“De mortuis,” your mother probably told you, “nil nisi bonum dicendum est.” “About the dead you should say nothing but good things.” I admire the spirit of reverence that motivates the advice but cannot agree with the policy of transforming all posthumous commentary into eulogy. Take the “conceptual artist” Sol LeWitt, who died on Easter at 78. If I were to have sat down on Saturday to write something about LeWitt, it would have been critical, not to say dismissive, since in my view he is interesting chiefly as a specimen in the history of the corruption of art rather than as an artist. Why should I write otherwise just because I write two days after his death rather than the day before?

Well, even if there are good reasons, I am prepared to ignore them, if for no other reason than to provide a counterweight to some of the hagiographic drivel about him that is filling the obituary pages. Michael Kimmelman, for example, chief art publicist for The New York Times opens his exercise in eulogistic inflation by telling us that LeWitt’s “deceptively simple geometric sculptures and drawings and ecstatically colored and jazzy wall paintings established him as a lodestar of modern American art.”

Let’s take a moment to parse that judgment. LeWitt’s art works certainly were simple--many straight lines on a piece of paper, a series of boxes or cubes--but were they deceptively simple? That suggests an underlying depth or complexity, where as with LeWitt the simplicity was, well, straightforwardly, even ostentatiously simple. I am not sure what Kimmelman means when he says that LeWitt’s wall paintings were “ecstatically colored”--some are very bright: does that make them “ecstatic”?--other than to surmise that “ecstatically,” like “jazzy,” is One Of Those Words whose primary function is not semantic but emotional: in New-York-Times-art-speak, anyway, it is a Good Thing to be ecstatic, to be jazzy, and so you know you are on safe ground if you sprinkle those modifiers in among boring words like “colored.” And as for LeWitt’s being a “lodestar of modern American art,” well, it would be more accurate to say that LeWitt was a lodestar of one of the recent disasters in modern American art.

LeWitt was one of the earliest representatives of what came to be called Minimalism or Conceptual Art, a movement that got going in the 1960s and whose primary innovation was to shift attention away from the realm of aesthetic achievement and onto that strange border country between ideas and artifacts. One of the anomalies of conceptual art was that the concepts it deployed were so barren. You inscribe a zillion straight lines on a wall and mutter the word “logic” and, presto, you have a new art movement and the beginnings of a critical literature to explain it.

In a famous essay from 1967, Clement Greenberg noted that minimalism, like Pop Art, thrived by exploiting “the shrinking of the area in which things can now safely be non-art.” It used to be that a Brillo box was a Brillo box and a work of art was, well, something else. But then along came Andy Warhol and, presto, a Brillo box could be a work of art after all, and that will be $100,000 thank you very much.

As Greenberg acknowledged, Minimalism can bring about “a certain negative gain.” It can, for example, lead one to appreciate how “fussy” some earlier abstract sculpture is. By the same token, some minimalist works can bring you up short and make you look at dirt-rocks-trees-boxes-an empty room or whatever with new eyes. It’s not every day, after all that you see a field full of steel rods or a huge spiral made of rocks or a picturesque warehouse filled with meticulously fabricated metal boxes. But see them once and you’ve seen all there is to see. Great art repays renewed scrutiny with new insights, new perceptions. With minimalist art, well, “what you see is what you see,” as Frank Stella famously put it. C’est tout, and it’s not much. Minimalist art is one-off art.

In an artworld where “transgressive” is a term of praise, however, it is easy to look upon minimalism--a good deal of it anyway--as a sort of oasis. A bunch of nicely paited white cubes present a sort of restful spectacle to the eye, and at least they do not assault the viewer with political slogans, bodily fluids, or whatever. At the same time, though, the very regularity and simplicity of minimalism--the quality that can make it immediately accessible--betokens its aesthetic poverty. Like minimalist music--the work of a Philip Glass, say, or Steve Reich--it can be soothing precisely because it is vapid. Greenberg touched upon this aspect of Minimalism, too, when he noted that its “artistic substance and realty . . . turns out to be good safe taste.” With Minimalism, Greenberg said, we are back in the realm of “Good Design”--art that isn’t rebarbative which isn’t rebarbative, but only because its is so aggressively unambitious.

The obituarist for the London Telegraph recalled a 1982 review in the paper in which the critic initially mistook LeWitt’s “Straight Lines in Four Directions Superimposed” for an unfinished plasterboard wall.

“These things have a legitimate place in a collection representing modern drawings,” he conceded after the penny dropped. “This should not confuse anyone into imagining they have aesthetic merit.”
That seems to me exactly right. But that was then. By 1993, the Telegraph’s critic was Richard Dorment, a far less stern sort of chap, who wrote that there “are few living artists I admire more than the American Sol LeWitt.” Well, Richard Dorment was also the fellow who compared Gilbert and George’s “Naked Shit Pictures“ to the Isenheim Altarpiece, so I think we know where are with him.

Sol LeWitt was by all accounts a self-effacing, quietly pleasant fellow. Alas, his contribution to cultural life was almost entirely to the sterile travesty that has been enfranchised as art by the critics and institutions that, once upon a time, we could have counted upon to exclude such objects as anything more than the most ephemeral of artistic curiosities.

Was Sol LeWitt an artist? Why not? “Art,” Andy Warhol is said to have observed, “is what you can get away with.” Too true, Andy.