Philadelphia

Sol LeWitt

Lawrence Oliver Gallery

The wall drawings of Sol LeWitt shown here are a continuing investigation of a working process that began twenty years ago. The installation consists of seven four-panel rectangular drawings that directly cover the walls of the gallery in thin layers of gray, red, yellow, and blue ink washes, applied in various combinations. Although these latest drawings differ from the original focus on lines, squares, and cubes and the limited palette of black and white, they still manage to create a complex field of visual activity out of what, by definition, sounds like a color-design problem of the simplest order. They also evoke a strong sense of their own history and original concerns. In fact, the real significance of this work lies in its mature relationship to its own past, as well as its strong contemporary presence. On both grounds, past and present, LeWitt’s installation distinguishes itself by reidentifying and reaffirming the complexity of issues and intentions out of which conceptual art has grown. The most central element, the primacy of the idea over the image, is still very much intact. These works initially exist through language, as a set of directions. In the past, LeWitt has asserted that explicit plans should accompany the finished wall drawings. In this case, while instructions exist for those who will execute the drawings, a brief descriptive title is all that is given the viewer, as if to say, That’s all you’ll need to see (that is, to understand) the work. But seeing has another twist, as the layout of the gallery makes it difficult to view the entire installation at once: some part of it is always behind you. To be completely seen, the drawing must take on the life of an idea in the viewer’s mind.

The exploration of the ground/wall/frame relationship remains an operative esthetic issue. Applied directly to the wall, the drawings allude to the tradition of the image framed, by incorporating a four-inch black-painted border. Twenty years ago, the use of the wall as ground was a radical choice. Today, the artist assumes its conceptual authority, while maintaining its experiential impact. The drawings appear to penetrate the flatness of the wall, suggesting more or less depth in the case of each particular color. Yet they leave the viewer, finally, on the surface, with the fact of the wall itself. With so much attention to the walls, it seems inevitable that the architectural structure of the gallery should influence the impact of these drawings, bringing site-specific considerations to bear. In this case, the particular architecture of the space—with its formal pilasters defining regular intervals on the walls—provides an implicit structure determining the size of the drawings. LeWitt’s use and further enhancement of what exists architecturally serves to draw attention to the space, so that it becomes both the work and the world.

At this point, paradox and contradiction enter into the picture. LeWitt repeats the natural spacing the pilasters provide, thereby implying a symmetry in the space which is not really there, then pulls us back to an asymmetrical condition by the presence of the seventh, or odd, panel. In much the same way, we are given clues with which to understand the color choices and arrangements, but once again, there are no guarantees. Out of the apparent clarity and simplicity of the visual elements, LeWitt offers a complexity of directions with which to approach the drawings. Standing among them, they suggest that we are in a place where one might act a certain way—or consider one’s actions, as the artist has. LeWitt is speaking to us as if for the first time; he quickens our senses with an extensive vocabulary that celebrates its own history while placing us squarely in the center of our own.

Eileen Neff