PRINT April 1967

Sol LeWitt: Non-Visual Structures

THE TWO IDEAS THAT HAVE increasingly occupied Sol LeWitt over the last four years are enclosure, or containment, and the paradoxical relationship between the visual (or perceptual) and the conceptual emphases in making art. His white structural skeletons are the most unsecretive of objects, their interior and exterior components laid bare to the eye; yet the eye does not know how to handle such total revelation, and retreats rapidly to its single viewpoint. The concept of a strictly visual order imposed by previous art can be rejected by LeWitt and certain other structurists in favor of the ambiguous relationship between order and disorder. But the significance of such a corrective in the direction of a strictly conceptual order will not be wholly comprehensible until the spectator becomes accustomed to the simultaneous operation of the conceptual and perceptual faculties. LeWitt’s most recent project attempts to distinguish between visually and conceptually oriented art and consequently, despite its faultless logic, it seems “irregular” to the trained eye.

This project consists of four sets of models, each a developed sequence based on one nine-piece group of structures laid out on a 13 x 13 module grid. Each set represents a full scale room, but the grid is on a low platform in order to avoid environmental implications. Each of the nine pieces has two elements, one centrally enclosed within the other. The four groups present a complete set of absolute relationships which is self-exhausting and finite. The premise is both two- and three-dimensional, beginning as it does with a flat on flat form (1 1/2'' high—the measure of the white painted aluminum bars used for constriction), and moving as it does into both open and closed three-dimensional volumes. Plan A consists of open frameworks of all the elements; Plan B consists of open frameworks of the outer elements and closed (planar) versions of the inner elements; Plan C consists of open frameworks for the inner elements and closed for the outer elements; in Plan D all the elements are closed. (See illustrations.) The square forms themselves are regulated according to height and sequence from flat (a square) to medium (a cube, a box) to high (a column and large cube), and variations on this sequence operate straight or diagonally. The ground area covered by each element is constant; 3 x 3 squares of the grid for the outer form, one square for the inner.

The initial impression received from any single model is that the basis for the project is a one, two, three unit. But this scheme doesn’t work out visually; the viewer notes that the columns in particular seem “off”—not twice or three times as high as the cubes. There are only two measurements used: 28 inches and 81 inches; all forms contain one or both measures.1 By not conforming to the visual logic or symmetry we demand or have come to expect from geometric art, LeWitt’s project enters a perceptual no-man’s land. He chose a system that could be clearly and briefly exposed and in which arbitrary decisions were kept to a minimum. The notion of a thing within a thing is laid out with sequence alone in mind not space not proportion not volume or harmony, just the completion of a set of possibilities. This project is read sequentially like musical notations rather than statically like architectural models. When approached in accepted terms of perceptual order it does not reveal its clarity. A corrective is demanded that will return viewing methods from the extravagant reaches of pure sensuousness or visuality toward the perhaps equally extravagant conceptuality found in some (but by no means a great deal) of current art.

A blind man, says LeWitt, can make art. One must not be influenced by how art looks; this is the sole way to eliminate design and relational factors in favor of wholeness, integrity, new forms. Nevertheless, LeWitt is making art, the kind of art that is categorized for better or worse as visual art, and he welcomes the paradox involved. By trying to make an art entirely free of ambiguity he is in fact restoring ambiguity to an idiom castigated for its lack of subtlety. LeWitt’s approach is not “formalist”; it is the reverse. The paradox originates in the two opposing stages of making art: conceiving it and executing it. In the first stage, the concept, or order, is pure; in the second, it is altered by the impurity of perception or disorder of “reality” which is affected and formed by accidental terms of conditions and experience. By sending out his work to be fabricated by a professional, LeWitt, like so many of the structurists, a negligible craftsman, abdicates the role of maker and the chance (or temptation) to alter the conception as he executes it. Earlier, rough construction was a matter of temperament, and peripherally of principle, since he contended that finish and technique were not an issue. Professional fabrication has made a difference; it is no accident that the recent pieces are the most convincing. (Another practical side effect is the use of metal, which permits thinner members and more air; the project outlined above retains the quality of a drawing, though physically realized.) The better the visual elements are realized, the more latitude is given conceptual development. While technology as such does not enter into LeWitt’s intentions, the fact that it can be taken for granted is valuable to all of this work; his previous training in three dimensional design with I. M. Pei provided a strong background.

The black and white reliefs and free-standing pieces begun in 1962 reflect the main themes of LeWitt’s evolution. He had been in the process of abandoning painting for some time and, like Stella and Morris, acknowledges a certain debt to Jasper Johns’s questioning of the illusion in painting. The perverse logic of Johns’s number and flag paintings—flat subjects on flat canvas—combined with an interest in Albers seemed to LeWitt to spell the death of painting. In an untitled relief construction of 1963 he first explored the concept of containment and non-visual logic. A series of nested enclosures projecting into space, it is painted systematically, if roughly, black and white. Each section doubles the height of its enclosure and halves the peripheral distance. As an object, it shares the awkward quality of the recent project, for it would have “looked better” if the central core had not protruded so exaggeratedly; in other words, if its protrusions had been dictated by a visual rather than a conceptual logic.

The black and white series gave way to box-and table like constructions in brilliant primary colors, based on a grid and game, or chance, esthetic (they could be moved or rearranged). These were replaced in turn by simple box-like structures with mellow lacquered surfaces which are more revealing in terms of later developments. They are made so that the viewer is psychologically encouraged to look into central wells or tunnels, but physically discouraged by difficulties of height, width, the necessity of stretching, craning across surfaces to see, eventually, nothing but the fact of enclosure. In 1964 a group of large structural peep boxes also reflected this theme. Inside of them Muybridge- (and perhaps Morris-) inspired photographs of a face or an impassive nude, seen from several angles or walking toward and away from the camera, would be glimpsed through inadequately small holes, often accompanied by flashing lights which compounded the difficulties already set by the perceptual process. One of these was a conscious paraphrase of Magritte’s sectioned and gradually enlarged woman (Delusions of Grandeur). While LeWitt considered these boxes, even at the time, as “hobbies” they provided the means to explore still another aspect of sequence in time, one which had been previously manifested in a group of 1962 paintings depicting a Muybridgian man running.

The next group of works (LeWitt has always worked in exhaustible series) developed the implacably physical aspects of the boxes. Shown at Dan Graham’s Daniels Gallery in May 1965, they constituted a relatively early instance of primary structure, and three of them were distinctly impressive. Their planar emphasis goes back to the paintings, reliefs and tables, but for the first time the pieces themselves were self-sufficient as objects and acquired a scale commensurate with their size. A tall maroon booth with one folded-in wall represented the enclosure theme, and the blue piece reproduced here was one of the first to be constructed on a more or less modular or conceptual rather than an intuitive basis. The waxy, lacquered surfaces were also to disappear soon, their slightly rounded edges and rather blurred effect made obsolete by the rigorously non allusive black and then white frameworks that followed.

In the 1966–67 framework structures, for which LeWitt is now known, and particularly in the most recent ones, two aspects of his early researches were realized and fused: the structural simplicity and rectilinear fundamentals, and the confrontation of perceptual disorder and conceptual order. In the peep boxes he had called attention to the flashes by which we perceive even the clearest forms—flashes hard to see and hard to remember, from which an impressions of the whole action or volume is reconstructed. In the intricate six-by six module cube, 60'' square, the shadows of the crossing rungs make a shifting all over pattern that both destroys and recreates the negative volumes described. A photograph of this piece is orderly in that it is static and not subject to constant perceptual change, but it is absolutely disorderly in that it provides none of the flashes of information about the structure that are offered by direct confrontation of the object. Thousands of photographs might not suffice to provide the full picture of the piece that can be achieved in a few minutes of actual viewing time. Thus the more logical and complexly conceptual or closed LeWitt’s premise becomes, the more open his work becomes in visual terms. The idea that because of its own self-containment structural art can only be appreciated from a fixed point of view (literally or philosophically) is a false one. In fact, it is the particular comprehension of visuality and its uncontrollable nature that makes LeWitt’s non-visual logic so interesting.

The structural artist actually exists in a far more spontaneous and therefore freer situation than an expressionist artist, whose momentary spontaneity is fixed once and for all upon a surface in the act of process and changed little by perception. The changes enacted upon LeWitt’s multipartite skeletons by lighting, placement, point of view, make the contour all the more important, as it sets firm and ordered boundaries to the interior disorder. The open construction even diminishes the visual field to a nonentity, a frame implying rather than depicting the surface it contains. For instance, the three-piece work consisting of equal square frames (48'' square), one on each wall of a corner, one on the floor between them, its angle pointing into the corner, is a kind of dismembered perspective drawing diverting attention from the floor-wall relationship and, by establishing new boundaries, depicting a new and concrete space.

The modular or unitary idea is not in itself terribly interesting, as is demonstrated by a good many inconclusive and mediocre structures on the exhibition circuit. It is interesting only when employed as vehicle for ideas that are not in themselves visually self-evident, that can not be pictured mentally in their entirety and can not be diagrammed and experienced, but must be made. The treatment of interval and sequence is one of the more challenging problems at hand in such an idiom, for if a work of art sacrifices or subjugates the variety (of color, texture, relations) generally associated with intuitive idioms, it must offer a heightened complexity on another level. While the limitations often attributed to the primary structure are largely irrelevant, since the most constricted concept has infinite possibilities for expansion, any conceptual object suffers to some extent by separation from the body of work in which it has its just place. LeWitt’s ambitious and admittedly unrealizable scheme for four full-scale groups of nine elements each provides its own finite macrocosm within which the microcosm operates. In addition, the existence of many parts challenges the inertia set up as ideal for the structural style. If that inertia can be made to co-exist with a certain differentiation in form, the structural concept is further strengthened.

LeWitt’s work, like that of some of his colleagues (notably Judd, Morris, Andre, though they have little but fundaments in common) depends on the eye being restored to a state of innocence, or a state of perfect union with the brain. This is a process which does not happen to an art audience overnight, and it is a process that can be implemented only by the visual arts themselves. The spectator who wills himself to see in this new manner sets himself a difficult task; for every artist determined to subvert accepted visual patterns and methods, there are dozens who retain them. Confronted by a wholly conceptual art, one tends to turn the eye off and the mind on; ideally the two would be inseparable, but not as they are in the usual viewing experience. It is not a matter of the brain subtly dictating to the eye how to order and associate what it perceives, but of the eye communicating the disorder it perceives to the brain without sacrificing that disorder to an intellectually imposed order.

One of the most particular of LeWitt’s preoccupations is his long-standing desire to infer the existence of unseen or interior facts or objects. The concept of encasing in a block of cement the Cellini cup or the Empire State Building runs counter to the unsecretive quality of his open frameworks, though it certainly relates to the earlier enclosed spaces. He is concerned to control space to the extent of negating it, by means of a grid or clear enclosure.2 In a similar manner he could control, or negate, any form or object known to man, no matter how allusive or potent a symbol, by imprisoning it in a block of stone and returning it to a state of matter alone, from which spirit is excluded. This is the contemporary reverse of Michaelangelo’s concern to free the figure, or humanity, trapped within the inert stone, and provides rather obvious contrasts between the individualism of the Renaissance and the anti-individualism of the electric age. Yet in another sense, it attests to the need for a core, unseen and imprisoned or not. Rigorous conceptualism is substituted for emotion by the artists of this generation.

Most idea-art is dull. LeWitt’s is not, and the attraction of his structures is their beauty. The frustration inherent in their strangeness, when non-visual logic overcomes the visual, rests upon this dual provocation. The objects are, in the end, visually impressive. If they were not, they would be mere theoretical illustrations. Plans A and B of the new project are, accidentally, quite harmonious in visual terms. But Plans C and D, where the solids and frameworks seem disposed in a completely irrational manner, have an irritating, even humorous quality that forces the conceptual logic upon the spectator’s vision. These last two plans are also those in which the conflict between perceptual and conceptual is most blatant. The program, clear in the four models, breaks down when the artist’s directives cannot be imposed on the audience. In the pieces that call for an open within a closed, or a closed within a closed form, the concept is overcome by sheer physical (visual) reality. Out of sequence the object is restored to object status; standing alone, the solid outer box with an open column rising from it, or the solid column in solid box are odd and visually unsatisfying objects.

The major inconsistency forced upon LeWitt by the visualness of his art is an aspect of the enclosure concept which has haunted him all along. When a smaller (interior) open form is enclosed by a closed form that completely envelops it, is the invisible contained form there or not? Given all four models, its existence is certainly implied. Yet in order to convey this in unambiguous terms, LeWitt would have to label his work or make known the underlying concept by diagrams or manual. An exhibition of concrete blocks might or might not contain Cellini’s cup or the Empire State Building. This interests LeWitt as an idea rather than a realizable project. But the four models demand that everything be where it is supposed to be. The only way to show, in Plan D, that the containers contain the expected contents of the same height was finally to open the center of the top plane of the outer element and allow the top plane of the interior element to be seen. Since two things cannot occupy the same space, an infinitesimal line has to be added (1/16'') to show this separation, or containment, and thus the meticulously ordered measure is destroyed. The same applies to the closed outer box over open cube and closed outer cube over open column in Plan C, and were this model executed in full scale, the point would be still more vague, since the open top of the tallest element would be invisible.

In any case, the large closed forms containing much smaller forms remain unresolved; there is no way to show the existence of the contained element and it must be taken on faith, or by conceptual inference that in a series of three, when two are shown completely, the third will logically follow. The concept thus remains mysterious, just as the interior structure of the skeletal cubes is both clear and unclear. Confronted by the four sets of models, all but the most skeptical viewer must be convinced that contained and container are complete throughout. Having wholly disavowed the arbitrary in all possible areas except the choice of theme (thing within a thing) and color (“it had to be black or white and I chose white”), LeWitt has been forced to choose between visual and conceptual. The establishment of the physical autonomy of each form is more important in the end than perfect conceptual consistency. By admitting the visual priority, LeWitt, in spite of himself, proves his own paradox and proves himself more of an artist than a theoretician.

Lucy Lippard


1. The basis for measurement is actually the given dimension of 28 and 81 inches. A thing within a thing has to be measured by thirds and three times 28 is 84, but 3 inches are omitted by overlapping of the 1 1/2 inch bars on the grids. The figure 28 was controlled by the practical fact that the elements be enabled to pass through a doorway and the standard doorway is 30 to 35 inches wide.

2. “When space is divided up into such equal parts, a kind of negation of space takes place. All parts are given equal value and space is so systematized that it becomes least important; in the resulting inertia sequence becomes most important.” (LeWitt, in conversation with the author.)