New York

Charles Gaines and Sol LeWitt at Paula Cooper NYC

Two shows at Paula CooperSol LeWitt: Wall Drawing 564 and Charles Gaines: Notes on Social Justice—knowingly nod at each other from their respective spaces across West Twenty-First Street. Wall Drawing 564: Complex forms with color ink washes superimposed (1988) holds court in Cooper’s large, dramatic exhibition hall surrounded by roughly contemporaneous structures and works on paper, and the immersive drawing exhibits LeWitt’s sustained interest in the grid and the architecture of optics with colorful bravura. Across the way, less colorful but no less stunning, Charles Gaines: Notes on Social Justice presents a new series of systems-based drawings: musical scores with lyrics sourced from political manifestos that consider the relationship between reading, looking, and aesthetic experience. Although seemingly unrelated, Gaines and LeWitt are significant players in the life and afterlives of Conceptual art. As stated in LeWitt’s 1967 “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art…It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman.” [1] These shows illuminate how far one can push drawing—that original litmus test of artistic skill—away from traditional notions of authorship and the artist’s hand.

Sol LeWitt. Wall Drawing #564: Complex forms with color ink washes superimposed, 1988; installation view, Sol LeWitt, 2013. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.

Sol LeWitt. Wall Drawing #564: Complex forms with color ink washes superimposed, 1988; installation view, Sol LeWitt, 2013. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert

Both exhibitions show parts of these artists’ oeuvres that may be somewhat strange to viewers. Wall Drawing 564 is unlike LeWitt’s early wall drawings composed of orthogonal lines and his slick, hard-edged Pop-colored wall drawings. Executed by a highly skilled team, it is majestic in scale (it fills all three walls floor to ceiling) and color (ink wash applied with rags onto adjoining facets of large geometrical forms), invoking the architecturally bound, spiritual sublime of the Italian frescoes that so moved LeWitt when he lived in Spoleto, Italy, in the late 1970s. A stark, white structure, 12 x 12 x 1 TO 2 x 2 x 6 (1990) stands in an adjacent room as a reminder that the grid and its permutations undergird the architecture, optics, and aesthetics of everyday experience as well as LeWitt’s strictly conceptual investigations. When one is enveloped by the three walls of Wall Drawing 564, the grid governs which forms recede and which hover in its frames, just as it structures the shifting volumes and forms of 12 x 12 x 1 TO 2 x 2 x 6. Despite LeWitt’s well-known proclivity for the conceptual, Wall Drawing 564 does not eschew what he described as “perceptual,” or “meant for the sensation of the eye primarily.” [2]  Then again, as he noted in the same text, “it doesn’t really matter if the viewer understands the concepts of the artist by seeing the art.” Here we might rethink the traditional interpretation of LeWitt’s theory of Conceptual art—aesthetics may not matter, but seeing does.

Sol LeWitt. 12x12x1 TO 2x2x6, 1990; painted wood; 99x7x57 ½ in. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.

Sol LeWitt. 12 x 12 x 1 TO 2 x 2 x 6, 1990; painted wood; 99 x 57 x 57 1/2 in. (251.5 x 144.8 x 146.1 cm) Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert

Unlike LeWitt and his finite permutations of rational form, Gaines was known in the mid-1970s for his use of the grid to explore the infinite possibilities of numerical progressions and the irrational nature of their form. The work on view is still very much about systems and structure, but it subtly links the systems that govern social and political life with the systems that impact reading, cognition, and signification. Gaines frames this concern as the paradox of authorship and affect, and it plays out in Skybox I (2011), a lightbox with passages from four political texts, each addressing oppression and liberation from a range of political leaders and historical time periods, that fade into darkness as a panorama of the night sky replaces them. This is the sort of lyrical, aesthetic terrain that the earliest acolytes of Conceptual art wouldn’t touch.

Charles Gaines. Manifestos 2, 2013; installation view, Charles Gaines: Notes on Social Justice, 2013. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.

Charles Gaines. Installation view of Manifestos 2, 2013, from Notes on Social Justice;
Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert

The series Manifestos 2 (2013) comprises a four-channel video installation and four six-foot-tall musical scores whose notes and lyrics were taken from political manifestos from different time periods. Each letter in the text corresponds to either a note on the chromatic scale (A through G) or another staff notation. Words, Gaines seems to say, are where we begin: Western classical music came from aural chants that sounded the name of notes; similarly, the historical impact of artistic and political manifestos results from their very particular style of hard-hitting language. In addition to language and music, writing is conflated with drawing, for the pristine appearance of these works belies the fact that their notes, marks, and staffs have all been rendered with excruciating precision in graphite. In the nearby installation, each manifesto text scrolls slowly on one of four TV monitors as its corresponding score, via string quartet, plays through two speakers. It is a dissociative experience: the tone of the music so elegiac, the scrolling text so vehement. The next gallery features the series Notes on Social Justice, where the lyrics of existing late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century songs are replaced with sentences from a variety of artistic and political texts. Notes on Social Justice: Dey’s all put on de blue (1880) (2013) is an ink drawing of the score to a song whose original lyrics critiqued the fickleness of political affiliations in the Reconstruction era: “Dey’s all put on de blue” refers to veterans who simply wore the union blue over their gray confederate uniforms. Originally written in black dialect, the song is a call for authenticity in an age of political flip-flopping, something that has great contemporary relevance. Then again, songs like this are, on some level, forms of propaganda.

Charles Gaines. Notes on Social Justice: Wait Till Next November, (1892), 2013; ink on Stonehenge paper; 75x40 in. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.

Charles Gaines. Notes on Social Justice: Wait Till Next November, (1892), 2013; ink on Stonehenge paper; 75 x 40 in. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert

This is the sort of openness that Roland Barthes sought to convey when he unwittingly channeled a key concern of Conceptual art in his famous 1968 essay, “The Death of the Author”: “Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.” [3] This willful displacement of the artist/author by a predetermined system, one of Conceptual art’s most radical tenets, allows for endless possibility without the limiting hand of artistic intention. For Gaines and LeWitt, the gesture of displacement is attribution: Wall Drawing is but an output of a system (the real “work” is LeWitt’s design for it), and as such, its aesthetic effects are indeterminate. Gaines, more concerned than LeWitt with refining the political edge of language, has designed a system for converting text to musical notes that when performed, pits the processes of cognition and interpretation—what we read in the score and we read into it—against the irrational force of affect.

It’s important to note the torch-passing, too: LeWitt took a shine to Gaines’s work in the mid-1970s and (as he so generously did with numerous young artists) facilitated his entrée into the New York art world. Gaines, meanwhile, engaged conceptual strategies in a manner that breathed new life into a movement that was by then putting viewers to sleep. He is finally getting his due in the art world. The structural deconstruction and reconstruction of musical scores and manifesto texts—both documents intended to move audiences emotionally and politically—interrogates the central paradox of Gaines’s practice that lies between the mechanisms of politics (the didactic language of the manifesto) and aesthetics (the sublime experience of the night sky or a string quartet). [4]

Charles Gaines: Notes on Social Justice is on view through October 5, 2013, and Sol Lewitt: Wall Drawing 564 is on view through October 12, 2013; both at Paula Cooper, NYC.

[1] LeWitt, Sol. “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967): 79.

[2] Ibid, p.80

[3] Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977: 147

[4] On a historical note, LeWitt executed a wall drawing for Paula Cooper’s first show, which was also a fundraiser for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

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