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ART REVIEW

LeWitt meets his match in two strong exhibitions

Artist's abstractions find echoes at Gardner Museum, Harvard

LeWitt and Mozart. On the face of it, pairing them is ridiculous. Mozart's lush harmonies, his subtleties of tone, and his palette of musical emotions, from exuberance to grief, seem to have little to do with the geometric abstractions of a conceptual artist such as Sol LeWitt. Mozart makes you feel. LeWitt makes you think -- as you can see in two local exhibitions.

Yet the two artists have a good deal in common, and the fit they make together, with the deft and passionate contribution of flutist Paula Robison leading a quartet of chamber musicians, verges on the sublime.

Curator Pieranna Cavalchini of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum introduced LeWitt to Robison in the late 1980s. She has masterminded ''Variations on a Theme by Sol LeWitt and Paula Robison," in the museum's contemporary gallery.

The artist and the composer each use particular building blocks -- in Mozart's case, melody, harmony, and rhythm, and in LeWitt's, color, line, grid, and environment. Like architects, they erect structures with their blocks, each with a rare sense of nuance and a master's versatility. And each conveys instructions for how the work is to be executed. Mozart left scores. LeWitt gives oral and often written outlines to assistants, who produce the material art. This is one of LeWitt's hallmarks as a conceptual artist -- that the art is purely in the idea rather than in the mark of the artist's hand.

Step into the contemporary gallery, and it's clear LeWitt (with master drawer Takeshi Arita and local assisting artists April Gymiski and Reese Inman) has created a space that welcomes Mozart. Eight ropes of color snake and whip brightly over the gallery's walls. They tangle loosely in their rise and fall; they drop off the picture plane at floor and ceiling, then swoop back in. They'reclassic LeWitt, with the flat tones and clean lines of high modernism, but without the arch intellectualism some associate with modernism and conceptual art. Instead, there's roller-coaster-ride fun.

Robison and her quartet play once a day, at random hours that can be discovered ahead of time by checking the Gardner's website. She and LeWitt have chosen four Mozart flute quartets for ''Variations on a Theme." When I was there, the group played Mozart's Quartet in A major (K. 298).

Velvety tones filled the gallery. Particular lines of music seemed to coast along LeWitt's vivid lines of color -- the impassioned viola resonated, somehow, with the purple, the round tones of the flute with the blue. Themes overlapped and repeated themselves, just as the gestures on the wall twined and arched. A more representational work would have competed with the music's own narrative. LeWitt's exultant geometric abstraction is the perfect complement.

Off the 'Grids'LeWitt's strict formalism often leads well beyond the intellect. ''What appears rational has a mystical component," says Linda Norden, associate curator of contemporary art at the Harvard Art Museums and curator of ''Quantum Grids," a small LeWitt-inspired exhibit in the Carpenter Center's Sert Gallery.

''Quantum Grids" looks at four artists who start with a grid and go off in wildly different directions. LeWitt's 1978-'79 ''Four-Part Geometric Structure" sets five long, white panels parallel to one another on the floor, each supporting four geometric sculptural shapes chosen from an assortment of five. Each panel has a different sequence and array. There's a riddling logic to the piece; it compels you to search for meaning in its order, but there's no clear answer (perhaps there is to a mathematician or a code breaker). The meaning is in the search itself.

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, LeWitt's contemporary (they are both nearing 80), shows up here with one of her trademark paintings, ''Accretions II" (1967), in which the grid is so flowing and looping it resembles the scales on the skin of a coiled snake. The grid is more than just scaffolding upon which to hang a larger idea; it is in itself a twisting, spinning cosmos.

Cai Guo-Qiang and Fred Tomaselli, the other artists in the show, follow LeWitt and Kusama by a generation and layer social commentary over the grid. Cai, from China's Fujian province, a center of gunpowder production, uses the explosive as a medium to reflect on war and violence. ''The Century of Mushroom Clouds" (1996) features a chilling and oddly lovely grid of small explosions.

In ''Guilty," Tomaselli's grid mimics a sheet of LSD tabs, over which he has made a digital print of a New York Times front page clip from last March, reporting the fraud conviction of Worldcom chief Bernard Ebbers. The artist drew a wild, Mardi Gras-style mask over the photo of Ebbers and his wife. Like LeWitt, Tomaselli conjures the mystical with his grid, making pointed ties between hallucination and a real world no less bizarre. In the face of that, it's comforting to have something as basic as a grid to lean on.

Variations on a Theme by Sol LeWitt and Paula Robison
At: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, through Nov. 13. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org

Quantum Grids: Cai Guo-Ciang, Yayoi Kusama, Sol LeWitt, and Fred Tomaselli
At: Sert Gallery, Carpenter Center for the Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, through April 16. 617-495-9400, www.artmuseums.harvard.edu

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