When Art Refuses to Let Go

In Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, the new exhibition at the Met Breuer, a relatively small painted balsa wood sculpture by Sol LeWitt — “13/3” (1981) from the Met’s own collection — sits inside a Plexiglas display case atop a white pedestal. Its label reads in full:

Upon first glance, 13/3 would seem to have little relationship to delirium. It is an abstract sculpture composed of identical modules assembled according to the simple plan documented in the title: a thirteen-by-thirteen grid from which three towers rise. LeWitt, however, did not consider his otherwise systematic work rational. Indeed, he aimed to “break out of the whole idea of rationality.” “In a logical sequence,” LeWitt wrote, in which a predetermined algorithm, not the artist, dictates the work of art, “you don’t think about it. It is a way of not thinking. It is irrational.”

The work’s balsa wood legs cast shadows that multiply and disarrange the modules. In addition, the modules act as frames that fracture the surrounding space. Overall, 13/3 creates perceptual effects both vertiginous and disorderly.

In her generous review of the exhibition for The New York Times, Roberta Smith recalls that LeWitt’s “irrationality and obsessive repetition was first noted by the critic Rosalind Krauss in a 1978 essay on the artist,” a text that, she tells us, was the inspiration for Delirious’s curator, Kelly Baum.

Smith is referring to “LeWitt in Progress,” published in the Autumn 1978 issue of October magazine. One of the more notable (and intrinsically ‘70s) aspects of the essay is the inexplicable (and, unless you check the footnote, uncredited) interruption of the text by passages from Samuel Beckett’s 1951 novel Molloy, namely the famous — and maddening — account of the first-person narrator explaining his systemic rotation of “sucking-stones” among the pockets of his greatcoat.

If the passages from Molloy, with their demented methodology, and Krauss’s intrusive introduction of them into the text, had affected the curator’s selection and arrangement of the art in the show, it is an influence that is hard to detect. Instead, the exhibition seems to be taking its cue from classic LeWitt, with innumerable variations on the box and grid, especially in the opening rooms, whose staidness and regimentation might at first glance (if not a second or third) persuade you that you are stepping off the elevator into the wrong show.

And in effect you are. If you want to see something truly delirious, go one floor down, while you still can, to Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical, with its orange walls and profusions of clashing patterns, candy-colored Roman ruins, ebullient forms, and ancient artifacts, not to mention Sottsass’s quintessentially Surrealist “The Societies on This Planet Bed” (1992), with its mock-cinderblock headboard and wavily top-heavy, gravity-defying pearwood footboard.

As Deborah Solomon commented in her perspicacious discussion of the show on the public radio station WNYC, Delirious “sorely under-delivers. It offers, in essence, a tame, academic view of a small swath of modern art – the Conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 1970s. As most everyone knows, Conceptual art emphasizes ideas and philosophy over visual pleasure. The mind matters more than the eye.” And what is remarkable about this show is how visually flat-footed it is, despite the unquestionable quality of much of the art. The selection process seems to have adhered to a dictum of LeWitt’s that Krauss quotes in her essay: “Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.”