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Between Ideology and Poetry

It would seem that Sol LeWitt’s proto-Conceptual work of the early 1960s originated in an understanding of the essential dilemma that has haunted artistic production since 1913, when its basic paradigms of opposition were first formulated—a dilemma that could be described as the conflict between structural specificity and random organization. For the need, on the one hand, for both a systematic reduction and an empirical verification of the perceptual data of a visual structure stands opposed to the desire, on the other hand, to assign a new “idea” or meaning to an object randomly (in the manner of Mallarmé’s “transposition”) as though the object were an empty (linguistic) signifier.

This was the dilemma that Roland Barthes described in 1956 as the “difficulty of our times” in the concluding paragraphs of Mythologies:

It seems that this is a difficulty pertaining to our times: there is as yet only one possible choice, and this choice can bear only on two equally extreme methods: either to posit a reality which is entirely permeable to history, and ideologize; or conversely, to posit a reality which is ultimately impenetrable, irreducible, and, in this case, poetize. In a word, I do not yet see a synthesis between ideology and poetry (by poetry I understand, in a very general way, the search for the inalienable meaning of things).1

Both critiques of the traditional practices of representation in the American postwar context had at first appeared mutually exclusive and had often fiercely attacked each other. For example, Reinhardt’s extreme form of self-critical, perceptual positivism had gone too far for most of the New York School artists and certainly for the apologists of American Modernism, mainly Greenberg and Fried, who had constructed a paradoxical dogma of transcendentalism and self-referential technique. On the other hand, Reinhardt was as vociferous as they—if not more so—in his contempt for the opposite, which is to say, the Duchampian tradition. This is evident in Ad Reinhardt’s condescending remarks about both Duchamp—“I’ve never approved or liked anything about Marcel Duchamp. You have to choose between Duchamp and Mondrian”—and his legacy as represented through Cage and Rauschenberg—“Then the whole mixture, the number of poets and musicians and writers mixed up with art. Disreputable. Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg. I’m against the mixture of all the arts, against the mixture of art and life you know, everyday life.”2

What slid by unnoticed was the fact that both these critiques of representation led to highly comparable formal and structural results (e.g., Rauschenberg’s monochromes in 1951 – 53 and Reinhardt’s monochromes such as Black Quadruptych in 1955). Furthermore, even while made from opposite vantage points, the critical arguments accompanying such works systematically denied the traditional principles and functions of visual representation, constructing astonishingly similar litanies of negation. This is as evident, for example, in the text prepared by John Cage for Rauschenberg’s White Paintings in 1953 as it is in Ad Reinhardt’s 1962 manifesto “Art as Art.” First Cage:

To whom, No Subject, No Image, No taste, No object, No beauty, No talent, No technique (no why), No idea, No intention, No art, No feeling, No black, No white no (and). After careful consideration I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing in these paintings that could not be changed, that they can be seen in any light and are not destroyed by the action of shadows. Hallelujah! the blind can be seen again; the water is fine.3

And then Ad Reinhardt’s ‘manifesto’ for his own art-as-art principle:

No lines or imaginings, no shapes or composings or representings, no visions or sensations or impulses, no symbols or signs or impastos, no decoratings or colorings or picturings, no pleasures or pains, no accidents or ready-mades, no things, no ideas, no relations, no attributes, no qualities —nothing that is not of the essence.

Ad Reinhardt’s empiricist American formalism (condensed in his art-as-art formula) and Duchamp’s critique of visuality (voiced for example in the famous quip: “All my work in the period before the Nude was visual painting. Then I came to the idea...”4) appear in the historically rather unlikely fusion of Kosuth’s attempt to integrate the two positions in the mid-1960s, leading to his own formula, which he deployed starting in 1966, “Art as Idea as Idea.” It should be noted, however, that the strange admixture of the nominalist position of Duchamp (and its consequences) and the positivist position of Reinhardt (and its implications) was not only accomplished in 1965 with the beginnings of Conceptual Art but was well-prepared in the work of Frank Stella, who in his Black Paintings from 1959 claimed both Rauschenberg’s monochrome paintings and Reinhardt’s paintings as points of departure. Finally, it was the work of Sol LeWitt—in particular work such as his Structures—that demarcates that precise transition, integrating as they do both language and visual sign in a structural model.

The surfaces of these Structures from 1961 to 1962 (some of which used single frames from Muybridge’s serial photographs) carried inscriptions in bland lettering identifying the hue and shape of those surfaces (e.g., “RED SQUARE”) and the inscription itself (e.g., “WHITE LETTERS”). Since these inscriptions named either the support or the inscription (or, in the middle section of the painting, both support and inscription in a paradoxical inversion), they created a continuous conflict in the viewer/reader. This conflict was not just over which of the two roles should be performed in relation to the painting. To a larger extent it concerned the reliability of the given information and the sequence of that information: was the inscription to be given primacy over the visual qualities identified by the linguistic entity, or was he the perceptual experience of the visual, formal, and chromatic element anterior to its mere domination by language?

Clearly this “mapping of the linguistic onto the perceptual” was not arguing in favor of “the idea”—or linguistic primacy—or the definition of the work of art as an analytic proposition. Quite to the contrary, the permutational character of the work suggested that the viewer/reader systematically perform all the visual and textual options the painting’s parameters allowed for. This included an acknowledgment of the painting’s central, square element: a spatial void that revealed the underlying wall surface as the painting’s architectural support in actual space, thereby suspending the reading of the painting between architectural structure and linguistic definition.

Rather than privileging one over the other, LeWitt’s work (in its dialogue with Jasper Johns’s legacy of paradox) insisted on forcing the inherent contradictions of the two spheres (that of the perceptual experience and that of the linguistic experience) into the highest possible relief. Unlike Frank Stella’s response to Johns, which forced modernist self-referentiality one step further into the ultimate cul de sac of its positivist convictions (his notorious statement “what you see is what you see” would attest to that just as much as the development of his later work),5 Sol LeWitt’s dialogue (with both Johns and Stella, and ultimately, of course, with Greenberg) developed a dialectical position with regard to the positivist legacy.

In contrast to Stella, his work now revealed that the modernist compulsion for empiricist self-reflexiveness not only originated in the scientific positivism which is the founding logic of capitalism (undergirding its industrial forms of production just as much as its science and theory), but that, for an artistic practice that internalized this positivism by insisting on a purely empiricist approach to vision, there would be a final destiny. This destiny would be to aspire to the condition of tautology.

It is not surprising, then, that when LeWitt formulated his second text on Conceptual Art—in his “Sentences on Conceptual Art” from the spring of 1969—the first sentence should programmatically state the radical difference between the logic of scientific production and that of aesthetic experience:

1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
2. Rational judgments repeat rational judgments.
3. Irrational judgments lead to new experience.


1. Joseph Kosuth, “Art after Philosophy” (Part II), in The Making of Meaning, p. 175. The list would seem complete, if it were not for the absence of Mel Bochner’s and On Kawara’s name, and its explicit negation of the importance of Sol LeWitt. According to Bochner, who had become an instructor at the School of Visual Arts in 1965, Joseph Kosuth worked with him as a student in 1965 and 1966. Dan Graham mentioned that during that time Kosuth was also a frequent visitor to the studios of On Kawara and Sol LeWitt. Kosuth’s explicit negation makes one wonder whether it was not precisely Sol LeWitt’s series of the so-called “Structures” (such as Red Square, White Letters, for example, produced in 1962 and exhibited in 1965) that was one of the crucial points of departure for the formulation of Kosuth’s Proto-Investigations.

2. The first of the two quotations is to be found in Ad Reinhardt’s Skowhegan lecture, delivered in 1967, quoted by Lucy Lippard in Ad Reinhardt (New York, 1981), p. 195. The second statement appears in an interview with Mary Fuller, published as “An Ad Reinhardt Monologue,” Artforum, vol. 10 (November 1971), pp. 36 – 41.

3. John Cage (statement in reaction to the controversy engendered by the exhibition of Rauschenberg’s all-white paintings at the Stable Gallery, September 15 – October 3, 1953). Printed in Emily Genauer’s column in the New York Herald Tribune, December 27, 1953, p. 6 (section 4).

4. Marcel Duchamp, interview with Francis Roberts (1963), Art News, (December 1968), p. 46.

5. Stella’s famous statement was of course made in the conversation between Bruce Glaser, Donald Judd, and himself, in February 1964, and published in Art News (September 1966), pp. 55 – 61. To what extent the problem of this dilemma haunted the generation of Minimal artists becomes evident when almost ten years later, in an interview with Jack Burnham, Robert Morris would still seem to be responding (if perhaps unconsciously) to Stella’s notorious statement:
Painting ceased to interest me. There were certain things about it that seemed very problematic to me...There was a big conflict between the fact of doing this thing, and what it looked like later. It just didn’t make much sense to me. Primarily because there was an activity I did in time, and there was a certain method to it. And that didn’t seem to have any relationship to the thing at all. There is a certain resolution in the theater where there is real time, and what you do is what you do. [Emphasis added].

Morris, unpublished interview with Jack Burnham, November 21, 1975, Robert Morris Archive. Quoted in Maurice Berger, Labyrinths: Robert Morris, Minimalism, and the 1960s (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 25.


Benjamin Buchloh

BENJAMIN BUCHLOH is a German art historian. He is a professor of Modern Art at Harvard University.


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