Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 27, 2018
Rice Gallery Sol LeWitt: Glossy and Flat Black Squares Houston: Rice Gallery, 2017.
Rice University Art Gallery, February 9–May 14, 2017
Installation view, Sol LeWitt: Glossy and Flat Black Squares, Rice Gallery, February 9–May 14, 2017 (photograph © Nash Baker)

In 1966 Sol LeWitt wrote, “The most interesting characteristic of the cube is that it is relatively uninteresting” (LeWitt, “The Cube,” Art in America, Summer 1966). Rice University Art Gallery (a space that has now been repurposed), like many contemporary art spaces, was a modest white cube, and LeWitt’s installation Glossy and Flat Black Squares purposely played off of its seemingly “uninteresting” architectural container.  When LeWitt repeated the assertion in 1967, he elaborated: “The best that can be said for either the square or the cube is that they are relatively uninteresting in themselves. . . . Released from the necessity of being significant in themselves, they can be better used as grammatical devices from which the work may proceed” (LeWitt quoted in Lucy Lippard et al., “Homage to the Square,” Art in America, July–August 1967, 54). Just as grammar acts as a structure to elucidate the meaning of words, LeWitt saw squares and cubes as basic units of geometry that served as a platform for nuanced spatial experiences. The very commonness of squares and cubes rendered them ready facilitators for the registration of so many other, more interesting aspects of the world.

LeWitt became known for his series of white-cube and grid structures bounded by mathematical systems in the 1960s, and he expanded his practice to wall drawings in 1968. The wall drawings took the proposals of the cubes even further, marking a definitive turn toward the conceptual. With the wall drawings, LeWitt no longer created physical works but instead created a set of instructions for their execution. For this reason, LeWitt is often compared to a composer or a designer, metaphors meant to convey the way in which he authored the idea of the work divorced from the necessity of carrying it out himself. Part of the intrigue of the installation of LeWitt’s work is that it simultaneously embodies both a score and the performance of that score.

The installation at Rice Gallery, Wall Drawing #813 (1997), also known as Glossy and Flat Black Squares, consisted of five large black squares that stretched nearly to the floor and ceiling, painted at irregular intervals on three of the gallery’s walls. The fourth wall of Rice Gallery’s architectural cube consisted entirely of glass panes, held together with black mullions. The space of the gallery was something in between the traditional “modernist” white cube and a more dynamic glass-box exhibition space.

In 1995 Rice Gallery found its footing as the only university art gallery in the United States to specialize in site-specific installations. With this mandate, developed by director Kimberly Davenport, the gallery commissioned the first piece especially for its space in 1997: Sol LeWitt’s Glossy and Flat Black Squares, which the artist created based on the specific dimensions and characteristics of Rice Gallery. The 2017 exhibition Sol LeWitt: Glossy and Flat Squares was a re-presentation of that first installation and also served as a bookend for the project of Rice Gallery itself. The gallery closed its doors with the conclusion of the show as the university began to consolidate its visual-art exhibition spaces in the recently unveiled Moody Center for the Arts, a sleek thirty-million-dollar interdisciplinary arts building located on the other side of campus, designed by the Los Angeles architecture firm headed by Michael Maltzan. For its part, the Rice Gallery space has become a university Welcome Center. Thus, Sol LeWitt: Glossy and Flat Squares was an homage to the gallery’s beginnings and a gesture to its end. In between this 2017 iteration of Glossy and Flat Black Squares and its first incarnation in 1997, lay all the layers of paint the gallery’s walls had seen in the intervening twenty years—an archeological accumulation of artistic activity.

When LeWitt first saw Rice Gallery’s space in 1997, one can imagine that he would have found its basic geometric features and its neutral color scheme—that is, its rather uninteresting, even superficial, qualities—particularly inspiring. Not only were the matte white walls the dominating feature of the gallery, but the floor was a grid of highly polished, off-white, square limestone tiles, already unifying the glossy and the flat. From the outside looking in or the inside looking out, the black braces that hold the glass wall together split the space into rectangles and squares, an inherent framing device built into the space, and consequently the piece.

Despite the work’s title, multiple geometries emerged from the constraints of the square to shape space in alternate ways. Of the five squares, two were painted contiguously, transforming them into a rectangle with only a shift in lustrousness to articulate a division. On the central wall, a third square appeared bisected diagonally into a glossy lower triangle and a flat upper triangle. Slick and glassy, the glossy black shapes acted as shadowy mirrors, reflecting each other in ways that magnified their phenomenal effect. The glossy triangle at the back of the space faced the gallery’s glass front and, on the sunny days I visited, was a shimmering midnight green because of the tree canopy arcing over the lawn in front of the gallery. Thus the glossy squares operated as amplifiers of space—adding layers of light, extending far beyond the confines of the interior walls and bringing the exterior and interior together. The matte squares, in contrast, absorbed the light. They both stood out from and yet paradoxically melded with the gallery’s walls, which were also covered with matte paint.

In Houston, when seeing a single room so defined by the imposing paintings on its walls, one cannot help but think of the Rothko Chapel, a little over a mile and a half away from Rice Gallery on the campus of the Menil Collection. The Rothko Chapel is also a site-specific work, designed to display the paintings on its walls in a permanent configuration meant to evoke both emotional and embodied reflection. But LeWitt’s installation definitively eschewed the eternal romanticism of Rothko. Instead, LeWitt offered an experience that was decidedly impermanent, anti-expressionist, and systematically enacted by a team. Still, the two spaces shared many affinities. Once within them, visitors are meant to become more aware of their experiences of the spaces they occupy. Light becomes—alongside paint—the defining characteristic of spatial experience, and the way light shifts and flickers elucidates aspects of the paintings that were hidden at earlier moments. The longer a visitor spends contemplating the work, the more he or she is rewarded by the act of looking, possibly recognizing that the act of looking is a specific kind of experience that this space has been designed to facilitate. Rothko Chapel and Glossy and Flat Black Squares are much more than dark paintings on white walls. They insistently point out that site specificity is not just a spatial but a profoundly temporal experience.

Another distinguishing feature of the Rothko Chapel is its cloistered interior environment. Because the fourth wall of Rice Gallery was floor-to-ceiling glass, LeWitt’s work purposely played to the visual continuum offered by the gallery’s windowed facade. The gallery was the fulcrum of a building that housed multiple disciplines, and its windowed wall was one part of a corridor that receives extensive pedestrian traffic throughout the day. Thus another element of the design was that the installation could be viewed in passing, without actually entering the space of the gallery. Additionally, once inside the space of the gallery, a visitor was acutely aware of the space beyond, a sense that was encouraged by the continuous floor tiles that flowed between the gallery and the corridor. Just beyond, one became aware of other geometric patterns—not only the glossy squares of the floor, but rectangular red bricks, culminating in arches on the exterior that open onto a sunken courtyard. The architecture of the gallery, the building, and the university campus were both compressed and expanded by the way LeWitt teased out the fundamental layers of the built environment in two dimensions.

In many ways, Sol LeWitt is a perfect artist for a university art gallery, especially one dedicated to installation art. He was known to be a generous mentor to fellow artists, offering encouragement and advice with a droll sensibility. And his method, which ultimately requires collaboration, allows younger artists to share in the experience of making a “Sol LeWitt” work. For Rice Gallery’s final installation, six students worked with the gallery’s preparator, David Krueger, and the certified LeWitt installer Michael Benjamin Vedder, to painstakingly paint the walls to LeWitt’s prescribed specifications. This could be thought of as a learning-by-doing apprenticeship, in which these younger artists experienced firsthand the meticulous craftsmanship that goes into such a work while developing their own specific physical relationship to it. Indeed, the six students had to create the piece in synchrony as they worked against time to apply the paint evenly before it dried or dripped. They also had to contend with another element of time: over the course of Rice Gallery’s existence, the walls had been painted and repainted so many times for so many different projects that undulations stubbornly emerged, which, even with sanding and smoothing, could not be entirely leveled. They remained, appropriately in light of the musical metaphors that characterize LeWitt’s practice, like grooves on a vinyl record, to remind the viewer that even something seemingly regular offers tonal variations.

According to LeWitt’s terms for the piece, the work was to be destroyed at the end of the exhibition. However, although in the wake of the show’s closing the black squares were blotchily covered over with white paint, they remained visible, apparitions of their once-bold forms, a fitting eulogy to the space that they physically occupy, and yet also visually do not. Temporary, site-specific installation is ideally inseparable from its environment, and LeWitt’s Glossy and Flat Black Squares embodied this ethos, becoming an epigrammatic summation of Rice Gallery’s history in its ability to unite all the ephemeral configurations seen on these walls. The squares now resonate as ghosts haunting the cube of exhibitions past, their legacy not black or white, but transitory gray. 

Sandra Zalman
Associate Professor of Art History, School of Art, University of Houston