Sol LeWitt

long - term view

<p>Sol LeWitt, installation view at Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries. © 2012 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society, New York. Photo: Richard Barnes.</p>

Sol LeWitt, installation view at Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries. © 2012 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society, New York. Photo: Richard Barnes.




"Serial components are multipartite pieces with regulated changes," Sol LeWitt argued in 1966. "The differences between the parts are the subject of the composition."1 Such works, which have constituted the mainstay of his practice since the mid-1960s, "are to be read by the viewer in a linear or narrative manner . . . even though," he conceded, "in its final form many of these sets would be operating simultaneously, making comprehension difficult."2 LeWitt first articulated his long-standing commitment to seriality as a mode of composition and a thematic as his practice was evolving from its roots in Minimalism to a pioneering Conceptualism. In response to seminal works by peers such as Donald Judd and, more particularly, Dan Flavin, LeWitt, too, pared his vocabulary to simple geometric forms. Focusing on the cube and square, he fabricated neutral three-dimensional structures, in a pristine white, which he then parsed in permutational progressions or finite preset series. For example, 1 2 3 (1967–2003) manifests all possible variations on three different kinds of cubes. Eliminating the play of the arbitrary, the expressive, and the subjective, eschewing all trace of his hand and taste, LeWitt accorded priority to underlying ideas over their physical counterparts: "In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work," he stated in his landmark 1967 credo, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art."3

At first highly rational and logical, LeWitt's foundational precepts veered in unforeseen ways once they entered a two-dimensional arena. Inspired by Flavin's the nominal three (to William of Ockham) (1963), he increasingly explored the inherent potential of wall-based works to engage with their surrounds, that is, not only with the space but with the contours of the site in which they are realized. But whereas Flavin focused on the ways in which light shaped and inflected the work's environment, LeWitt began to limn his graphite lines directly onto the architecture, which he thereby made physically integral to the work. By dispensing with the conventional support—whether paper or, as in the case of Agnes Martin, canvas—he fused his grids of closely drawn, evenly toned pencil lines with the planar field in which the work had its being. In his earlier graphite works, among which Drawing Series—Composite, Part I–IV, #1–24, A+B (1969) is a key example, the dimensions of the individual drawing were fixed and hence independent of the scale and size of any venue. Gradually, however, LeWitt began to adjust the overall frame of the works as they were given material existence to the proportions and measurements of the site, so that they now engaged the whole wall. Yet each work exists initially as an idea, in the guise of textual instructions accompanied by a diagrammatic representation: it need not assume concrete form as a monumental physical entity. Its existence, then, is always contingent: not only its dimensions but its duration is provisional.4

Drawing Series. . . exemplifies LeWitt's singular yet highly influential practice on manifold counts. Formulated from an initial idea outlined in a diagrammatic sketch accompanied by a set of instructions, it has been installed here by a team of trained assistants supplemented by volunteers, who rigorously followed the artist's directives, including his determination of its placement in relation to the particular configuration of Dia's galleries.5 In the work of Judd and other Minimalists, the specifics of the modular system underpinning any individual work are not necessarily overtly legible, although they may be intuited. In LeWitt's art, by contrast, the conceptual program that determines the composition is always self-evident. Irrespective of the resulting degree of complexity, the point of departure—the preset schema—is literally stated, in the title, the accompanying diagrammatic instructions, or both. The straightforward formulation of the preset idea of Drawing Series. . . has here been exhaustively realized: all 192 permutations of the black pencil version are present.6

The work's basic unit, a square measuring one meter per side and divided into quarters, is grouped to make a larger square of four equal units, then stacked into four rows centered on each of the four walls of the gallery. A recurrent form in LeWitt's early drawings, the square, like the cube, from which most of his early sculptures were composed, is for him among the "least emotive" of any possible forms.7 "A more complex form would be too interesting in itself and obstruct the meaning of the whole. There is no need to invent new forms," he contends. "The square and cube are efficient and symmetrical."8 This elementary syntax constitutes "the best form to use as a base unit for any more elaborate function, the grammatical device from which the work may proceed."9 The four directions assumed by the lines in Drawing Series. . . represent the basic directions in which lines may be drawn: vertical, horizontal, diagonal from top left to bottom right, and diagonal from top right to bottom left. In accordance with the artist's preset plan, these lines have been overlaid in every possible combination so that the resulting sequence methodically exhausts every variation that may be derived from the given logic and within the formal limits established by the location. Light-toned and applied evenly with a near-uniform thickness and spacing, the lines create grids of varying tonality that nonetheless preserve the integrity of the surface plane even as they appear at one with it.

The measured logic and reasoning evidenced here betray neither a dogmatic commitment to mathematical calibration nor a belief in the transcendence of thought, of mind.10 On the contrary, obsession pushed to the limit of paradox and absurdity is as fundamental to LeWitt's practice as any axiomatic intellectualizing—witness a key statement in his 1967 credo "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art": "Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically."11 It was precisely this fascination with the contradictory that Robert Smithson so presciently identified when he acclaimed LeWitt's concepts as "prisons devoid of reason."12 In their monumental physical guise his works reveal a compelling, luminous beauty that speaks as much to the senses as to the intellect. For even though the preset programs can be readily grasped, what is unexpected is their exhilarating presence. Experienced as a kind of aesthetic excess, this is the sensory equivalent of their conceptual address to "the purposelessness of purpose."13


1. Sol LeWitt, "Serial Project No. 1," Aspen, section 17, nos. 5–6, 1966, n.p., reprinted in Gary Garrels, ed., Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in association with Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2000), p. 373.

2 Ibid.

3. LeWitt, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967), pp. 79–83, reprinted in Garrels, ed., Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective, p. 369.

4. Number 10 in LeWitt's "Sentences on Conceptual Art," 1969, asserts, "Ideas alone can be works of art: they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical." Art-Language, no. 1 (May 1969), pp. 11–13, reprinted in Garrels, ed., Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective, p. 372.

5. Certain minimal requirements are basic to the execution of LeWitt's wall drawings. A degree of skill and concentration, which practice may enhance, is required. Thus, although he does not privilege aesthetic training per se, LeWitt has come to realize that not everyone who tries can meet his standards. His decision to employ readily available everyday materials has similarly been determined: the hard—6B—graphite pencil used here was the tool for the earliest wall drawings.

6. See Kasimir Malevich, "From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism," 1916, reprinted in John E. Bowlt, ed., Russian Art of the Avant Garde: Theory and Criticism, 1902–1934 (New York: Viking, 1976), p. 128.

7. LeWitt, "The Cube," quoted in Afdachiara Zevi, ed., Sol LeWitt: Critical Texts (Rome: Libri de AEIOU, 1995), p. 72.

8. LeWitt, "Serial Project No. 1," p. 373.

9. LeWitt, "The Cube," p. 72.

10. In a discussion of complex patterning, Ernst Gombrich contrasts the ability of "God and higher intelligences" to apprehend "the whole of Truth in the immediacy of direct intuition" with that of ordinary mortals who see all existing correlations in succession. "The limit of our capacity is not a liability but a gain," he contends. "For such higher Intelligences who take in the whole of the pattern at once it could not possibly have the same interest and beauty it has for us." Ernst H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 148. For LeWitt, seriality, like pattern as defined by Gombrich, requires apprehension "in a linear or narrative manner"; its heuristic potential lies in these contrasting modes of apprehension.

11. LeWitt, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," in Garrels, ed., Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective, p. 371.

12. Robert Smithson, "A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art," Art International, no. 1 (May 1969), p. 11.

13. This term comes from what remains one of the key texts on LeWitt's art, Rosalind E. Krauss, "LeWitt in Progress," October, no. 6 (Fall 1978), pp. 46–60.

Lynne Cooke

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