthor of ten books, including the biography, Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas, which was published earlier this year by Wesleyan University Press. He lives in New Haven, CT and teaches memoir in Yale’s summer program.

The Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Sauk County, Wisconsin (Wikimedia Commons)

Insider’s Almanac: Excerpt from Krista Eastman’s The Painted Forest

By | West Virginia University Press

By Krista Eastman

West Virginia University Press published Krista Eastman’s The Painted Forest this month. She will appear at several events to launch the collection of essays, including the Wisconsin Book Festival on October 19 and Boswell Book Company on October 29. More details about the events can be found here. The below is an excerpt from “Insider’s Almanac,” the second essay in the book, followed by a Q&A. “Insider’s Almanac” was originally published in 2012 by The Georgia Review. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, which Krista Eastman considers below.

The girl version of myself, in her search to trace origins, couldn’t get much further than the county line, and so she became first a fixture at the town’s public library, then a traveler. And yet, local girl, avid reader, I never picked up A Sand County Almanac, the classic born just miles from my hometown, and I don’t recall learning about it in school. My copy of Leopold’s book, acquired in adulthood and in the spirit of research, smells of press and crispness, its pages not dog-eared nor tattered nor steeped in the oil found on fingertips. This almanac does not occupy my nightstand, has never been the binding I chose to brush up against in the dark, nor the words I intoned while on pilgrimage through the woods alone. But it has haunted me.

A Sand County Almanac is part lyric manifesto, but it does much more than merely conjure up the natural beauty of Leopold’s farm.

Reading A Sand County Almanac, I learned that Aldo Leopold made another kind of map of this place, providing the vocabulary for another way of looking at the world by transcribing the messages he found written on wind, dew, and pine with poetry and a pithy common sense. “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot,” he begins simply. “These essays are the delights and the dilemmas of one who cannot.” And these words, like much of A Sand County Almanac, twist my thoughts. Arriving a little late to this book, this particular county, I must entertain my own share of new and uncomfortable questions, my own delights and dilemmas. Raised among open fields and cultivated hills, how will I be sure that I can or cannot live without these wild things, which I do not identify and cannot always see? I underline words such as Silphium and bur oak and wonder if these plants are still around. Have they been around all this time? Do they survive in the unharvested corners of farmland whose cultivated verdure most certainly plays me for a fool, prompting me to gaze as one gazes at the back of one’s own hand, carelessly, with few questions?

A Sand County Almanac is part lyric manifesto, but it does much more than merely conjure up the natural beauty of Leopold’s farm. Leopold also takes up the problem of perception, of how we perceive ourselves and the land we make our own—and the ethics of both of those things at once. In the chapter entitled “December,” Leopold writes: “The wild things that live on my farm are reluctant to tell me, in so many words, how much of my township is included within their daily or nightly beat. I am curious about this, for it gives me the ratio between the size of their universe and the size of mine, and it conveniently begs the much more important question, who is the more thoroughly acquainted with the world in which he lives?”

Fueled by local affiliation, I approach this book with the same question, though mine conceals a different kind of curiosity. With sheepishness, I wonder about my mythic Leopold and myself, about the size of our two universes in this same Wisconsin county. I admit that asking the question this way risks placing the book in my hands at a perverse angle, exposing my interest as a brutish desire to defend, or to stake my own claim.

Arriving a little late to this book, this particular county, I must entertain my own share of new and uncomfortable questions, my own delights and dilemmas.

Leopold, measured and wise, continues: “Like people, my animals frequently disclose by their actions what they decline to divulge in words. It is difficult to predict when and how one of these disclosures will come to light.”

Perhaps I should also decline to put into words the insularities of my own habitat. Like the many who’ve come before, perhaps I should brush off clear declarations in favor of physical work, express myself only with silent necessity—with eyes that know but hold back, with a stolid distaste for the process of explaining and, worse yet, of being explained. And yet disclosures have already been made, squatting with imperfection on my page and under my name. That made-up memory of the sweat spot I stood long enough to admire, has emboldened me somehow, causing me to speak almost by accident of another universe, another definition of local, the many ways you can wed yourself to land. Here I admit to animal behavior.

Q&A with Krista Eastman

1. When did you start writing The Painted Forest?

I wrote the earliest essay, “Layers of Ice,” after having returned from working at McMurdo Station in Antarctica and while in my first year of graduate school, way back in 2008.

2. Do you find that your experience of living in many different places, from Senegal to Antarctica, affects you as a writer?

In a lot of ways, I think living and working abroad as I did in my 20s is what got me to commit seriously to writing and to literary nonfiction in particular. I began writing from other places and that experience helped me figure out how to write about home, or to hold the same fascination for the things in front of my nose as for the things I had gone to the end of the earth to find.

3. What brought you back to your home state of Wisconsin?

The official story is that I returned in 2010 when the U.S. economy was in the can because I knew I could get a job here. The unofficial story is that I had a fine case of burn out and wanted to be home for a while.

4. What’s your relationship to revision?

I actually revise as I go so that by the time I finish the “first draft” of an essay it’s usually about 98% done. Since we admire what other people have, I like to bitterly imagine other writers completing first drafts in fits of inspiration and then heading out to revel with each other at the neighborhood bar. What I do is suck on coffee, pinch up my face, and then move the text an inch or two a day until it’s done.

5. How did you choose which influences to explore and name?

There’s not much method to this, I’m afraid. What I love about writing is that I can justify exploring any interest I have. I can check out an embarrassingly broad spectrum of books from the library and not have to answer for it. I have my secret art and I don’t (and won’t) explain it. Some things I write don’t require much research. But for most of it I do read quite a bit, for background or context or to be privy to what experts are saying about X. I’ll read anything, even books I barely understand, because I’m trying to make sense of something. My writing almost always begins with a question of some kind, even if at first it’s barely formed.

6. Have you always been drawn to writing about place and the environment?

I don’t think of myself as someone who writes about the environment, at least not directly. I’ve always been drawn to thinking about storytelling and about how we humans create place-based identities for ourselves. I’m kind of obsessed with how we make the world through perception and that includes concerns about our relationship to the earth.

But of course I am extremely worried about our climate crisis. The challenge for me has been how to capture and make something from the cascading ills of this moment – from the wild precariousness, the cruelty, and the astonishingly unequal distribution of wrongs.

7. Could you tell us about your next work, Pionier?

I don’t really like to talk about work while it’s in progress, but you can read some of it – an essay called “Ancient Inland Sea” – this fall in the “Earth Elegies” issue of Conjunctions.

Krista Eastman‘s writing has earned recognition from Best American Essays and appeared in The Georgia ReviewThe Kenyon Review (KROnline), New Letters, and other journals. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin. For more information, please visit her website kristaeastman.com.

Timothy Hampton in Berkeley, December 2018 (Photo: Eric Kotila)

Echoes of a Fantasy: On Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue

By | Zone Books

By Timothy Hampton


Music and film fans were treated in early June to the Netflix release of Martin Scorcese’s new film about Bob Dylan’s 1976 tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue.  The film features documentary footage of Dylan and his band in electrifying concert performances.  That footage is framed by a set of interviews with both actual tour participants and fake talking heads, who comment on the events.  By blurring history and fiction the commentary cleverly packages the tour as both chaotic and yet still relevant;  it’s subtitled “A Bob Dylan Story.”  Yet the clash of illusion and reality was already an essential part of the tour and contributes to its political meaning–both then, in the year of the American bicentennial celebrations, and now, in the age of Trumpism and Fox News.

By blurring history and fiction the commentary cleverly packages the tour as both chaotic and yet still relevant.

The Rolling Thunder Revue had Dylan traveling across New England, playing in small cities, Plymouth to Montreal.  He was joined by a Who’s Who of fellow singers, including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and Joni Mitchell.  The band included musicians such as the violinist Scarlet Rivera and the bassist Rob Stoner, who had made Dylan’s recent album “Desire” such a sonic delight.  The choice of New England mill towns for the tour seems to have had a kind of spiritual-political intention.  “Why would he play some place so small?” asks one of the fans in Plymouth, midway through the film.  It was an encounter with a semi-rural America that was being depleted by a changing economy.  The contemporary resonances with Trump’s claims to speak for a “real” America are, of course, unmistakable.  But the illusion of freedom presented by the tour was already  shot through with nostalgia.  For the context for the tour is the cultural misery of the mid-1970s, when the the late-1960s hippie dream of freedom, funny clothes, and “the road,” had been brought up short by the reality of the defeat in Vietnam, Watergate, and a slowing economy.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, 1963 (Wikimedia Commons)

The sense that the tour is a fiction (Dylan as gypsy) that is unfolding against another fiction (the glitzy surface of the bicentennial celebrations) is replayed in the iconography of the shows.  Dylan’s floppy hat and white face-paint mimic the main character of Marcel Carné’s 1945 film about the Paris theater world, “Children of Paradise,” an art house favorite about the clash between reality and illusion.   Carné’s film would form a loose template for Dylan’s own attempt to reshape the Rolling Thunder material in his 1978 film essay, “Renaldo and Clara.”  But he had been quoting Carné as early as 1975, when the lyric to “You’re a Big Girl Now” had cited the heroine of the movie reproaching her lover, who cannot free himself from the fictions he has made about her identity, “Love is so simple.”  Dylan, in makeup and headgear, here mimics Carné’s doomed character Baptiste, caught between the banal reality of family life and the romance of illicit passion–even as the singer’s jeans, vest, and boots turn him into some version of Billy the Kid from a Hollywood western.  He is both artiste and bandido, exotic yet American.  His carnival company and the powerful, shouted, vocal performances remind the post-1960s audience that the “real” America was a utopian collective that could still take shape—at least on the stage.  Life may not, in the end, have turned out to be a magical mystery tour for many of Dylan’s listeners, but Dylan’s show reinvented the audience’s favorite stars, from Baez to McGuinn, as Children of Paradise in the American grain.

Paralleling the ambiguity of the spectacle were the new songs, taken mostly from 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks” and 1976’s “Desire.”  The first of these albums looks back to the 1960s, recasting that era’s social unrest as a version of “On the Road.”  The mad journeys depicted in such songs as “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind” both reflected Jack Kerouac’s beatniks and the later, less sublime, moment of hippie restlessness.  Rolling Thunder reinvented these themes as a musical bus trip.  Against the phony patriotism of the bicentennial events, Dylan’s group was digging deep into the bloody recent history of a wounded country.

Bob Dylan in Rotterdam, 1974
(Wikimedia Commons)

Yet these songs are offset by the songs from the recently released “Desire album,” which form the heart of the set list in the film.  These songs, co-written mostly with Jacques Levy, have everything to do with the politics of Rolling Thunder and of Scorcese’s film.  For the “Desire” album straddles the violent line of confrontation between dream and reality, fantasy and brutal fact.  “Desire” features a set of narratives of wandering and romance–songs about the south seas, the Klondike gold fields, Mexico, gypsy camps.  Dylan’s stage act, with its gypsy flavor and exotic outfits, performs what the songs are about.  Yet at the same time, for every tale of exotic beauty on “Desire” there is a tale of brutality or disillusionment, bringing us back to the desperation of the mid-1970s in the “real” America.  Thus the mythical romance “Isis” (“a song about marriage,” as Dylan says at one point) stands over against the domestic drama of “Sara,” a tune written for Dylan’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, begging her not to leave him.  Similarly, the romanticism of “One More Cup of Coffee,” which depicts a beautiful gypsy woman whose clan is ruled by a knife-wielding king, runs up against the brutal sociology of “Joey,” a tune about a Mafia clan ruled by an “old man” and his sons.  This confrontation of enchantment and disenchantment haunts the album and makes it particularly difficult to read.   We find it again on “Mozambique,” a tune about jet setters on the beach recorded at a moment when the the African country had just achieved independence from Portugal after a brutal ten-year war.  And, of course, it is central to “Hurricane,” Dylan’s account of the framing of the boxer Ruben Carter for murder.   (Carter appears in a contemporary interview wearing a wide-brimmed hat of his own, almost like a parody of Dylan’s festooned Stetson from 1976).  The fact that Carter’s story unfolded in Paterson, New Jersey, the site of William Carlos Williams’s American epic poem “Paterson,” made the bicentennial background to “Hurricane” all the more cogent.   No less important, the harmony and groove of the tune hark unmistakably to Dylan’s own earlier hymn to poetry and art, “All Along the Watchtower” of 1967.  That song, with its “Joker” and “Thief” pointing ahead to the circus-like atmosphere of Rolling Thunder and Desire, here runs up against the brutality of life in the streets.  The allegorical medieval castle that ends the song–the site of the famous “Watchtower”–is swept away by the vision of what happens to real boxers, in real landscapes:  “In Paterson, that’s just the way things go,” sings Dylan.  “If you’re black, you might as well not show upon the street.”

Dylan is asking us to think about what happens to the dreams of American romance in a world of military disasters and framed boxers.

The point here is that the play of fantasy and reality that shapes the Rolling Thunder Revue is part and parcel of both the moment of its creation (the glitzy surface of the Bicentennial overlaying the despair following the recent defeat in Vietnam) and the songs that make up the performances.  Dylan is asking us to think about what happens to the dreams of American romance in a world of military disasters and framed boxers.  His exotic persona–in white face, peering out from under the floppy hat–seems now like a heroic attempt to replace anomie with magic.  The disillusionment of 1976 is sublimated into Dylan’s gypsy identity, which labors to resolve violence and romance.  That dialectical effort is, in turn, reworked forty years later, with Scorcese’s introduction of phony talking heads and grandiose commentary.  Halfway through the movie Michael Murphy turns up, pretending to be the fake politician he played on the “reality” TV series “Tanner ’88.”  The implication is that in 1976 Dylan tapped into something “essential” in America–but that it can now only be delivered as a cinematic joke.    

Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone: “With a style that turns analysis into a form of suspense, Hampton can walk you through “Visions of Johanna” or “Summer Days” the way the art historian T. J. Clark can walk you through Manet’s Olympia.

Every event in American history returns as show business at some point.  Even when we try to think about the limits of illusion and romance we can only do so through the prism of yet another form of fiction.  This American fact haunts the project of the film and the concert tour.  It is condensed in a single detail that emblematizes the whole project.  Near the end of the film we see Dylan visiting Ruben Carter in jail.  Dylan is trying to raise support for a man who has been falsely imprisoned.  This is the American echo of Emile Zola’s accusation of the French government in the Dreyfus Affair–an instance of a great artist stepping up to defend the innocent.  We are dealing with life and death here.  It is serious business.  And yet Dylan shows up for the meeting in his floppy buckaroo hat, adorned with flowers.  He is never out of costume, even when someone else’s life is on the line.  The moment encapsulates the interplay between fantasy and reality, show biz and political violence, that the tour and the film both chronicle and struggle to resolve.  Show biz, as always in America, wins out.


Timothy Hampton teaches literature at the University of California, Berkeley. A scholar of the romance languages, focusing primarily on the Renaissance, he has written widely about literature and culture. His recent book, Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work, was published this year by Zone Books. For more information, please visit his website timothyhampton.org, where this essay also appears.