Sunday, July 26, 2009

Art Revolution Utopia

I spent several hours on Saturday inside the world of Sol LeWitt. We were visiting the gigantic installation of LeWitt's wall paintings that will fill an entire factory building at MassMOCA, three floors' worth, for the next 25 years. You enter a world of pure concept--spare lines void of color that fill whole walls with simple geometric forms massively elaborated through repetition--at the ground floor. Then you rise into rectilinear patterns of primary colors, then into swirls and splashes of all sorts of colors, always articulated in terms of formally governed patterns. Those patterns, LeWitt's part of the job, enabled this installation, his chef-d'oeuvre, to be executed by a small army of art students according to LeWitt's instructions after his death. He has in this fashion bequeathed to us, by way of MassMOCA, a vast utopian space.

The occasion was made more remarkable by the participation of composer Steve Reich, who described his close personal and theoretical ties to LeWitt. Each is seminal to the minimalist movement in his particular art. Reich spoke of LeWitt's formal design programs as 'scores,' while Reich's own pieces unfold like the endlessly permutating figures in LeWitt's wall paintings. Later, we listened to Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians," his hour-long summum of complexity and instrumental color, in the museum's auditorium just steps from the LeWitt installation. With Reich's huge work, as with LeWitt's, you don't just listen to the work, you enter into it. You become subject to its abstract dimensions, measured not as space in this case but as duration. You live the music, transfixed by its regularities and modifications, according to its transmuting postulates of rhythm and tone.

These carefully intertwined experiences of art and music were all the more poignant as I had been thinking on the way out to North Adams of how unlikely a thing it is that we will ever slip the bonds of the present capitalist world-system, except perhaps in the direction of catastrophe. The heroic revolutionary vision of a 'better world' beyond the horizon of the profit-system is all but extirpated from our collective consciousness by what the French call la pensée unique and we in America refer to as 'the end of history.' Observing the jockeying of the Congress as it diminishes the already reductive initiatives of the President, listening to the unsyntactical grunts of the Mayor as he announces his campaign for reelection, I think 'What a sad and cynical affair our politics have become!' And yet all the vitality and promise that are missing from this dreary public sphere show themselves here, at MassMOCA, in these huge and utopian artworks. Totalizing artists, Reich and LeWitt have found ways to revolutionize the ways we see and hear, to build from first principles a new world of sight and sound. This may be small consolation for the morass of greed and inertia that constitutes our public sphere ... but consolation nonetheless.


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