PRINT April 1975

Sol LeWitt: Modules, Walls, Books

SOL LEWITT’S WALL DRAWINGS are a brilliant reconciliation of the two senses of drawing that have coexisted, fluctuating in dominance, since the 16th century. There is the notion of drawing as graphological disclosure, the most direct marks that an artist can make and hence, because of their intimacy, authentic evidence of the artist’s presence. Personal touch is highly valued on the basis. There is another notion, which is that drawing represents not genetic freedom but the artist at his most rigorously intellectual. In this sense drawing is the projection of the artist’s intelligence in its least discursive form: line is the gist, the core of art. The term disegno has moved, often ambiguously, between these two senses. LeWitt’s drawings propose a new relation between drawing as touch and drawing as intellectual content. How conceptualistic the second sense of drawing was in its origin is shown by Erwin Panofsky’s paraphrase of the writer Federico Zuccari: “The ‘inner design’ (or ‘idea’) which precedes execution and actually is completely independent of it can . . . be engendered by man in his mind . . .”1 And Panofsky quotes Zuccari on disegno as the intellectual equivalent of “Prince, ruler, and governor.”2 Now in one way LeWitt’s walls have a great deal to do with the sensuous process of execution, inasmuch as he leaves many of the on-site decisions to draftsmen, so long as they remain within his proposed system. However, since the wall emerges as a work by LeWitt in a sense that it does not count as a work by the draftsmen, we can say that LeWitt demonstrates the possibility of drawing as pure ratiocination.

To draw in pencils, preferably hard ones, on unprepared walls, does not deliver works of art that measure up to the usual physical insistency of postwar American art. (Agnes Martin, who used hard pencils to establish the hovering grids in her painting, is an early example of the use of graphite for major works.) LeWitt’s marks sometimes have the sputter of graffiti but of course graffiti never comes in such sustained textural density. The marks might seem to resemble sinopie (the preliminary disegno of frescoes, buried in subsequent painting) but, of course, they are preparatory steps: what we see is an end-state. To quote the artist: “The drawing is done rather lightly, using hard graphite so that the lines become, as much as possible, a part of the wall surface visually.”3 Pale but systematic hatching and cross-hatching on plaster walls lie at the threshold of visibility. This restraint (compared to the conventionally high level of impact in Judd’s and Morris’s work) can be linked to Dan Flavin, whose radiant light from readymade lamps suffuses rooms, and Carl Andre, whose metal plates on the floor made the galleries that showed his early work seem disconcertingly bare. However “the conventions of art are altered by works of art,”4 to quote LeWitt, and now the work of all three artists is clearly visible, for all their reticence.

The work procedure goes like this: a site becomes available, not necessarily one that the artist has seen in advance. After consideration of the dimensions and physical properties of the wall, LeWitt stipulates a certain kind of mark, and a certain form of distribution of marks by a sketch and/or verbal account. The instructions also serve as the work’s description after it has been done, so that the wall is bracketed verbally, both before and after execution. The process-record is abbreviated, compressed between identical accounts of conception and completion. At Amsterdam in 1971 LeWitt’s command was: “Ten thousand straight lines at random,”5 and in Boston the same year: “Fifty randomly placed points connected by straight lines.”6 On the first occasion there were four draftsmen, one of them LeWitt, and at the second there were five, without the artist. Whether or not the artist himself works on the wall makes no difference. Control is not a matter of manual participation but rather consists of setting up a system within which the execution of his instruction can only produce a LeWitt. He is not authoritarian about this: the problem is simply to devise commands that cannot be subverted and though his instructions are laconic he is adept at remote control. Thus when he does a wall himself he is subject to the same limits that bind others. These wall drawings demonstrate that the conception of a work can be independent of its execution. The artist acts as an executive: he is transmitting information and checking to see that assigned tasks have been performed, but he is not doing the physical labor himself, or if he does, it makes no difference. What LeWitt is proposing as the artist’s task is the management of innovation as he (1) specifies a target and (2) determines the activity necessary to reach it. This is different in kind from past studio practice in which a master and assistants collaborated on works which remained, in their final form, an approximation of custom-made autographic art.

When it appeared in the ’60s, LeWitt’s practice was construed as an act critical or at least skeptical of a necessity of the Abstract Expressionists. LeWitt defines Conceptual art like this: “it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”7 It is important to notice that LeWitt goes on to say: “This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental process and it is purposeless.” To plan is to “select the basic form and rules that would govern the solution of the problem. After that, the fewer decisions made in the course of completing the work the better. This eliminates the arbitrary, the capricious, and the subjective as much as possible.”8 Under these headings he dismisses, or at least evades, the art as self-discovery rationale associated with Pollock, de Kooning, Guston, and MotherwelI.

Ironically Conceptual art, now a movement, is less related to LeWitt than to other artists, most of whom are concerned solely with events and activities or with documentation of a sort that does not presume prior work in other media by the artist. It is an inventory of prescriptions and records and a Dada-istic component is frequently present. LeWitt’s proposal remained linked to his professional practice as an artist, in both the use of the module as a system and the preplanning of his wall drawings. In both kinds of work the prevision of the artist is no less important than the later vision or sight of the works themselves. LeWitt has shown that to calculate everything in advance is not to routinize the outcome. His taste for and use of synonymic form has been sustained in a reticent but wide body of work. (A list of LeWitt’s wall drawings at the John Weber Gallery includes 249.) The theoretical infinity of extension of the grid reappears in the wall drawings in another form. Usually one can count on recognizing art by its boundaries, an internally logical field compared to the diversity of the rest of the world. The wall drawings however do not satisfy this expectation of delimited smoothness. They are in implacable, if understated, opposition to the formalist idea of the picture plane as an absolute space: LeWitt uses segments of space itself, unmediated in that they are the result of prior decisions that had nothing to do with their occupancy by his art.

What possible antecedents can be found for LeWitt’s extraordinary and early formulation of Conceptual art? To look for them is not an attempt to reduce either his originality or his logic but merely to contextualize his ideas. One possible influence is that of Marcel Duchamp, but Duchamp stripped of the Dada-istic collage element. When he took his bicycle wheel in 1913 he assigned the status of art to a preknown object and a part of the work’s meaning was in the subversion of the wheel’s function. The object was ripped ostentatiously out of context. When Duchamp remade the piece in 1951 with a new bicycle wheel, he affirmed the work’s repeatability, its multiplicity as an object and its extension in time. It seems to me that LeWitt’s modular sculpture has this potential of theoretically infinite extension. He wrote: “When an artist uses a multiple modular method he usually chooses a simple and readily available form. The form itself is of very limited importance; it becomes the grammar for the total work.”9 According to report, Duchamp was prompted by a revulsion from the manual and craft elements of painting and sculpture to his essentializing of the creative act in a moment of choice. Whereas Duchamp’s choices are not always free of witty dandyism, LeWitt has employed the theme of endless extension without such defenses. By taking the module as a grammar LeWitt was able to actualize the serial potential of Duchamp’s act into a continuously productive mode of work which was beyond Duchamp.

No doubt the occurrence of the idea of Conceptual art in LeWitt’s development had more than one predisposing cause. In 1963 Henry Flynt wrote an essay on “Concept Art” and although it was not widely known, it could have been available to LeWitt. According to Flynt, “since concepts are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language.”10 Could another source be the writings of Ad Reinhardt? Reinhardt’s equivocal position in New York has yet to be adequately discussed, but when it is, LeWitt’s relation to him must be a part of it. His “Sentences on Conceptual Art“ echo the gnomic form of Reinhardt’s “12 Rules for a New Academy.” Reinhardt: “No sketching or drawing. Everything, where to begin and where to end, should be worked out in the mind beforehand.”11 LeWitt: “Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly.”12 Both artists dismiss the work of art as a process-record; the work is to be defined as an all-at-once, virtually timeless, artifact. Though Reinhardt wrote about such a work, it remained theoretical for him, because his painting, despite a simple format, depended on an unpredictably nuanced screen of tonal color, but there is no gap between theory and performance in LeWitt. His art really is continuous with its formulation.

LeWitt made his first wall drawing in November, 1968, at the Paula Cooper Gallery (drawing the whole thing himself). In the same year he contributed 24 variations of hatched squares to The Xerox Book, in which several artists devised ways of squaring up their art to mechanical reproduction.13 The motif was similar to the wall, a square divided into four regular quarters, each one inflected by straight lines running across, down, and on left or right diagonals. These permutations functioned on the Xerox page (8 1/2” X 11”) and on the wall (2 drawings, each 48” x 48”). The adaptability of the system, implicit in his grid sculptures and their permutation, led him to formulate a theory of the exchangeability of media. Referring to the kind of drawing that is passed to assistants to aid in rendering a wall. LeWitt wrote: “The ink drawing is a plan for but not a reproduction of the wall drawing; the wall drawing is not a reproduction of the ink drawing. Each is equally important.”14 Here he can be seen practicing what he wrote in “Sentences”: “Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use any form, from an expression of words (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.”15

The notion of nonhierarchic form can be equated with the idea of repeatable structure. This is a bold step which cuts across coveted ideas concerning the uniqueness of media in relation to personal authorship. Thus LeWitt opposes the mystique of physical plasticity as a prime virtue which is common to sculptors as different in other respects as Tony Smith, Mark di Suvero, and Richard Serra. LeWitt is free of this craftsmanly obligation and such freedom is pleasant, like meeting an actor without vanity. Starting in 1966 with Serial Project No. 1, LeWitt has published a series of books (see Appendix) that are in some sense explanatory of his sculpture and drawings but, more significantly, constitute a parallel system. LeWitt’s point, apart from his evident pleasure in book-making (something he shares with Andre), is that this is one of the optional forms of his concepts. They are not explanations but aphoristic versions of the principles demonstrated at length in other forms.

What does the term Minimal art mean or rather what did it mean in the ’60s? Let us take the roster of artists in an exhibition at the Hague in 1968 called “Minimal Art”: Andre, Ronald Bladen, Flavin, Robert Grosvenor, Donald Judd, LeWitt, Robert Morris, Tony Smith, Robert Smithson, and Michael Steiner. It is easy in retrospect to see that Bladen, Grosvenor, and Smith, with their bulk and the dramatic stance of their sculptures, do not belong with the others, and Steiner is obviously an indiscretion which we need not go into here. Smithson, although socially close to the remaining artists, can now be seen to be not akin to them in his way of thought.16 That leaves Andre, Flavin, Judd, LeWitt, and Morris to validate the label “Minimal” or at least to constitute some kind of cogent alliance.

Within this five, however, there was no agreement on esthetic purpose. On one hand, there was a move to emphasize the status of sculpture as hardware. This notion of the object as itself differed from the autonomy conferred on abstract painting by Greenbergian critics by its exclusion of the humanistic juice in which the formalist critics have been copious. Stated curtly by Frank Stella, “only what can be seen there is there,”17 this position was overelaborated into a literalist esthetic. Sculpture was taken as the record of decisions made by the artists with materials, the decisions favoring some moves more than others. Right-angled relationships and uninflected arrangements were acceptable with a preference for monolithic or modular construction and nothing in between. Thus the interplay and mutual adjustment of hierarchic forms was subdued. The theory provided a rationale for Judd and earlier Morris when he made his solid geometric pieces in which one view informed the spectator of the other views to be inferred (perambulation was merely confirmatory). This notion, perhaps because it was simple, a kind of puritanical extension of the familiar notion of concrete art, became attached to all the so-called Minimal artists, including those it did not fit well, such as Andre, Flavin, and LeWitt. The way in which these three artists characterized their materials led them neither into unitary solids nor into surface finish. Their constituent elements were small, definite forms, particles rather than planes. The elements—Andre’s metal plates, Flavin’s light fixtures, and LeWitt’s module—were extendable but not in ways that blurred the integrity of the constituent bit.

The trouble with Minimal art as a term is that it appropriates a general tendency of American abstract art and awards it to one group, like a prize. Artists had been exploring the mode of reduction since the late ’40s, so it is unconvincing to make one group the most representative. The original essentializing steps of Pollock, Newman, and Reinhardt, say, are more properly seen as reductive than the work of artists two generations younger. The main reduction, or minimalization, beyond that of the earlier artists is a cutback on the appeal to humanistic criteria for art. There is a kind of tense indifference or a hard-nosed rationalism in place of the political optimism of Constructivism (see below) or the metaphysics of the Abstract Expressionists. LeWitt was dissatisfied with the notion of a reductive process culminating in irreducible objects. He pondered this history, troubled by its lack of any real consistency. In opposition to the three-dimensional materiality of so-called Minimal art he wrote and in 1967 published his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” He did not want to return to a conventional humanistic content in art (as preserved by the Abstract Expressionists), but he was not content with a commitment to dumb solids either.18

Donald Judd in 1965 wrote an article called “Specific Objects”19 which gives us a view of ten years ago. He was writing on behalf of “the new three-dimensional work” which, he pointed out, was neither painting nor sculpture. “Painting and sculpture have become set forms,” he argued but he mainly compared the work he was speaking for with painting. He found paintings that approached his unitary esthetic, but maintained that painting was less “powerful” than three-dimensional work and I suppose it is if its significative function is reduced to zero, as Judd proposed. He also complained that “little was done until lately with the whole range of industrial products.” It is obvious what he is suppressing. There was already in existence a third term, neither painting nor sculpture, but, of course, he did not want to mention it for fear of lessening the look of originality he assigned to the new three-dimensional artists, of whom he was one. Russian Constructivism was pro-technological in materials and in its polemic against other art forms—just like Judd. And, of course, it was here that a kind of three-dimensional structure, neither carved nor modeled, was invented. There are differences, of course, but not no connection. The Russian artists validated the use of additive structure, but they retained standards of complex visual differentiation. Still, for all their formal garrulity, they did postulate the kind of structure in which the separate units stay distinct within the aggregate. What the Americans did was to standardize the unit.

To write about LeWitt, among other things, is to think about what can be done with modules. Two years after Judd’s “Specific Objects” Mel Bochner, who was close to the same artists, wrote an article called “Serial Art, Systems, and Solipsism.”20 which concentrated on Andre, Flavin, and LeWitt. He proposed this definition of seriality: “Seriality is premised on the idea that the succession of terms (divisions) within a single work is based on a numerical and otherwise predetermined derivation (progression, permutation, rotation, reversal) from one or more of the preceding terms in that piece.” This is important because serial form is a fundamental factor in the nonmonolithic, nonmonumental side of “Minimal art.” LeWitt has recorded that, in this respect, Flavin’s Nominal Three was of singular importance to him.21 He is referring to Nominal Three —to William of Ockham, 1964. To quote Bochner on this piece: “The simple series involved can be graphically visualized as (1 + [1 + 1] + [1 + 1 + 1]).” In addition serial form is one of the distinguishing features that separates the American artists from Constructivism.

The question arises: where did the module or grid form come from? It is not obviously present in either the sculpture or painting of American or European predecessors (except for the special case of Brancusi’s Endless Column, which influenced Andre’s lateral extension of sculpture as the artist has acknowledged). Surely the grid comes from architecture, in which it is a fundamental means of visible construction, both in the urban vernacular and in most of the classics of the International style. The ideal of the artist as architect/ engineer was congenial, of course, to the Constructivists who saw a rationalized service to society replacing the subjectivity of individualism. It was a standard theme of art history and criticism to celebrate the mastery of space demonstrated by, say, Paxton in the Crystal Palace or Eiffel in the building of his tower, and in both cases spectacular lattice construction was employed. Both in their reading, no matter how casual, and in their personal city experience the American artists could not fail to have imbibed a sense of modular structure. Typically, LeWitt wrote in praise of the recently built, nonslab skyscrapers in New York in 1966 (his first published text). He analyzed the “multiple set-back in high office buildings” and appreciated the “logic in the continually smaller setbacks, which allows for intricate geometric patterns.” “The zoning code pre-conceived the design of the ziggurats, just as an idea might give any work of art its outer boundaries and remove arbitrary and capricious decisions.”22 Though masked in the form of a defense of an unfashionable building style, this text shows that LeWitt already had a clear idea of the direction of his future work.

The systematic structure that had been evident in his three-dimensional work since 1963 expanded in scale in 1965 and with this enlargement LeWitt reached his characteristic form. Take Structure, 1965, a black-painted wooden rectangle that stands eight feet high: it is defined by its contours so that there is a continuity of inside and outside. Regularity of structure and the circulation of space are both present. In Untitled Cube, 1965, white painted metal tightens and narrows the defining boundaries of the cube which is subdivided into a nest of smaller cubes. Thus the structure offers us a self-evident system, which can be learned from identifying one of its constituent units, and a visual display caused by the overlapping of the multipart bits. The grids were interpreted in terms of the spectator’s perception at the time. Bochner says that “LeWitt arrives at a unique perceptual breakdown of conceptual order into visual chaos.”23 Lucy Lippard speaks of “the confrontation of perceptual disorder and conceptual order.”24

This is to say that as the parts increase in visual complexity their initial rationality turns labyrinthine. I don’t think that the pileup of intersections at the heart of a modular sculpture precipitates us into disorder any more than entering and ascending the Eiffel Tower makes its 27 kinds of prefabricated parts seem irrational in their profusion.

The sense of the extension and multiplication of the small unit is maintained, and we are given no reason to suppose that its orderliness has been suspended. What LeWitt gives us is not the traditional contrast of order and disorder, but a spectrum of continuous multiple possibilities. I see what Bochner and Lippard saw when they looked into a LeWitt, but I take it as a progression from the one to the many, as a demonstration of the variety that can accompany the deployment of a single-type form. LeWitt’s art therefore proposes “a situation of multiplicity” (John Cage’s continually apt phrase) in which the extension of the module elicits variable readings but without sacrifice of a consistent structure. Here no less than in the wall drawings we can see LeWitt’s subtle resistance to the idea of the finish which is equivalent to the finale in music and dance. It serves as a metaphysical affirmation of the possibility of completion. He avoids climatic and summarizing statements so there can be no transition from order to chaos, or vice versa. What we have instead are continuous episodes within a serial form.

LeWitt dismisses the masterpiece theory, not because one work cannot be better than another, but because the isolation of one permutation from the set results in a curtailment of knowledge. He is the exponent of what Filiberto Menna has called a “rule-governed creativity.”25 The assertion of creative gifts takes various forms, of course, and one of the most popular has been a professed freedom from rules. However, even with the most impulsive or seemingly diverse artists, it is only a question of time before their periodicities show up. That is to say, rules are present, implicit or avowed, in artists as in everybody else. LeWitt knows that art cannot be presuppositionless and, rather than be steered by an unarticulated inheritance of ideas, he has devised his own operational rules. He has made his own version of what Wittgenstein called the law of projection. “There is a general rule by means of which the musician can obtain the symphony from the score. . . . And that rule is the law of projection which projects the symphony into the language of musical notation. It is the rule for translating this language into the language of gramophone records.”26 LeWitt has changed the ways in which the law of projection can be applied to what the artist thinks of and how it can be encoded and transmitted. At the same time, he has preserved the “autographic” by introducing the idea of impersonal touch: the individualizing variables of draftsmen function nonetheless sensuously for being detached from the original author of the work. (The only analogy I can think of is the variation in the painting of Warhol’s silkscreen paintings in which negligence produced uniquely autographic marks.) LeWitt has systematically increased the verbal content of art but without becoming literary, in the sense of amplifying the significations of the finished work. What he has done is affirm art’s linguistic basis as it includes a flexible grammar, one capable of amazingly varied and at the same time consistent use.

Lawrence Alloway



1. Erwin Panofsky, Idea, trans. Joseph J. S. Peake, Columbia, South Carolina, 1968, p. 86. Original edition 1924.

2. Ibid., p. 91.

3. Sol Lewitt, “On Wall Drawings,” Sol LeWitt, The Hague, Haags Gemeentemuseum, 1970, p. 61.

4. Sol LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” in On Art, ed. Gerd de Vries, Cologne, 1974, p. 188.

5. Sol LeWitt, “All Wall Drawings,” Arts, February, 1972, p. 44.

6. Ibid.

7. Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in On Art, p. 176. Originally published in Artforum, Summer, 1967.

8. Ibid., p.178.

9. Ibid.

10. Henry Flynt, “Essay: Concept Art,” An Anthology, New York, 1963.

11. Ad Reinhardt, “12 Rules for a New Academy,” in 25 Years of Abstract Painting, Betty Parsons Gallery, 1960. Originally published 1957.

12. LeWitt, “Sentences,” in On Art, p. 190.

13. The Xerox Book, New York, Seth Siegelaub and Jack Wendler, 1968.

14. Sol Lewitt, 1970.

15. LeWitt, “Sentences,” p. 188.

16. See the author’s “Robert Smithson’s Development,” Artforum, November, 1972.

17. William S. Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, p. 41.

18. Sol LeWitt in conversation with the author, August 27, 1974.

19. Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” in On Art, pp. 120–134. Subsequent quotes of Judd come from the same source.

20. Mel Bochner, “Serial Art, Systems, Solipsism,” in Minimal Art, ed. Gregory Battcock, New York, 1968, pp. 92–102.

21. LeWitt, in conversation.

22. LeWitt, “Ziggurats,” Arts, November, 1966, pp. 24–25.

23. Bochner, p. 101.

24. Lucy Lippard, “Nonvisual Structures,” in Changing, New York, 1971, p. 162. Originally published in 1967.

25. Filiberto Menna, “Sol LeWitt: Un Sistema della Pittura [sic],” Data, May, 1974, (English translation) p. 74.

26. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London, 1971, Proposition 4.0141.


Appendix: Books by Sol LeWitt


Serial Project No.1, Aspen Magazine, section 17, no. 5–6, 16 pages.


Set II 1–24, Ace Gallery, Los Angeles, 28 pages.


49 Three-part Variations Using Three Different Kinds of Cubes, 1967–68, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich, 28 pages.

Four Basic Kinds of Straight Lines and Their Combinations, Studio International, London, 32 pages.


Four Basic Colours and Their Combinations, Lisson Publications, London, 32 pages.


Arcs, Circles and Grids, Kunsthalle Bern and Paul Bianchini, Paris, 208 pages.


Cercles & Lignes/Circles and Lines, Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris, 8 pages.

Wall Drawings: Seventeen Squares of Eight Feet with Sixteen Lines and One Arc, Portland Center for the Visual Arts, Portland , Oregon, 18 pages.

Six Wall Drawings: Arcs with Straight Lines, Nonstraight Lines and Broken Lines, Cusack Gallery, Houston, Texas, 14 pages.

Grids, Using Straight, Non-straight & Broken Lines in all Vertical and Horizontal Combinations, Etchings, Parasol Press, New York, 30 pages.


The Location of Eight Points, Max Protetch Gallery, Washington, D.C., 24 pages.

Squares with Sides and Corners Torn Off, Galerie MTL, Brussels, 32 pages.

La Posizione di Tre Figure Geometriche/The Location of Three Geometric Figures, Galleria Sperone, Torino, 16 pages.

Incomplete Open Cubes, John Weber Gallery , New York, 264 pages.

Drawing Series I, II, III, IIII a & b, Galleria Sperone, Torino, 224 pages.

The Location of Lines, Lisson Publications, London, 48 pages.

Arcs and Lines, Editions des Massons, lausanne, and Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris, 56 pages.

Color Grids, Galerie MTL, Brussels, 48 pages.

1975 (forthcoming)

Lines and Color, Galerie Annemarie Verna, Zurich, and Rolf Preisig, Basel, 72 pages.

Grids in Color, Etchings, Parasol Press, New York, 48 pages.

Grids, Pour, Brussels, 8 pages.