“Using pencil, draw 1,000 random straight lines 10 inches long each day for 10 days,
in a 10-by-10-foot square.”
in a 10-by-10-foot square.”
The above instructions enable anyone to create their own version of a wall drawing by the American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. For LeWitt the appearance of the work is secondary to the idea that underpins it.
With over 1270 wall drawings to his credit that have graced gallery and museum walls around the world, and are continuing to be reproduced even after his death, LeWitt saw himself as the composer of the work rather than the creator of an object.
As he explained in a Smithsonian Institution Oral history interview “I always equate it to a musical performance. Every time you hear the same Bach piano or harpsichord thing it's different even with the same person. Even if Wanda Landowski plays it in March and then in April, it would sound different. If Ralph Kirkpatrick plays it, it will be different. Whoever does it will leave their mark on it. In a way it's good that the draftsman has a part in it, and it's not just the artist doing it. It's a collaboration.
Considered by many to be the father of conceptualism LeWitt’s rebellious spirit was well suited to the times in which he formulated these ideas.
As he told Bomb Magazine’s Saul Ostrow “The ’60s were awash in politics and revolution. Not only in art of course, but feminism, racial equality and opposition to war. I, like almost all of the artists I knew, was involved in all of these movements and was politically left-oriented. One of the ideas was the relation to art as a commodity. I thought by doing drawings on the wall, they would be non-transportable—therefore a commitment by the owner would be implied, and they could not be bought or sold easily.”
It was this rebellious streak that led LeWitt to attend Syracuse University and study art. As he has said “Being an artist is something that was in a way rebellious, in a way individualistic, and, in a way, it was an act of rebellion against…The bourgeois kind of society I was brought up in…I had been reading a great deal. I don't think I was reading anything very deep or profound, but I did get the idea that being an artist was something slightly more special than going to work in a shoe store.”
After a sightseeing trip to Europe and stint in the army LeWitt arrived in New York at the height of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. It appealed, but whilst the spirit was willing the flesh was weak. As he has explained “I got really interested in Abstract Expressionism. I did it long enough to discover I couldn't do it.”
After experimenting with still life paintings LeWitt progressed to three dimensional works for which he employed assistants who had the craft skills he lacked. In 1968 he created his first wall drawing, a two dimensional rendering of the ideas he was working on with his sculptures, for the Paula Cooper Gallery. The working drawings he made for his three dimensional works he applied to the two dimensional works which he subsequently refined down to written instructions.
For as he has said “the appearance of the work is secondary to the idea of the work, which makes the idea of primary importance. The system is the work of art; the visual work of art is the proof of the system. The visual aspect can’t be understood without understanding the system. It isn’t what it looks like but what it is that is of basic importance.”
Spain’s Botín Foundation is currently showing the exhibition Sol LeWitt. 17 Wall Drawings. 1970-2015 until the 10th of January next year.