PRINT February 1973

Sol Lewitt: Word ↔ Object

SOL LEWITT EPITOMIZES THE LEAN intellectual orientation in current art. His moral and formal example is noteworthy and his influence can be seen in a range of work as diverse as the complex structural innuendos of Eva Hesse to the pared down verifications of Mel Bochner. The ubiquitousness and serviceability of LeWitt’s achievement often make him difficult to categorize. There are rare instances of theatrical Conceptual production, for example, The Buried Cube of 1968 (a work documented in the catalogue of Sol LeWitt’s retrospective held at the Haags Gemeentemuseum in the summer of 1970). That Sol LeWitt’s work should seem to touch many bases is problematic—my problem, not his. I believe that ’there is a more sharply focused vision of LeWitt’s contribution than perhaps the artist would be willing to admit.

One especially appreciates LeWitt’s seminal position in the evolution of Conceptual activity. LeWitt’s singular achievement is that his development of a theoretical posture nominally central to Minimalist structure freed Minimalism from its geometrically quantifiable condition, permitting it in this way to become the foundation of epistemological Conceptualism. In less stylistic jargon this means that LeWitt’s attitude toward the simplified geometrical mode of the mid-’60s tended to further reduce such geometric forms to a residue of linguistic equivalence. The value of LeWitt’s cube ultimately lay less in the form itself than in the possible and then unexplored use of a simple verbal description denoted by that form. Nor did LeWitt’s use of seriality emphasize repeated modules as only a means of inducing visual interest and incident in an otherwise spare reductivism. Instead, the visual importance of seriality in LeWitt’s work implied that composition could result from the use of a homogeneous set of forms. These Conceptual sets were offered to the mind for intellectual gratification as earlier hierarchies of shape and color had been offered to the eye for visual delectation. LeWitt’s work bracketed these two modes of apprehension and ordonnance. It had the double effect of validating more self-aware experimentation of an art of Conceptual sets (as the epistemological Conceptualists were beginning to explore) while it continued to valorize in a fresh way certain implications of Jasper Johns’ more conventionally composed art based on arrangements of heterogeneous Conceptual sets—e.g., the ale can rendered as drawing, painting, sculpture, lithograph, label, and “real thing,” or, similarly, heterogeneous thematic accretions derived from flags, targets, and most importantly, numbers. The emergence of an autonomous epistemological Conceptualist group—whose members by now are working in highly disparate areas of research—at this point seems to underplay its once declared affiliation with LeWitt in favor of an ever more credible connection to Johns, one far greater than had at first been suspected.

LeWitt’s recognition of a coequality between form and noun tended at the outset to isolate him from what was then considered to be mainstream Minimalism. It was not until the recent consciousness of a distinct Conceptual movement that LeWitt’s contribution grew clearer. Precisely because his work is linked so closely to the current usage of language in art LeWitt now appears to be the most stringent Minimalist of all. By contrast, period stylists like Judd or Flavin appear to have explored imagistic, coloristic, or illusionistic issues which seem to have been, in hindsight, additional elaborations within their art. LeWitt’s recent exhibition at the Kunsthalle, Bern, however, critically places him again into a paradoxical situation. Having led the transition of Minimal form into a Conceptual presentation, he appears to be reversing priorities in this exhibition.

The main reason I am disturbed is that—apart from the wall drawings which seem to be LeWitt’s major achievement beyond question—LeWitt is still realizing older projects within the context of tangible, objectified sculpture. Currently, work is being fabricated along theoretical models worked out several years ago, an action which the “nonexistent” or “insubstantial” conditions of the wall drawings, as well as the lessons inherent in the earlier work, ought to have vitiated as an esthetic, ultimately political, choice.

This objection raises an important question, one not only local to LeWitt, but to sculpture in general and to the major figures of Minimalism, painters included. Unlike sculpture of the past, the problem of replication, edition, and later production based on earlier prototype becomes—with contemporary figures—a crucial issue, one tied to the consciousness of the meaning and moral content brought about a new esthetic.

The problem lends itself to two interpretations. The tendency toward geometrical form and industrial manufacture accounts and allows for replication at anytime. The tendency also explains the introduction of teams of assistants who can fabricate the work even in the absence of the artist, who may in turn become the foreman and the conceiver; but the artist’s role as executant is phased out, often to virtual nonexistence. The point of art as language is that anybody can do it once the directives are in hand. In this way it is a seemingly democratizing process. By contrast, LeWitt’s unique contribution to Minimalism raises the special issue of the verbal model that obviates tangible form itself, and in particular, the manufacture of forms based on earlier schemes, a production that adds nothing to the implications of the original achievement.

In LeWitt’s special case, in fact, the manufacture of earlier projects seems a reactionary gesture in a production coexistent with the theoretical rejection of the possessable and the objectified. To wonder what a fresh, cubic configuration will look like, even if such a configuration had not been fabricated in the past, adds—it seems to me—little to LeWitt’s art since the principles of such an action have been understood as a result of his work at least since 1967. It is the principle and not the object that is at stake. If it is the execution of an operation or its verbal equivalent that counts in LeWitt’s work, then it would seem that my reservations concerning the newly fabricated cube series are well taken. The problem is that LeWitt now seems to reject the implications and the enormous changes in art occasioned by his earlier position. In continuing to produce objects as a function of Minimal sensibility he acts as if it were the object that really mattered all along. If he is right and I am wrong, if it is the object that counts, then I am deprived of an argument. The situation would then be one of object as object distinct from object as idea, his taste versus my taste. My reservations would be trivial. If I am right, however, there has been a serious forfeiture of rank. I reject Sol LeWitt’s new work (exclusive of the wall drawings) because I cannot theoretically justify it, not because I do not relate to his sense of human scale (being most put off by the proportions of the Modular Series—the 5 1/2' cubic frames fabricated in interlocking, white baked-enamel steel elements). To me, what is vital in current art is not a function of object but a function of idea. It’s never “inherent beauty”—whatever that means—that induces a sense of wonder but only the argument into which that object (and here I am regarding Conceptual art as a kind of object) can be fitted.

Further, to accept LeWitt’s art as “object as object” means, as well, that one would be forced to view it as a stylistic affiliate of the ’60s taste derived from the example of Frank Stella: a surprising bracketing since Stella’s work is so thoroughly based in a sensibility which, taking its model from the historical evolution of Matisse’s painting, is pitted against LeWitt’s achievement as it is patently object-oriented. The apparent similarity is caused by the utilization of a generalized sphere of structure—geometry. In this sense LeWitt’s straight lines countering curved arcs—the motifs though hardly the meaning of several wall drawings and graphic pieces—are similar in pattern to Stella’s protractor variations. To insist on this similarity, however, denies the areas of discourse which I believe radically differentiate these two productions: color sensibility against theoretical didacticism, feeling and emotionalism against keen rationalism, sensibility against theory, object against concept.

Certain LeWitts are nonetheless Stella-like in effect, particularly the hollow, metal boxes of 1968–72, ornamented in striped pattern sequences. These boxes, virtually unknown in the United States, are the ones which mark the most variant or eccentric application of LeWitt’s taste. They divide laterally, vertically, triadically, a sectioning differentiated by strong herring-bonelike patterns. Such striped applications suggest that LeWitt can respond to spontaneous impulses, a response that in his case leads to pattern-making. Too many visual properties are at work here for these boxes to read as constituents functioning within a lucid set structure. A ungenerous reading of these boxes would be as a hangover, period ornamentation in the manner of Stella. What has been reopened to question by these boxes is LeWitt’s all-important focus, namely that a Conceptual set is a viable organizational factor, equivalent, if not even superior to, visual or pictorial composition. They represent a serious recidivism in LeWitt’s career, one perhaps more disquieting than any other.

Not only then does LeWitt himself occasionally veer in the direction of Stella, but so do those who follow LeWitt’s operatives as well. It is intriguing that in the presentation of geometric form in terms of verbal correlatives, LeWitt is attracted by the imperative case. His simple language is direct command. There is something about this location in language (as differentiated, say, from Richard Serra’s, whose work may be related to the infinitive of the verb, or from Bochner whose work at times parallels sentence structure) which gives LeWitt’s achievement an often totalitarian or autocratic intonation.

In “following orders” it is curious to see how many period-taste solutions have already answered LeWitt’s verbal postulates. A telling example would be the lithograph executed by the students of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1972. Surprisingly an expanding meander pattern—as is found in numerous compositions by Stella in the early ’60s—resulted from the following instruction: “Using a black, hard crayon draw a straight line of any length. From any point,”—the executant conceived “any point” as always the point at the end of a line, an extreme but still correct assumption—“on that line draw another line perpendicular to the line. Repeat this procedure.” A figure resembling, say, an International Style floor plan could easily if not inevitably result from this directive, rather than the Stella-like fret which in fact evolved.

Perhaps the tautest realization of form as language is Arcs, From Corners & Sides, Circles & Grids and All Their Combinations, the working drawings for which were prominently displayed in Bern. One hundred ninety-five illustrations—some of them incidentally and misleadingly optical—correspond to such simple postulates as the first, Arcs from one corner, to the 195th theorem, Circles, grids and arcs from four corners and four sides. LeWitt’s attitude means that no indecision exists as to when the art work is complete. The completion of the work is realized in the solution of the number of imperatives.

What is so striking in all of this is the deflation of the actions of art—there is nothing implicitly or explicitly “artistic” in art-making other than making the work of art or doing art itself. Paradoxically, art is execution but it is not in “the touch.” So detached from the issue of facture has LeWitt’s art become that his work theoretically may be executed by anyone following the artist’s set of imperatives. In principle this is acceptable. In actual practice, however, there is a noticeable difference in those works executed by assistants and those executed by the artist himself, a difference both psychological and physical. An unresolved problem. LeWitt appears to have opted for the both extreme and obvious position: the artist is the person who thinks up things to do. Art is over when this chore is done. The art is the thinking.

A loss of confidence in facture (a theoretical loss perhaps more than an actual loss) underscores the wide malaise of painting at this moment. Just as LeWitt’s wall drawings dramatize the virtual unimportance of stretcher-borne-cloth as support for art, so too does the verbal directive further undermine the belief in personal facture as the cogent embodiment of art.

Not incidentally, the discovery of the wall drawing was an achievement dispersed throughout the post-Minimalist phase, one that responded to a variety of dissatisfactions. Several examples come to mind from that moment at which the introduction of seemingly “eccentric” or “signature” substances began to be exploited as a color surrogate for the lost expressionism typical of Minimalism. In the winter of 1969, for example, Bill Bollinger filled the Bykert Gallery with green sweeping compound and powdered graphite, smudging a large disk of the latter substance on the gallery wall. More immediately similar in effect to LeWitt’s position were the monochromatic wall drawings of Peter Gourfain shortly thereafter executed in pastel stick on the same gallery’s wall. I noted in the fall of 1969 that what Gourfain retained from his past was “registration, enumeration, and rigorous clarity of intention. What has been lost is the intermediary support (and the paint if not the pigment.)” Mel Bochner had been working in masking tape applied directly to the wall surface in LeWitt-like grid formations since 1967. These ideological tentatives were corroborated as well by aspects of the work of Robert Ryman.

It is of importance that the present occasion is not the earliest large overview of LeWitt’s work, the first having been organized by the Haags Gemeentemuseum in 1970, for which a more sumptuous catalogue than the present Bern booklet was issued. It remains the basic reference on the artist. Tellingly then, two retrospective exhibitions have been organized in Europe, while none have been arranged in the United States, although of course, the frequency of the artist’s exhibitions, first at the Dwan Gallery and now at the John Weber Gallery, have kept us well informed of his evolution. LeWitt seems to be reaching or arriving at master status in Europe in a way unusual to careers in New York City. If the artist is opting for a European reputation it may be because of the rawness, the exposed nerve of working in New York City. Still, work by an American artist that is not going to fall into its own mannerism must, I believe, be executed in an atmosphere aware of the implications of any artistic position. It could be said that there is built into the European appreciation of an artist, as distinct from New York City, the idea that facility is the touchstone of the artist’s mastery. What appears to be happening to LeWitt might be described as a kind of pleasure-principle Conceptualism which occasions a certain hasty or casual execution. The wall drawings at the Kunsthalle, for example, are so diffidently executed (even the one done by LeWitt himself, rather than the group-executed work at the entrance) that they disparage the integrity of this vital contribution.

Divested of an acute sense of the scene means that LeWitt may not have given sufficient heed to the fact that certain pieces, were they shown in New York City, would have elicited an instantaneous and abrasive result. I think particularly that the recent folded and torn paper exercises should have been edited to include in the Bern exhibition the earliest examples of grid-based, folded and torn paper exercises which, it is claimed, have been part of LeWitt’s production for some three years. The artist in this way would have indicated another area of his interest and scotched as well any misgivings as to date and/or directional flow of influence, as so much work of this type has been seen in New York during this past year.

Doubtless there are many persons who regard such an assumption as pointless. One does not quibble about dates when dealing, say, with the color red in conventional easel painting; why then take issue with who first folded and tore paper in the context of an art of idea? The answer to this question is a function of the nature of the Conceptual movement. Since the lesson taught by LeWitt is that the embodiment of an art may grow lean to the point of virtual nonexistence, the only thing then that is left inviolate or identifiable as art in such work is, in fact, the integrity of the idea. The reason that the Conceptual artist is so concerned with dating, curricula vitae, bibliographic niceties, and the appreciation of scholarly and art historical methodology is that through such attentions an exact delimitation of boundaries protects a unique achievement. Unlike conventional painting or sculpture, who had what idea first is a real issue, since the only thing that can be appreciated as a personal achievement in Conceptual art is the vitality and validity of its idea. This is not meant to be construed that LeWitt has been influenced by the very community of artists to which he plays so exemplary a role. I only state this reservation to stave off the possibility of misapprehension. As it stands, the Bern retrospective raises as many speculations as it answers. The sheer open-endedness of the result reveals anew the singularity and the importance of LeWitt’s catalytic achievement, if only in the degree that it continues to inform and announce its solidarity of purpose with the dry and “deprived” actions of the epistemological Conceptualists.

––Robert Pincus-Witten