Sol LeWitt: Art as Concept
On the 9th of September 1928, American Conceptual artist Solomon “Sol” LeWitt was born in Hartford Connecticut. LeWitt was pivotal in the creation of the new radical aesthetic of the 1960’s that was a revolutionary contradiction to the ‘Abstract Expressionism’ current in the 1950’s and 60’s New York school. He had no interest in inherent narrative or descriptive imagery. LeWitt, like no other artist of his generation, had always maintained the importance of the concept or idea and, apart from his original works on paper, the work is executed by others to clear and strict instructions. As one of the first coherent proponents of conceptual art with his writings, Sentences on Conceptual Art, 1969, LeWitt’s work continues to be regarded and referred to by a younger generation of artists as one of the seminal investigations into ‘idea’ and ‘concept’ art. (Lisson Gallery).
In 1967, LeWitt published his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art in which he outlined new and radical ideas. He stated: “Conceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions. The physicality of a three-dimensional object then becomes a contradiction to its non-emotive intent. Color, surface, texture, and shape only emphasize the physical aspects of the work. Anything that calls attention to and interests the viewer in this physicality is a deterrent to our understanding of the idea and is used as an expressive device.” (Sol LeWitt, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art; Artforum, June, 1967).
“Color, like line, could be handled objectively, as an elementary visual unit rather than an expressive device. LeWitt introduced color to his wall drawings in 1969, using Koh-I-Noor pencils in black, red, yellow, and blue. Until the early 1980s, when he expanded his palette to include the secondary hues, he continued to limit himself to black and the three primaries—the colors, he pointed out, of mechanical printing. And like mechanical reproductions, the early wall drawings achieve an astonishing chromatic and tonal range through the variation and superimposition of these few elements. The lesson from Albers was that color is relational; red looks different with blue than with yellow. From LeWitt we further learn that red will look different if, as the instructions say, the lines are drawn straight or not straight, touching or not touching, crossing or not crossing. Color mixtures were not devised to please the eye but, as always, generated automatically, according to predetermined plan.” (Ann Temkin, Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today).
In 1968, LeWitt began creating his stamp wall drawings which were executed directly on a wall so that they could not be moved. These drawings were created by a team of assistants who followed LeWitt’s written instructions. In this respect, it was very much like a musical score written for musicians to carry out. This unusual approach created distance between the artist and the physical production which opened up questions as to what it means to create a work of art. And like Duchamp, LeWitt sought to engage the mind rather than the eye, which was often faced with critical opinion. However, “[h]e was unperturbed when his wall drawings were criticized for being too ugly—or, as was more usual in recent decades, for being too beautiful. In 1970, the critic Lucy Lippard, a friend of LeWitt, wrote to him to say that she disliked the appearance of a wall drawing that had been created by “four draftsmen … employed at four dollars per hour for four hours a day and for four days [drawing] straight lines four inches long randomly, using four different colored pencils — presumably because the results were four squares of muddy color. LeWitt replied, “Don’t particularly care whether it is beautiful or ugly or neither or both … if I give the instructions and they are carried out correctly, then the result is ok with me.” (Temkin). In this respect, then, Sol LeWitt was not much different from the old Renaissance or Baroque masters who had workshops full of apprentices, painstakingly producing the best part of their output under more or less exigent guidance. Perhaps art as concept goes further back in art history than we are willing to accept.
Feature Image: Sol LeWitt, Artist Rooms, Turner Contemporary, Margate
Wall Drawing, June 2014.