November 1, 2018 – February 16, 2019
When I first started drawing on the wall, the logic of the idea took over.
Line is the fundamental graphic component of all human thought. It is the basic building block of all writing and drawing and yet, in essence, it is merely an abstraction – a concept. Everybody knows what a line is, but it still remains debatable as to whether lines, especially straight lines, actually exist in nature or anywhere outside of their visualization in the human mind. In the Twentieth Century no artist pursued this ambiguity between the abstraction and the reality of line more methodically and more expansively than Sol LeWitt.
In the late 1960s, in a revolutionary series of works known as wall drawings, LeWitt took drawing (as the basic structure of all art) and line (as the basic component of all drawing) and turned the modernist idea of art inside out. In so doing, he also effectively bridged the gap between what, at that time, appeared to be the dead end of Minimalism and open possibilities offered by Conceptual art – an art that placed more importance on the idea of a work of art than its form or manner of execution. ‘Because simplicity of form could only go so far,’ LeWitt once explained about Minimalism, it was ‘self-defeating…it ended once the simplest form was achieved…I wanted to emphasize the primacy of the idea in making art. My interest…was in building conceptual systems which grew out of Minimalism.’
Up until 1968, LeWitt’s pioneering art had comprised mainly of a series of white, minimalistic, geometric structures which, as in Serial Project #1, 1966, for example, were aimed at what LeWitt described as ‘removing the skin’ of appearances in order to ‘reveal their structure.’ Following the reductive logic of such works to its conclusion, LeWitt then sought to go even further. He wanted to find a method of directly and completely transmitting the original concept of the work of art to the viewer, without the distraction of its material quality or the way in which it was made. ‘It isn’t what a work looks like,’ LeWitt insisted, ‘but what it is that is of basic importance.’ Sometime in 1968, LeWitt settled upon the graphic line as the solution to this problem, and soon afterwards he created the first of his wall drawings.
As a comparatively early work like Wall Drawing #69 of 1971 illustrates, these new works were ones that eschewed the conventional framework of picture-making by being made directly on the wall. Adopting the drawn line as his primary medium, LeWitt made the important decision that he need not, and perhaps even should not, be the executor of these works. His wall drawings were to be made by other hands, according to a precise, written set of instructions that, as can be seen in Circles, Arcs from Opposite Corners and Opposite Sides, 1971 or Untitled, 1971, he had devised and worked out in advance.
In some cases, as in Wall Drawing #42, 1970, for example, the details LeWitt provided were precise and left little room for variance. Others, such as Untitled (Bands of Color in Four Directions), 1991, illustrate a complete permutational set of geometric possibilities. In some drawings however, like with Wall Drawing #69, a greater degree of freedom was entrusted to its makers. The instructions for the creation of this work read: Lines not long, not straight, not touching, drawn at random using four colors, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall. Such instructions as these ensured that each time the work was created, its appearance would alter.
In this delegation of responsibility (by asking others to execute his work according to instructions that also often serve as the title for each work), LeWitt completely eliminated the preciousness normally associated with either authorship or the artist’s hand. In spite of this, the wall drawings continued to actively emphasize both the primacy and the intimacy involved in the act of drawing and revel in the uniqueness and individuality of the human touch.
Often austere, logical, and systematic in their conception, LeWitt’s deceptively simple written instructions often led to surprisingly complex and even seemingly unpredictable results, as can be seen in Blue arcs from opposite corners, Red from opposite corners, Yellow from opposite sides and Black from opposite sides. However spectacular these results were, as LeWitt was keen to point out, the ‘visual aspect’ of his drawings was always entirely dependent upon the original concept. Their appearance was something that could never be ‘understood without understanding the system’ that had led to their coming into being. The concept of the work retained its ‘primacy.’
The enormous impact and liberating influence that LeWitt’s wall drawings were to have on his generation is hard to overstate. As Bernice Rose observed in the catalogue for LeWitt’s first MoMA retrospective in 1978, these works marked a ‘catalytic’ move that was ‘as important for drawing as Pollock’s use of the drip technique had been for painting in 1950s.’ One of their most important features was that these works were not objects. A key example of the spirit behind the landmark 1969 exhibition ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ (in which LeWitt’s wall drawings played a major role), these open and ephemeral works functioned like a codified graphic field articulating and enhancing the hitherto unseen potential of the environments in which they were set. Almost over night these works’ rejection of the ‘object’ as the primary artistic achievement elevated drawing from a comparatively minor artistic medium to one that now stood equal to that of painting or sculpture.
When LeWitt was asked about this revolutionary aspect of the wall drawings, he wittily and modestly replied that ‘the cavemen [had] got there first!’ He was, of course, right to point to this precedent. His wall drawings did not just open up the interiorized abstract and conceptual space often associated with drawing, but also magnified and exteriorized it into the real space of the viewer. They also returned drawing to its original function and purpose. Site-specific, team-engendered, and open works of art, LeWitt’s wall drawings re-invoked a sense of how, before all the fuss of modernism, art had originally been rooted in collaboration and ritual and had been made for and in the great communal spaces of prescribed order, government, and religion. ‘As soon as one does work on walls, the idea of using the whole wall follows,’ LeWitt noted. ‘It means that the art is intimately involved with the architecture. It is available to be seen by everyone. It avoids the preciousness of gallery or museum installations. Also, since art is a vehicle for the transmission of ideas through form, the reproduction of the form only reinforces the concept. It is the idea that is being reproduced. Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.’