After more than a decade of continued research, in close collaboration with the estate of Sol LeWitt, ARTIFEX has released Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings, the final and complete digital catalogue raisonné of the wall drawings that, for many, represent his most celebrated body of work. It is a project initiated by the artist himself at the end of his life and has taken many capable minds to complete. With a wealth of goodwill, DAMN° met its editor Lindsay Aveilhé and director of research Christopher Vacchio, who provided digital access to the catalogue for writing this article, which delves into the relationship of LeWitt’s oeuvre and conceptual art (as he defined it) with architecture, and its lasting impact upon contemporary artistic practice.
‘The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space,’ wrote Michel Foucault in 1967, the same year Sol LeWitt wrote his famous Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (Artforum, Vol.5, No.10, 1967). Conceptual art had to do with ideas – ideas to be applied in space. In October of 1968, LeWitt was doing his first wall drawing at the Paula Cooper Gallery. ‘Paula asked me for a piece, and I said, “yes, I want to do some drawings on the wall”.’ That same show – a benefit auction for The Student Mobilization Committee To End the War in Vietnam, organised by Lucy Lippard and Robert Huot – was recreated last year for the Gallery’s 50th birthday in its new space in Chelsea. Between those two shows (and during LeWitt’s life-time) there have been more than 3,000 installations of wall drawings around the world. Although they can be repeated, each one is unique, depending on its location and on the interpretation of the artisan drafter who executes them. The diagram in its application will take on a life of its own. This dialogue between the plan and the reception of the architectural space is at the core of this infinite project. If a minimum architecture can be defined by four walls and a roof (like in Marc-Antoine Laugier’s primitive hut), in using the walls as canvas, with the wall drawings, the artist is turning the architecture into the art.
Wall Drawing 793B and Wall Drawing 1171 (details) at Mass MoCA / Photos: Cristina Guadalupe Galván
Conceptual art, was a reaction to abstract expressionism (AbsExp), or better, to what had happened to art through AbsExp and its com- modification – despite the artists themselves. What happened to modernism in general (as in archi- tecture) happened here as well – it had become the style of the Empire – that is Corporate America – and the Cold War. It was actually the CIA who was behind the meteoric rise of American abstraction. From the moment of the CIA's inception in 1947, the organisation included the art movement's splashes, drips, and colour fields in the fight against the Soviet Union. And so young artists would want to imitate and paint in the style, which soon became a caricature of itself. Because of this, some artists started to look to other places for inspiration.
In a way, like Andy Warhol, during the 50s (the reign of AbsExp), Sol was not in the fine arts 100% ei- ther; he was actually working as a graphic artist for 17 Magazine (War- hol was a commercial artist) and then he got a job with the architect I.M. Pei as a draftsman. It’s interesting to think how much these early jobs had so much influence in the art the two artists would do later, which would transform the art world in both cases.
Wall Drawing 793B and Wall Drawing 1171 (details) at Mass MoCA / Photos: Cristina Guadalupe Galván
In 1965, Fluxus artist and polymath, Dick Higgins, restored the term Intermedia to the English language to posit the dissolution of boundaries, the expansion of liminal spaces between traditional modes of art making, and the open field for new forms that cannot be compartmentalised. Warhol and LeWitt both looked away from the strictly Beaux-Arts tradition fusing ‘the boundaries of art with media that had not previously been considered art forms’ in the words of Higgins. And that may well be the beginning of Postmodernism in art.
As LeWitt said, ‘Working in an architecture office, meeting architects, knowing architects had a big effect on me. (...) It opened up a whole new idea of how art could be made and it wasn’t until later in the 1960s that I became reinvolved in that kind of thinking...’ And it’s no stretch to think of one of LeWitt’s structures when looking at the Louvre’s Pyramid (1984) by Pei. I wonder how much LeWitt influenced Pei in return after the fact.
In Paragraphs on Conceptual Art he writes, ‘When an artist uses a conceptual form of art it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair,’ which is the logic in which architecture operates. ‘An architect doesn’t go off with a shovel and build his foun- dation and lay every brick. He’s still an Artist’ according to Sol.
Wall Drawing #336 and open cube structures Institut für Visuelle Gestaltung, Linz, Austria, 1980 Photo: Gerald Zugmann © Gerald Zugmann / www.zugmann.com
‘Ideas are discovered by intuition’ (Sentences on Conceptual Art, 1969). For him the creative act was not a conscious operation, but more a series of chance encounters will lead to a meaningful discovery. It was also through the meeting of fellow artists (Dan Flavin, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, Lucy lippard, Eva Hesse and Tom Doyle, to name just a very few), who were trying to break away from the establishment’s idea of art, and who got the label minimalists. If AbsExp artists were funda- mentally painters (and some sculptors), a very easy way to oppose them was to paint diametrically opposed to their canon, or directly forget about painting all together. Pop art, Fluxus, minimal art, they all were looking for alternatives. Or in the words of Professor James Meyer, ‘The most challenging practices of the 1960s, LeWitt’s among them, had set about dismantling the ossified notions of quality and taste associated with the crumbling edifice of modernism. LeWitt replaced formalist criteria with intellectual criteria.’
About his first significant work from 1962 – protruded boxes hanging from the wall, that would launch him onto his career path – LeWitt said: ‘These pieces are referred to as structures because they are neither paintings nor sculptures, but both.’ One cannot avoid noting the architectural lingo – and still he was hanging on the wall. He had not yet developed his very architectural series of cubical lattice structures or the wall drawings, but a language was already anticipating the conquest of space. As he remarked, ‘I have always called my three-dimensional work “structures” because my thinking derives from the history of architecture rather than of sculpture.’
Sol LeWitt with “Structures” (1962) hanging on the wall. Photos: courtesy of Sol LeWitt's State
The initial idea for Sol to paint directly on the wall for his wall drawings, bypassing any canvas or support, was to be as two-dimensional as possible but was also deeply influenced by another Intermedia artist from the early renaissance he met on an early trip to Europe the painter, geometer and mathematician Piero della Fransceca — who had, as historian Horst Janson describes a 'mathematical outlook [that] permeates all his work. (...) We may call him the earliest ancestor of the ab- stract artist of our time.'
But when I alluded to the early work of 1962, the structures hanging on the wall, I can only think of the later protruded structures of Frank Stella. I think those two artists might have influenced each other quite a bit. Both of them organise their practice as an architecture office with many assistants (artists and architects) who help materialise their ideas. ‘Walls are big and time is very short, so I had to use assistants,’ LeWitt used to say. The truth is he worked alone in his stu- dio in contrast with Stella.
For this article I also went to visit artist Dan Graham (DAMN°68). Dan was a friend of LeWitt and calls himself an architectural tourist (euphemism he likes to use to downplay his extensive knowledge). In truth he has also been addressing architecture on his own terms throughout his career with his art and writings. And he actually put together Sol’s first solo show in 1965 at his short-lived gallery John Daniels in his early twenties. He was telling me how Sol was upset because he didn’t get into the Green Gallery (run by Richard Bellamy from 1960 to 1965) who championed the minimalists before anyone did.
Dan Graham: Because I showed him so early and I was very young, I think he was embarrassed by that. I was very influenced by my first encounter with Dan Flavin and Sol, who were both guards at the Russian constructivist show at MoMA. They [the minimalists] were all very influenced by that show and Camilla Gray’s book The Russian Experiment in Art: 1863-1922, which came out in 1962.
What I liked about this period of Russian constructivism is that the work was a hybrid between art, architecture and design. And if anywhere, this is where I would situate my work.
Cristina Guadalupe Galván: Maybe the work of Sol as well?
DG: Sol had actually direct training as an architect, and he read many books on urbanism, such as those by Lewis Mumford.
CGG: He even went on to write that incredibly poignant article, Ziggurats, on New York City urban planning in 1966.
DG: He was fascinated by the New York City plan being a grid. Sol also mentioned to me that his favourite painting was a work of De Chirico that depicted Turin’s city plan. Another influence was [Donald] Judd‘s article on the ‘neo-classical’ city plan of Kansas City.
CGG: And what about conceptual art? You started as a conceptual artist as well...
DG: I first got into art because you could do anything in the 60s and call it art. For me conceptual art is anarchistic humour, not neo-academicism like [Joseph] Kosuth or Art & Language. A good example would be Ed Ruscha, Stanley Brown, On Kawara. The idea was to make something, like in the way my magazine pages were, that was disposable and would destroy the idea of value. Also this idea to make everything very dumb but seem very intelligent at the same time. It was a kind of deadpan humour. Sol said his wood lattice pieces were to be a playground for his cats, but they might be understood as reflecting the grid city plan of New York City...
Wall Drawing 51 at Mass MoCA Photo: Cristina Guadalupe Galván
Actually the show at Dan’s gallery in 1965 was a breakthrough for LeWitt. As he says, ‘The pieces I showed there were fairly large and simple slabs. Using lacquer, much work was done to make the surface look hard and industrial. This was negated by the grain of the wood. (...) Disturbed by the inconsistency of the wood in the Daniel’s gallery pieces, and by the emphasis on surface (...) I decided to remove the skin altogether and reveal the structure. Then it became necessary to plan the skeleton so that the parts had some consistency. Equal, square modules were used to build the structures.’
That’s how the open cubical grids came about. Artist Kazuko Miy- amoto, and LeWitt’s draftsman, said that his wood structures were actually rooted in Japanese construction methods (Sol fell in love with Japan in 1951-52 during the Korean War. He hated the army). These three-dimensional grids are the first series of work he ever produced and ones that he would carry on for decades. Dissatisfaction is the best engine for creativity. If the pieces first shown at John Daniels were very Judd-like – like some weird oversized furniture elements (I cannot stop thinking of Ettore Sottsass’ oversized wooden furniture cabinets of his late period) – once naked they became pure structure. Funny that he would have called the previous work from 1962 ‘structures’. He was looking for it already...
Since the mid 80s he starts playing with another type of structure, made with concrete cylinder blocks – what he called Concrete Block Structures. For him one thing leads to another, and these, really look like a natural progression from the white and empty ones. The construction unit here, directly taken from building construction, has the appeal of the standardised product: inexpensive, something any mason can build easily, and also resistant so it can be placed outdoors. With these qualities a series of these works started popping up around the world – not only indoors, but also in parks and public spaces.
Negative Pyramid (1997) with Concrete Block at Mass MoMCA Photo: Cristina Guadalupe Galván
The 90s for him are characterised by an increase in the number of commissions, both for private and public spaces. When outdoors, the interaction with its environment becomes another element to consider, in the way a designer operates. As he says, ‘I always come to a site without a precise idea of what I would do – but with a lot of half-formed ideas, which when I see the site, become final. The site almost always plays a part in the work.’
In 2001, LeWitt actually collaborated with architect Stephen Lloyd to design a synagogue – his only architectural complex. ‘I felt closer to [Éti- enne-Louis] Boullée than [An- tonio] Canova, but I would not want to be an architect,’ he says.
Forward to 2008 and Sol Le-Witt: A Wall Drawing Retro- spective opened at the MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mas- sachusetts. The exhibition had been in the pipeline since 2004 (according to the Museum’s history of the project it was sparked by a conversation between the artist and Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery) and comprised 105 of LeWitt’s large-scale wall drawings, spanning the artist’s career from 1969 to 2007. When LeWitt was offered the possibility of the project, instead of taking a floor in one of the existing buildings already in function, he opted to take a whole other abandoned facility and refurbish it – Building #7. He designed the layout for the three floors, the connections of the building to the other structures, and the content of the 27,000-square-foot struc- ture, organised chronologically. Unfortunately he was already ill, and like Frank Lloyd Wright with his Guggenheim, he didn’t see it finalised.
The first floor houses LeWitt’s groundbreaking wall drawings from the late 1960s and 1970s, which were usually executed with lead and coloured pencil, coming straight from the draftsman desk he came from and very much influenced by the work of Agnes Martin, an Amer- ican modern master. In describing her work the Guggenheim wrote: 'Though grand, her grid paintings were created from small repetitive gestures and simple means. They required a painstaking and labor-intensive process that, for her, emphasized the importance of humili ty and modesty. 'It’s interesting how those two adjectives, humility and modesty, could describe Sol’s personality as well.
Conceived with the simplest of formal elements (straight, not-straight and broken lines drawn in vertical, horizontal and diagonal directions, and rendered in grey, yellow, red and blue), these early works from the first floor, established the vocabulary and con- ceptual systems that LeWitt would use throughout his career.
The second floor – from the early 1980s through much of the 1990s – coincide with the time when he and his wife Carol left Manhattan (not married yet) to live in Spoleto, Italy. This change had a big effect on the work he was doing. As he said: ‘I had reached the limit of my concern for works based on system and logic... I had wanted to expand the range of my thinking to include a larger, broader scope.’ Inspired by Renais- sance frescoes – especially from Giotto and Piero della Francesca – he started using ink-washed colour in his drawings and flat volume applied with rags, reminiscence of medieval walls. It’s interesting to note that Giotto was also an architect. ‘I wanted to render form without space as much as possible. (...) One lesson learnt from the fresco painters of the Quattrocento [the Italian artistic and cultural practices of the 15th century] in Italy was that they had a sense of surface, of flatness, where linear perspective was not used, but a system of isometric perspective that flattened the forms.’ He was so inspired by it and saw himself so much part of that tradi- tion that he went on to say, ‘I would like to produce something I would not be ashamed to show Giotto.’
The work on the third floor – from the late 1990s to 2007 – once he is back again living in the US, undergoes another set of changes. This time thick arcs, waves, bands and curves move playfully across the brightly coloured walls painted in highly saturated colour: red, yellow, blue, purple, green, and orange acrylics, as well as glossy and matte varnishes. Juxtaposed with these dynamic, colourful works – and going back to his origins with the graphite pencil – are luminous Scribble drawings which were conceived between 2005 and the artist’s death in April 2007 and which create a profound sense of space and volume by almost infinitely modulated gradations of light and dark – life and death.
Q: You have been referred to as the ‘originator’ of wall drawings
SL: I think the cave men came first. A digital Catalogue Raisonné for this body of work makes complete sense. First of all, it’s an infinite project, since the artwork is the diagram and it can be applied in various places ad infinitum. LeWitt was actually interested in creating a programme and centre at Yale University – the Sol LeWitt Study Center at Yale West Campus was inaugurated in January 2019 – that will help maintain his wall drawing archives and sustain – in perpetuity – the technical knowledge and artistic skills necessary for their subsequent production worldwide. So in that infinite spirit, the Catalogue also can be updated throughout time to include the new installations. But not only that, its multiple nature and vastness, allows to search and look at them in many different ways: by decade, by medium, by series, by specific number of drawing, etc. And for me, it also has a poetic dimension. For Sol, the diagram is the work (not entirely, but that’s what he liked to say), so the wall drawings live for a period of time and will be painted over and drawn again somewhere else. This almost virtual life of the diagram is closer to a digital format, than a printed one.
If we look today at artistic contemporary production and to the new museums and art spaces proliferating everywhere that host it – their size and scale – Foucault’s maxim of 1967 has been proven absolutely right, and Sol’s work and definition of conceptual art anchored in architecture is partly responsible for this. Be it conceptual art, art Installation, performance art, sculpture or large-scale painting – all derived from the 60s artistic revolution that coincides with the transition from modernism to postmodernism – all of them live in space or have expanded to colossal proportions. I believe many of the artists working today, as the progeny of this older generation from the 60s and 70s, operate between art and architecture.
But as LeWitt warns us, the idea is what is important, and very often this kind of work tends to be more a spectacle or interior decoration than a real conceptual art project. The new architecture of the container is sometimes dictating a bit too much what artists do, although it must be also taken into consideration.
And that’s the genius of LeWitt’s wall drawings project, as he said: ‘When presented with the scale that walls have one must begin to engage their physical properties. The theatrical and decorative are unavoidable and should be engaged to emphasize the work.’ In this very conceptual project that becomes so lusciously physical, he doesn’t compete with the architecture, he transforms and becomes the architecture.
By Cristina Guadalupe Galván