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Sol LeWitt was fond of cubes. Sometimes, he would make sculptures that were nothing but cubes, cubes within cubes upon cubes. In the early 1970s, LeWitt produced works like “Cube Structures Based on Five Modules.” The title captures the essence of the work. LeWitt took a bunch of open cubes made of wood, painted them white, and arranged them in various geometric structures. He just liked the cubiness of cubes.

This led a number of critics to think of LeWitt as a formalist. All the geometry spoke for itself. This was an artist of Cartesian spaces and strict rationalism. LeWitt was showing us something about the austere beauty of form. His white lattices were supposed to be an abstract representation of Mind itself, the way principles of thought progress from root axioms to logically deduced conclusions.

It took the great art critic Rosalind Krauss to notice that there was a madness in all these cubes. Why, wondered Rosalind, can’t you stop this manic proliferation of cubes, Mr. LeWitt? It was a good question. A couple of cubes here and there might make a fair, if boring, point about form. But LeWitt was obsessed. Here’s what Krauss said in an essay about LeWitt in her epochal The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths:

Like most of LeWitt’s work, “Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes” provides one with an experience that is obsessional in kind. On the vast platform, too splayed to be taken in at a glance, the 122 neat little fragmented frames, all meticulously painted white, sit in regimented but meaningless lines, the demonstration of a kind of mad obstinacy.

Krauss went on to describe LeWitt’s constant rearranging of cubes and empty structure as “babble.” It’s like someone who just keeps stringing words together with perfect grammatical rigor without ever saying anything. It is like taking the structures of meaning and then using them as the tools used to bash meaning to bits, creating a pointless chaos of otherwise meaningful chunks. LeWitt wasn’t like Descartes at all, concluded Krauss; he was like Samuel Beckett. And like the characters in a Beckett novel, Krauss saw LeWitt as engaged in a rigorous process (in LeWitt’s case, the production and arrangement of white cubes) that, when you really looked at what was going on, revealed, “its sense of its own absolute detachment from a world of purpose and necessity, its sense of being suspended before the immense spectacle of the irrational.”

Walking through the “Dead or Alive” exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, I stumbled into a brand new Sol LeWitt experience. It’s by Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta and it is called “Fragile Future.3.” “Fragile Future.3” is a hanging lattice of cubes that immediately evokes LeWitt. Gordijn and Nauta use strips of phosphorous bronze to create their lattice but the proliferation of interconnected cubes would surely have pleased LeWitt even at the height of his cube mania. Where Gordijn and Nauta strike off definitively on their own path is with the lights and the dandelions. Scattered throughout the cubes and lines that make up the structure of “Fragile Future.3” are dandelion puffs, each painstakingly glued to a glowing LED light at its center.

Starring at one of those glowing dandelion nodes, I immediately thought of the universe in the glass ball carried around by the cat in the first Men in Black movie. I’ll refrain from a long exposition of the movie. Suffice it to say that a major plot point is the existence of a mini-universe about the size of a marble that is being hidden on planet earth. And that is what the glowing dandelion nodes of “Fragile Future.3” seem to be, self-contained universes connected by the arbitrary geometric spaces of the lattice.

The next thought that whittled its way into my brain, after putting the Sol LeWitt structure together with the mini-universe of the glowing dandelion puffs, was that the little dandelions were, in fact, filling up the empty, otherwise meaningless geometric slots created by the LeWitt-like lattices. One of Krauss’ main points in bringing up the craziness of LeWitt’s cubes was to show that LeWitt was not a defender of simplistic rationalism. His cubes weren’t supposed to make us feel comfortable and content in an ordered cosmos. Instead, the cubes were supposed to show us something uncanny in their proliferation until we finally notice the vast sea of irrationality that the seeming order of the lattice rests upon. In the end, LeWitt’s cubes and lattices don’t refer to anything at all, but just go on and on, self-enclosed systems of empty rules and organization existing merely for the sake of replicating empty rules and organization.

“Fragile Future.3” has none of that severity (severity being the prevailing mood in most works of ’60s and ’70s Minimalism). Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta are, in day-to-day practice, designers. In fact, they are the founders of a design company called DRIFT, the goal of which is to “create a dialogue between the viewer and the objects we create, embodied in tangible objects that refer to realities that are often impenetrable and difficult to understand.” On the face of it, it is hard to work out how a tangible object can refer to a reality that is “impenetrable and difficult to understand.” Something either refers or it doesn’t. The seriousness of LeWitt’s work is in how much he takes the empty loop of non-referring systems to its logical, if insane, conclusion. The whole point of his cubes is that they never go anywhere, never mean anything. Goddijn and Nauta would then seem to be cheating. Taking up LeWitt’s empty series of self-replicating cubes, they’ve simply asserted that the geometry does refer to something after all. It refers to something impenetrable and difficult to understand. Forgive us for not being entirely grateful.

On the other hand, there is something about putting the lights and the dandelions inside the structure that strikes me as so very much the right thing to do. The way that Krauss talks about LeWitt’s cubes, you always get the sense that they are spiraling off somewhere away from the world. The cubes are “of” the world but no longer “in” it, no longer engaged or participating. Krauss speaks of experiencing LeWitt’s art as like entering “a world without a center.”

“Fragile Future.3” gives the center back. In fact, it gives a bunch of centers. If LeWitt’s cubes suggested that the structures of meaning undermine themselves to the point where they generate the opposite of meaning, “Fragile Future.3” suggests that that process comes back to solid ground after all. LeWitt hypothesized that an obsessive concentration on the rules of logic gets us eventually to a crazyland where there is no point to any of it. “Fragile Future.3” looks at things from a cosmic perspective. It asserts that the outcome of random processes and interactions is just life. Trace the Big Bang out far enough and eventually you get to one of those dandelions. In LeWitt’s case, meaning leads finally to meaningless, the center dissolves. The way Gordijn and Nauta see it, pile on enough meaninglessness, enough grids and cubes, and suddenly, miraculously, are born little glowing nodules of meaning.

The relationship between “Cube Structures Based on Five Modules” and “Fragile Future.3 is a tidy story about the relationship between Modernity and Postmodernity. Modernity gave us serious art about the breakdown of meaning and the alienation that this created. Postmodernity gives us playful works of art that accept the loss of meaning in the grand sense but rediscover individual moments of meaning in their play. There is some truth in this, I suppose. Alienation is dead. We want, today, to find the tiny dandelions of light within the lattice structure in a way we would never have accepted in 1973. The possibility of meaning has reemerged, if in unexpected ways.

Still, there is a fundamental mystery shared both by LeWitt’s cubes and by “Fragile Future.3.” Otherwise meaningful processes do degenerate into meaningless babble and otherwise meaningless babble does, suddenly, cohere into meaning. That can be an upsetting realization or an awe-inspiring one, depending on your mood that day. We’re talking about a process of the generation and degeneration of meaning that far outstrips our ability to understand it. Something Rosalind Krauss once said about LeWitt ends up being just as true of Gordijn and Nauta: “Aporia is a far more legitimate model … than Mind, if only because aporia is a dilemma rather than a thing.” • 26 May 2010