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Sol LeWitt Drawings, prints and books 1968-1988

image: 'Six geometric figures in three colors on three colors and all their combinations' 1978 screenprint collection of the National Gallery of Australia
  'Six geometric figures in three colors on three colors and all their combinations' 1978 screenprint Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

Sol LeWitt (b. 1928) is one of the most prominent American artists working today. A seminal figure in the Conceptual art movement, his art and writings from the 1960s have helped to define an artistic generation. Recently the subject of a major retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, LeWitt’s work is owned by numerous public and private collections throughout the world. Sol LeWitt: Drawings, Prints and Books 1968–1988, an exhibition drawn from the National Gallery of Australia's substantial collection of LeWitt, introduces viewers to a wide range of the artist's work on paper, focusing particularly on his work in series.

Like many contemporary artists, LeWitt does not indulge the viewer's desire for recognisable images or narrative. At first glance, the repetitious sequences of geometric figures, lines and grids that characterise his work seem almost devoid of interest. However, through a deeper acquaintance with LeWitt's work and the ideas that motivate it, and through an under-standing of the historical context of his first exhibitions, we can begin to appreciate the intriguing beauty of the artist's geometrical patterns and forms.

LeWitt's first exhibitions took place in New York in the early 1960s. At that time, the art movement which had dominated avant-garde circles in the 1940s and 50s, Abstract Expressionism, was under fire. To a new generation of artists, the loosely handled paint and vigorous brushwork of Abstract Expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning seemed overblown and excessively subjective. This new generation, which came to be known as Minimalism, had its first official showing at the exhibition Sixteen Americans at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1959. In opposition to the spontaneous, gestural painting style of Pollock and his contemporaries, the works exhibited there by Minimalist artists Frank Stella and Donald Judd were characterised by geometrical com-positions and workmanlike techniques. In Stella's Black Paintings of 1959, for example, stripes of black house paint were applied to the canvas in regular, geometric patterns. These works eliminated the illusion of depth so that the viewer was forced to pay attention to the flat surface of the canvas. Furthermore, no evidence of painterly skill or expression was evident in the regular, monochrome patterns. The composition was not based on the artist's inspiration but merely followed a symmetrical design, often based on the shape of the canvas itself.

image:Title page from 'Straight lines in four directions and all their possible combinations' 1973 etching collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Title page from 'Straight lines in four directions and all their possible combinations' 1973 etching Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge  

Around the same time as the Sixteen Americans exhibition, LeWitt began working at the Museum of Modern Art bookshop. In his discussions with other young artists working at the Museum and with artists living in his New York neighbourhood, the topic was often the works of Stella and others of the Minimalist generation. LeWitt and his colleagues held the view that the work of the Abstract Expressionists was ‘useless’ and that Stella's symmetrical com-positions had introduced a new, objective approach free of painterly rhetoric. It was from this point that LeWitt's art embarked, taking the work of the Minimalists to a logical extreme.

The approach LeWitt developed was encoded in one of his earliest writings, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967), which was the first text to spell out the concerns of the Conceptual art movement. The most succinct statement appears early on in the piece, where LeWitt writes:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

One of the most important aspects of this passage is the position LeWitt takes toward artistic conception and execution. Whereas the Abstract Expressionist painters had put primacy on the very act of painting as carrying emotive or expressive power, LeWitt argues for an art in which execution is simply a matter of methodically carrying out instructions. The core of this work is the concept from which the art begins, often a simple and logical set of rules that must be followed to the letter, largely eliminating subjective artistic choice.

Although this may seem to reduce art to nothing more than a banal exercise and the artist to a machine, LeWitt’s aim was to deflate the overly individualistic art of the Abstract Expressionists, and create works that could be executed by people without traditional artistic training. Beyond this democratising impulse, the aesthetic results of LeWitt’s method are extraordinary. In an etching such as Straight lines in four directions and all their possible combinations of 1973 the concept is very simple: four kinds of lines within a square (horizontal, vertical and two diagonals) are shown in all their various permutations. When considered separately, each print showing the square divided up into increasingly complex parts has a completely different visual weight and emphasis. When shown together, as in the title page to the series, the alternating variations on the theme seem to dance before the viewer's eyes, as the diagonal lines from certain squares appear to ‘join hands’ with their adjacent partners, linking the entire set together in a dynamic visual play. The fact that the composition of these squares is not the product of artistic inspiration but of following preordained rules only makes the dance of their visual interaction all the more intriguing.

image: 'A square divided horizontally and vertically into four equal parts, each with a different direction of alternating parallel bands of lines' 1982 woodcut collection of the National Gallery of Australia
  'A square divided horizontally and vertically into four equal parts, each with a different direction of alternating parallel bands of lines' 1982 woodcut collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

In A square divided horizontally and vertically into four equal parts, each with a different direction of alternating parallel bands of lines, a woodcut of 1982, LeWitt continued the theme of lines and squares by dividing a square into four quadrants, each of which contains lines running in different directions. Although similar in concept to the etching described above, here the perceptual effects are even more striking. The strong contrast between the black and white lines combined with the frequency of their alternation produces a beautiful, shimmering effect. There is a constant tension between the static quality of the quartered square and the jostling, vibrating appearance of the bars it contains.

In the stencil Six geometric figures in three colors on three colors and all their combinations of 1978, Lewitt increases the visual fascination of his work through the addition of colour. Starting again from the simplest of premises, LeWitt enumerates all the possible combinations of his chosen figures and colours. The methodical system underpinning this work is clearly evident in the identical sequence of figures making up each row or column. At the visual level, however, the system breaks down due to the varying colours of the forms and their backgrounds, which force us to treat each individual square as visually unique. If we compare the figures within a particular column, for example, in each instance we seem to be dealing with a completely different entity. The blue circle on the red background seems to have a completely different mass to its neighbour, the red circle on the yellow background. This extreme differentiation between the components of this print explains the strange disorder that emerges from this logical arrangement. What should have been a systematic pairing of a limited range of figures and colours appears to the viewer as a kaleidoscopic array of fragments, resulting in an image of perplexing variety. In this way, although LeWitt's art begins from the premise of a systemic idea, ultimately his work undermines the idea of system by giving free play to the disorganisation inherent in visual experience.

LeWitt's art cannot ultimately be described as 'conceptual' if we understand that to mean that his work is the pure expression of logical ideas. Although many contemporary critics interpreted these works as demon-strations of rational thought, as Rosalind Krauss argues in her important article ‘LeWitt in Progress’ of 1978: ‘The experience of the work goes exactly counter to “the look of thought” particularly if thought is understood as classical expression of logic.’ LeWitt tends to emphasise the gulf between the drive to order, inherent in conceptual thought, and the messy complexity of its physical expression.

Other works by LeWitt play even more explicitly on the incongruity between the visual appearance of the finished piece and the generation of the work from the rules set by the artist. The gouache, Forms derived from a cube of 1982, belongs to a series of works of the same title in various media. On a gridded template used to draw a cube in isometric projection, the artist has created a series of polygons (of which the illustrated work is one of an almost limitless number of possibilities). While the particular form presented in each case is endowed with a sense of solidity and mass by the crisp edges and opaque paint, any particular form is simply the outcome of arbitrary variations in the grid points locating the lines which define the volume. As we are aware that these points and lines are not set once and for all but rather are interchangeable with countless variations, the form takes on an extremely conditional existence. In stark contrast to its apparent solidity this form seems like a house of cards that could collapse at any moment to be replaced by another, differently shaped one.

image: 'Lines from the midoints of lines' 1975 etching Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
'Lines from the midoints of lines' 1975 etching Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge  

In a work such as Lines from the midpoints of lines, one of a series of etchings entitled The location of lines 1975, LeWitt's humorous side emerges. Each of these lines occupies a place on the sheet that is designated by a set of complicated instructions. For example, in the upper left corner a line is accom-panied by the following description of its location: ‘A line from the midpoint of the left side to a point halfway between a point halfway between the mid point of the top side and the upper left corner and a point halfway between the midpoint of the top side and a point halfway between the centre of the page and a point halfway between the midpoint of the left side and the upper left corner.’ In this absurdly long-winded sentence it becomes clear that the instructions supposedly governing the work are poorly suited to account for the simple fact of lines on a page. Here the artist gently pokes fun at his own practice while making an important point about the relationship between art and text: Pictures and words are totally distinct realms and even the simplest image is ultimately beyond the reach of verbal description.

The starting point of LeWitt's prints and drawings is always a concept: a simple idea expressed as a set of logical instructions. In this way, he has sought to distance himself from what he sees as the excessively subjective nature of Abstract Expressionism. The end point of his work, the extraordinary visual effects created by his compositions, demonstrates that the realm of visual experience will always exceed the language of ideas.

 

Anthony White

Further information will be added to this site as the National Gallery proceeds with its research and documentation.

Last updated November 2014