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BWW Reviews: Pace Gallery Creates a Post-Modernistic Contrast with SOL LEWITT and KEITH SONNIER

Sol LeWitt and Keith Sonnier make a pretty good odd couple. Though both men are repeatedly classified as postmodernists, the similarities begin to break down pretty quickly after that. LeWitt, the older of the two and one of the leading lights of Conceptualism, is famous for a few different kinds of artworks: white compositions involving cubes and more cubes, and primary-colored geometric shapes painted directly and dispassionately onto museum walls. Even though the reds and yellows can pop, LeWitt's creations always have an austere, ponderous, almost inhuman undercurrent-as though his pieces weren't painted or drawn, but silently and mysteriously visited upon humanity by an extra-terrestrial with a wry sense of humor.

Sonnier is from a different planet-one that actually has life forms on it. The direct and stated inspirations for his art include torsos and claw shapes, yet his sense of lived-in messiness plays out on other ways. You wouldn't describe all of Sonnier's actual creations as messes; precision-cut glass, carefully-shaped fluorescent and neon lights, and surprisingly elegant industrial-strength clamps are among his favored materials. More often than not, these elements add up to jauntily strange compositions--those green and red neon tubes peering out at you, like menacing android eyes. And Sonnier's ideas about art can be counterintuitive and seductively sensory: messy, in other words. In the words of critic Richard Shiff, "Color is hardly the full extent of Sonnier's concern. As he indicates, objects of visual appreciation should be touched and perhaps even heard, smelled, and tasted."

Unless I were putting together an "Introduction to Minimalism" slideshow, I would never have put two artists like these together, or even side-by-side. Yet that is exactly what Pace Gallery at West 25th Street has done with its two current exhibitions--Sol LeWitt: Horizontal Progressions and Keith Sonnier: Elysian Plain + Early Works--and with generally pleasurable results. A pairing like often alerts you to the times when each artist plays against type. You'll notice how much restraint Sonnier brings to bear on some of the best of his amoeba shapes and pulsing colors, and how unpredictable LeWitt's white, cube-constructed Progressions actually are. Nice odd couple, but at the end of the day, which one is Felix and which one is Oscar?

Whichever is which, Pace sets a unique atmosphere for each artist's display. Sonnier is given a white, lofty, premium exhibition space; if his creations feel a little dwarfed by this treatment, at least they aren't forced to compete with one another for attention. Though the LeWitt installation isn't as airy or as self-consciously impressive, it is more self-assured. After all, this is the twelfth LeWitt showcase that the Gallery has mounted, and the 1991 Progressions are familiar-enough material by now. The organizers have wisely put LeWitt's ground-level, monochrome Progressions in a space with low-lying ceilings (which keep the focus on the seven linear, stretching works on display) and with concrete floors (which create a nice, understated color contrast with the white cubes that make up each of LeWitt's pieces).

Monumentalizing forms executed on an Erector Set scale, the Progressions tempt you to feel underwhelmed. The seven works on display are also terribly hard to remember individually, although there are a few patterns that the series in its entirety follows. While Progressions #1-3 are symmetrical--and look more than a little like laid-down skyscrapers--Progressions #4-7 all involve one long, flat façade facing one equally long, saw-toothed arrangement. At least this is how the seven progressions look from up above; seen from ground level, they deliver all sorts of cleanly-executed though still surprising effects. In Progressions #3 and #5, every column of cubes rises to exactly the same height. In all the others, LeWitt uses mathematical proportions and calm inversions to create stair-step outlines, column upon column ascending with inexorable logic.

To examine the full diversity of effects in Horizontal Progressions, you will have to stroll around a lot, move back and forth and adjust your perspective here and there, and (inevitably, ridiculously, and wonderfully) squat down on the floor. This participatory process is at once game-like and intense, and by the time the process is over, you will probably cease to be underwhelmed. As trendy and ironic as he sometimes is, LeWitt had a fine art-historical sensibility--which he honed after re-locating to Italy in the 1980s. You could think of the Progressions as outgrowths of LeWitt's career-long architecture and engineering interests, but what architecture and engineering? The white-and-more-white modernism of the Bauhaus (which they certainly recall) or the monstrous, staggered slum apartments of contemporary Italy (which they also recall)? At times they escape architectural analogies altogether; with their complexities of light, shadow, and mass, the Progressions could be Postmodernism's slant on Renaissance innovations in depth and perspective.

And then on to Sonnier. If you want to ease yourself in to Pace Gallery's second showcase, prime yourself on the impactful yellow, red, and blue wall paintings at the back of Horizontal Progressions. As an exhibition, Sonnier's Elysian Plain and Early Works doesn't quite bombard you with color; instead, it takes apparently simple hues and generates some truly unusual interactions. The Early Works phase includes Neon Wrapping Neon IV and the dashing Neon Wrapping Neon VI (both 1969), which both consist of linear neon tubing and lots of teeming empty space. The of-this-decade works in Elysian Plain go even wilder with color--curving and crinkling the tubes, filling them with appealing turquoises and purples, and generally indicating that, by now, Sonnier has the resources to create any kind of giant light-and-glass confection he wants.

Unfortunately, excess isn't always Sonnier's strong suit. Recent works like USA: War of the Worlds try to combine Sonnier's twisty lights and vibrating contours with an all-American obviousness that he simply doesn't pull off, as if he'd dreamed up these pieces after binge-watching old Clint Eastwood movies. These concoctions aren't in Elysian Plain and Early Works, but some of the entries that are--Rectangle Diptych (2013) and Lobbed Shape (2013) in particular--are truly deficient in formal grace. I'm not asking for a prettier or more predictable Sonnier--only pointing out that his excesses, his work's life-force, are most meaningful when tempered with the cool and control of classic Minimalism. Just look at the best works here: Mirrored Slant has a playful mirror wedge, but anchors this whimsy with a simple contour and determined horizontals; Torso Trunk has a long, curving tube of luscious white-blue, but breaks up into masterfully aligned four-sided sections. There is liveliness still, but it is liveliness earned and contained. LeWitt would approve.

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From This Author Patrick Kennedy