My sister and I saw a small but absorbing show, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, of the work of 60s minimalists Eva Hesse and Sol Lewitt. The minimalists played a standard modernist game, making work that both questions traditional notions of beauty, while trying to find new types of beauty, and, in this, also find a new and meaningful role for the artist. Did they succeed? You could argue that yes, they did, and spectacularly so, with influence beyond their wildest dreams, taking as evidence the fact that a good number of these works are indistinguishable from the designs used on rugs, wall hangings, and the like, at places like CB2. Or you could take this as evidence of a sort of half-success, their aesthetic explorations having had far more impact than the questioning that drove them. Anyway, what struck me about this show was less the work than the curation, which, in the manner of much contemporary curation, was both, to my taste, overbearing and under-reaching. The curator’s focus is on delineating the impact that Hesse’s work had on Lewitt’s. The evidence is statements by Lewitt to this effect, as well as a turn he took around the time of her death, following her in favoring what he called the use of “un straight” lines, and letting chance play a role in shaping his art, whereas before he’d been all about straightness, strict geometry, and his own control. That’s fine, and interesting, and certainly borne out by the works displayed, particularly what I’d call his programmed works, where he provides a set of simple instructions for others to create a piece, these instructions written in such a way as to ensure that happenstance and error will cause each such effort to yield a different result.
But reading the – many, many – cards and letters that Lewitt sent to Hesse, it seems blindingly obvious that the most important factor in their relationship was his perhaps platonic, but obviously deep and apparently unrequited love for her. Could his turn be explained not so much by his admiration for her art, than by his desire to show this love, in his art, and then pay tribute to her after her death? Couldn’t the possibility at least be mentioned, somewhere in the copious wall text? Would it somehow diminish her stature as an artist to do this? I can’t see how. For me, the show would have been better, and the story made all the more poignant, and Lewitt’s work more affecting, had the curator told us more about the personal side of their relationship, and its affect on his practice. Moreover, doing so would be true to both of their celebration, in their work, of the role that chance and the irrational, or at least non-rational, have in shaping all art, and all lives, theirs included.