On Thin Ice: John Stoney’s Souvenir of Transcendence

In 2014, John Stoney conducted a séance and received guidance from the late conceptualist Sol LeWitt. The resulting Here, after LeWitt is the product of this spiritual encounter. In 1967, LeWitt declared that “[t]he idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” and by the following year, produced only the ideas that became his drawings; a team of assistants undertook the tasks necessary to turn his concepts into physical art. (1) Invoking this spirit, Stoney executes LeWitt’s final works in the same way his followers did during the artist’s life. Stoney’s drawing is an index of the spiritual connection with the deceased artist, “a souvenir of transcendence.” (2)

LeWitt wouldn’t doubt Stoney. After all, “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists.” (3) In Medium, Stoney works in a sympathetic rhythm to LeWitt, a tuning fork for the artist’s ideas. Rather than forcing you to vibrate too, Stoney gives you a model of the event’s effects. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American transcendentalist, wrote, “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” (4) Stoney’s work connects Sol LeWitt to Emerson’s American Romanticism. He has absorbed the essence of the landscape and wrung it out like a machine.

In this exhibition, Stoney assesses both the landscape of contemporary arts and the tradition of landscape in art. The Hudson River Valley School’s landscapes are as much Spiritualist encounters with the Sublime as realistic depictions of the great American wilderness; the wilds of the 19th century are metonymic to the vast unseen. Moving beyond landscape, we float in Emerson’s immaterial. Stoney reminds us of our relationship to the thin film of reality and thick stuff of fiction. We might need a psychic to tell us which Medium is.

(1)  Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” 1967.
(2)  Statement by the artist
(3)  Sol LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” 1969.
(4)  Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” 1836.

Essay by Elizabeth Welch, a Ph.D. candidate in Art History, whose research focuses on 20th century American art and visual cultures of performing arts. She served as the 2014–2015 Curatorial Fellow at the Department of Art and Art History’s Visual Arts Center.