Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 18, 2007

LeWitt’s Legacy

The artist Sol LeWitt died last week at the age of 78, just two months after the death of Jules Olitski, another artist who achieved fame in the 1960’s. Each took as his point of departure the “action painting” of the 1950’s, reacting against its convulsive gestures and swagger—although they did so in sharply different ways.

Olitski stained his canvases with frail veils of color, creating mists or fields without any bounding lines. LeWitt, by contrast, made hard-edged sculptures and paintings. Cool and cerebral in character, they were invariably bounded by firm lines and planes. He preferred working with “deliberately uninteresting”—to use his phrase—forms and geometric modules, which he assembled into sprawling additive compositions. These laconic assemblages mark the beginning of Conceptual Art, a term LeWitt coined in 1967.

In that year LeWitt published his landmark essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in Artforum. “Paragraphs” contains a celebrated definition: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.” So perfunctory, indeed, that the execution of LeWitt’s wall paintings was invariably left to assistants or student volunteers working from his written instructions.

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The artist Sol LeWitt died last week at the age of 78, just two months after the death of Jules Olitski, another artist who achieved fame in the 1960’s. Each took as his point of departure the “action painting” of the 1950’s, reacting against its convulsive gestures and swagger—although they did so in sharply different ways.

Olitski stained his canvases with frail veils of color, creating mists or fields without any bounding lines. LeWitt, by contrast, made hard-edged sculptures and paintings. Cool and cerebral in character, they were invariably bounded by firm lines and planes. He preferred working with “deliberately uninteresting”—to use his phrase—forms and geometric modules, which he assembled into sprawling additive compositions. These laconic assemblages mark the beginning of Conceptual Art, a term LeWitt coined in 1967.

In that year LeWitt published his landmark essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in Artforum. “Paragraphs” contains a celebrated definition: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.” So perfunctory, indeed, that the execution of LeWitt’s wall paintings was invariably left to assistants or student volunteers working from his written instructions.

LeWitt’s own artistic training was spotty. Born in Hartford, Connecticut to a family of Russian immigrants, he studied at Syracuse University, designed posters while serving in the army in Korea, and worked for a time in the bookshop of the Museum of Modern Art. He even served a term in the mid-1950’s as a designer for the architect I.M. Pei. This varied background helps account for his versatility—sculpture, print-making, graphic art—but it also suggests why his artistic language remained a schematic affair of simple geometric units and shapes. He was never a fluid draftsman and never sought to achieve painterly effects.

Strangely, after he had brought art to this conceptual pass, LeWitt retreated from the disembodied logic of his 1960’s work. His late wall paintings, like the one I pass each morning in the Williams College Museum of Art, are distinguished by a vibrant and sumptuous sense of color, worlds away from his bleached lattices of the 1960’s. Might it be that he was closer as an artist to Olitski than one might have thought?

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France’s Royal Socialist

On Sunday, France will hold its first round of balloting for a new president. This is the second of three posts on the leading candidates by the French editor and journalist Michel Gurfinkiel. A longer and more in-depth look by Gurfinkiel at the condition of present-day France will be coming out in the May issue of COMMENTARY.

Ségolène Royal is the first woman ever credibly to bid for the French presidency. There have been some female candidates over the last decades, including the Trotskyite “red virgin” Arlette Laguiller, who has been running regularly since 1974. But Royal is the first woman ever nominated by a major political party and the first to stand some chance of being elected.

This is a very real asset: France today is as enamored of gender equality as any Western nation and has even passed regulations requiring equal numbers of men and women in many elected bodies. In addition, Royal is quite a womanly woman—exceedingly beautiful at 20, if one is to judge from photographs released to the press, and still a very attractive brunette who looks much younger than her 53 years.

Her background could hardly be more different from that of her chief rival, Nicolas Sarkozy. Both Royal’s paternal and maternal ancestors come from the Lorraine, a deeply Catholic and deeply patriotic province on the German border. Her paternal grandfather, Florian Royal, the son of a farmer, joined the army, became a commissioned officer during World War I, and finally reached the rank of general. Her father, Jacques Royal, was a colonel in the artillery. On her mother’s side, she descends from a wealthy bourgeois family from Nancy, Lorraine’s provincial capital.

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On Sunday, France will hold its first round of balloting for a new president. This is the second of three posts on the leading candidates by the French editor and journalist Michel Gurfinkiel. A longer and more in-depth look by Gurfinkiel at the condition of present-day France will be coming out in the May issue of COMMENTARY.

Ségolène Royal is the first woman ever credibly to bid for the French presidency. There have been some female candidates over the last decades, including the Trotskyite “red virgin” Arlette Laguiller, who has been running regularly since 1974. But Royal is the first woman ever nominated by a major political party and the first to stand some chance of being elected.

This is a very real asset: France today is as enamored of gender equality as any Western nation and has even passed regulations requiring equal numbers of men and women in many elected bodies. In addition, Royal is quite a womanly woman—exceedingly beautiful at 20, if one is to judge from photographs released to the press, and still a very attractive brunette who looks much younger than her 53 years.

Her background could hardly be more different from that of her chief rival, Nicolas Sarkozy. Both Royal’s paternal and maternal ancestors come from the Lorraine, a deeply Catholic and deeply patriotic province on the German border. Her paternal grandfather, Florian Royal, the son of a farmer, joined the army, became a commissioned officer during World War I, and finally reached the rank of general. Her father, Jacques Royal, was a colonel in the artillery. On her mother’s side, she descends from a wealthy bourgeois family from Nancy, Lorraine’s provincial capital.

Royal’s history differs sharply from Sarkozy’s in another, far more important, respect: she has never held a single important cabinet position. Her main political achievement to date has been her defeat of the conservative former prime minister Jean-Claude Raffarin in the contest for chairmanship of the regional council of Poitou-Charentes in 2004. (Not exactly a ringing triumph: the socialists swept twenty regions out of twenty-two in that election.) But just as the Right would later rally around Sarkozy simply in order to stop Royal, the Left started to consider her as a potential candidate for the presidency in 2004 and 2005 against the meteorically rising Sarkozy. The old guard of the Socialist party—figures such as the former premiers Lionel Jospin and Laurent Fabius and the former minister of the economy Dominique Strauss-Kahn—seemed unlikely to win in a duel with the young, brash, and popular minister of the interior. What the Left needed was somebody new and different: a new face, a new voice, somebody who would attend, at least in a subliminal way, to the psychological needs of a sinking nation.

There were two successive stages in Royal’s campaign. From December 2005 until early this year, she stormed the ramparts of the Socialist party and secured the nomination. Throughout this period, she took an almost neoconservative stance on most issues, horrifying many party activists but eliciting enthusiastic interest among the French public. This was true in foreign policy—in December 2006, she said bluntly that she not only opposed Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weaponry but any transfer of civilian nuclear technology as well—and it was no less true in domestic policy. Royal, inevitably dressed in immaculate white, stood for discipline in school, boot camps for truants and juvenile delinquents, a revision of the 35-hour work week, swift justice (she mentioned China as a model), and a booming economy (she mentioned China again). The European press wondered whether she might be a French Margaret Thatcher.

The second stage, from January on, was something else again. No longer content with brief, carefully planned utterances, she began to take part in TV and radio debates, listen to ordinary people, quote detailed figures, make promises, and to react on a daily basis to the flow of current events. She was not, to put it mildly, up to the job. The first time she was asked tough questions about world politics, she replied: “You would not test me like that, were I not a woman.” The second time, she gave embarrassingly wrong answers. If elected, she said, she would introduce a law against domestic violence—without realizing that such a law had just been passed by the current government. She declared herself against excessive taxation at the very moment François Hollande, her party’s head (and, incidentally, the father of her four children), was proclaiming that a left-wing government would raise taxes dramatically.

In addition, it became clear that she was not gifted as a speaker. She had no sense for puns, bons mots, or humor. Instead, she reveled in pompous, newly fabricated words: her praise of Chinese bravitude (instead of bravoure, the normal French word for bravery) will go down in history as a crushingly inept piece of political neologism.

The upshot of all this? On January 1, 2007, Royal was leading comfortably in the polls, with 52 percent of the prospective votes in the second presidential ballot. One month later, after her campaign blitz, Sarkozy had overtaken her—by five points. Royal’s wreck was not, however, Sarkozy’s salvation. Two other viable (at least in theory) candidates have re-appeared on the political scene: the centrist former education minister François Bayrou and the infamous nationalist provocateur Jean-Marie Le Pen. Dark horses though these men may be, they do pose a strategic threat to both the Sarkozy and Royal campaigns—for very different reasons.

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No Taliban Offensive—Yet

The Taliban continue to perpetrate atrocities, the latest being a bombing in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, which is said to have killed nine police officers. This was a bit unusual, insofar as the north is generally pretty peaceful. The Taliban are much stronger in the southern and eastern provinces. But even there their activities have not, so far, lived up to their advance billing.

For months Taliban spokesmen have been bragging about—and coalition soldiers have been dreading—a “spring offensive.” Well, spring began a month ago (March 21 was the vernal equinox), and, though Taliban attacks continue, there has been no substantial spike. So far no offensive has materialized—a fact that has gone largely unreported in the press but that is being commented upon by some NATO ministers and soldiers.

If there had been a Tet-style offensive in Afghanistan it would certainly be big news. But nothing much happening passes without much comment. I was only made aware of the lack of news while chatting with a Special Forces soldier in Iraq who had served not long ago in Afghanistan.

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The Taliban continue to perpetrate atrocities, the latest being a bombing in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, which is said to have killed nine police officers. This was a bit unusual, insofar as the north is generally pretty peaceful. The Taliban are much stronger in the southern and eastern provinces. But even there their activities have not, so far, lived up to their advance billing.

For months Taliban spokesmen have been bragging about—and coalition soldiers have been dreading—a “spring offensive.” Well, spring began a month ago (March 21 was the vernal equinox), and, though Taliban attacks continue, there has been no substantial spike. So far no offensive has materialized—a fact that has gone largely unreported in the press but that is being commented upon by some NATO ministers and soldiers.

If there had been a Tet-style offensive in Afghanistan it would certainly be big news. But nothing much happening passes without much comment. I was only made aware of the lack of news while chatting with a Special Forces soldier in Iraq who had served not long ago in Afghanistan.

This is the point where any commentator who is not an utter nitwit inserts the usual CYA language: just because an offensive hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I don’t mean to discount the possibility of some terrible Taliban atrocity tomorrow. Etc, etc. With that out of the way, it’s worth pondering why an offensive hasn’t happened so far.

Frankly, I have no idea. But I can speculate. Perhaps the Taliban threat has been exaggerated? Not likely. By all accounts the Taliban are indeed getting stronger and more brazen, thanks to the training and support they are now receiving in Pakistan while Pervez Musharraf runs around like Sgt. Schulz proclaiming, “I know nut-zeeng.” A more likely explanation is that the buildup of coalition forces—British and American especially—in the south and east has helped to preempt the offensive. Or at least delay it.

This brings me to Boot’s Law of Disasters: disasters that are widely predicted don’t occur. To cite just two examples: Y2K and the bird flu. Both were expected to be catastrophes, but for this very reason they turned out to be pretty harmless. Their potential victims took the necessary steps to blunt their impact. At this point there may even be a few readers scratching their heads, trying to remember what Y2K was all about. Remember how all the world’s computers were supposed to stop functioning when 1999 ended and 2000 began? Didn’t happen, needless to say. And bird flu mainly has been killing birds. The real nightmares are those, like 9/11 or the Virginia Tech shooting, that no one expects.

It may well be that the spring offensive hasn’t been sprung because it was so widely anticipated. But some other Taliban or al-Qaeda move may well be in the offing. We certainly can’t be complacent. But we can expect that the enemy—like any good guerrilla—will strike where and when least expected.

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