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The artist's practice

Sol LeWitt (USA, 1928-2007) is considered an important figure in the minimalist generation and in establishing the groundwork for conceptual art, although he disclaimed both identifications. In his early years, he worked as a graphic artist and then a designer in architect IM Pei’s office, which helped him separate the idea of a design from its fabrication. His work uses systems derived from mathematics and is based on the premise that it is the concept that counts, regardless of whether it is realised. LeWitt participated in Kaldor Public Art Projects in 1977 and 1998.

Early wall drawings

LeWitt produced his first wall drawing in 1968 at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. At this time art practices such as happenings, earthworks, installation art and performance were challenging the traditional idea of the art object and the gallery. LeWitt’s wall drawings were part of these developments and his move from drawing on paper to drawing on the wall presented a major transformation of his work.

LeWitt would go on to create over 1200 wall drawings during his lifetime. About the decision to work directly on the wall he said: ’I wanted to do a work of art that was as two-dimensional as possible’. For LeWitt, it was critical to maintain the flatness of the wall and to reduce the work of art to its simplest elements.

The wall drawings – described as such regardless of medium – are based on simple ideas and systems of repetition that result in complex permutations. In Wall drawing #303 (1977), for example, LeWitt pares his lines back to rudimentary geometric shapes, while Wall drawing #337 and #338 (1971) employ a system of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. This early linear pattern would come to be described by LeWitt as his ’coat of arms’.

Early structures

While better known for his wall drawings, the genesis of LeWitt’s work is found in his three-dimensional forms. Structures (or sculptures, a term LeWitt denied because of its historical and symbolic associations) were his first major medium, allowing him to condense his work to the principles of geometric seriality.

This exhibition includes a number of early geometric structures and four variations of the series Incomplete open cubes. The entire Incomplete open cubes sequence includes 122 variations of a cube with between one and nine sides missing. The serial permutations were so complicated that LeWitt eventually had to consult a mathematician to finalise the sequencing. This work exemplifies how LeWitt would follow an idea through to its finite limits.

In the 1969 text Sentences on conceptual art LeWitt wrote, without irony: ‘Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically’. Indeed it is the combination of the rational and irrational in LeWitt’s idea-based system and its visual realisation that characterises his methodology. Not even LeWitt could predict the form of the final work and he was often surprised by its aesthetic appeal.

Works on paper

‘There are three basic kinds of lines: straight, not straight and broken’ – Sol LeWitt.

Tangled bands (2002) and Irregular grid (2001) represent a progression in LeWitt’s abiding exploration of the line. At first glance they seem aesthetically different from his earlier geometric structures and wall drawings, such as Wall drawing #337 and #338, which consist of perfectly straight lines executed with precision: an almost machine-like quality present in their repetition.

These late gouaches are loose and gestural, but the systematic nature of LeWitt’s process remains. They are variations on a theme, continuing the strategies of sequential layering and linear patterning that are evident in LeWitt’s earliest drawings. Irregular grid, for example, consists of four layers of gouache, with red peeking through purple, blue and finally black intersecting lines. Even its title reveals the enduring centrality of the grid for LeWitt, which here becomes less architectural and more organic, like a web or net that flexes in the wind.

Later structures

In the 1980s LeWitt began working with concrete blocks – a cheap and readily available material that could be worked with on a large scale. Placed on their side, the blocks became units in a cube, which, along with lines, was a recurring motif across all aspects of LeWitt’s practice.

In the 1990s LeWitt’s aesthetic expanded, becoming more dramatic, bold and even exuberant. In 1996 he added acrylic paint to his repertoire, moving away from the fine linear constructions that characterised his earlier works and into bands, splotches and blocks. This shift is embodied in the contrast between two sculptural works in this room: concrete structure and the series Non-geometric forms (splotch).

These dramatically different objects are born of the same systems and instruction-based methodology that defines all of LeWitt’s art. The splotches may appear random and expressive but they were in fact generated from a two-dimensional footprint plan that was fed through modelling software by one of his Brooklyn fabricators Yoshitsugu Nakama. The resulting three-dimensional forms surprised even LeWitt. This process closely relates to the numerical method of repetition and variations informing the concrete block structures.

Later wall drawings

Over time, LeWitt’s drawing vocabulary expanded to include different geometric elements: from linear patterns, circles and squares to blocks of curvilinear colour, isometric forms and ‘scribbles’. The first wall drawings employed graphite pencil, crayon and coloured pencil. LeWitt added black or grey ink wash to his repertoire in 1981, colour ink wash in 1985 and by 1996 he had embraced the saturated colour of acrylic paint.

This exhibition represents these developments and reveals the impact of architectural context on the form of the drawing. The repetitive precision of the earlier wall drawings differ greatly with the loose, gestural technique of later works, yet they are born from the same systematic method.

Studio practice

While ‘artsworkers’, as LeWitt called them, created his structures and wall drawings, he had a regular studio practice. He would paint, draw or photograph nearly every day. As Janet Passehl, who worked as LeWitt’s curator and who continues to work for the LeWitt collection, wrote: ‘…every day…[Sol] loaded me up with more freshly painted gouaches, incoming and outgoing mail, books, lists, and instructions than my arms or my day could possible contain…’

The works on paper in this room of the exhibition present some of LeWitt’s activities in the studio and span from the 1970s to the 1990s. These works reveal his inventive approach to art and map out the trajectory of the exhibition in miniature. LeWitt did not differentiate between the works on paper seen here and his large-scale wall drawings, structures and artist books. He always maintained that the idea was the work, not its material execution.

Private collection

LeWitt’s generosity as an artist, collector and supporter of other artists is well documented. During his lifetime, LeWitt and his wife Carol amassed more than 9000 objects in their personal collection. Of these, more than 30 were gifts of Indigenous artworks purchased by the Australian collector John Kaldor. Based on mutual respect, friendship and collegiality – evident in their numerous collaborative projects – Kaldor and LeWitt exchanged artworks and Kaldor purchased others at LeWitt’s request.

The works displayed here by Emily Kam Ngwarray include one of Kaldor’s very first gifts to LeWitt. The artist had specifically asked for a work from Emily’s ‘yarn or Utopia type – mid 1990s’ period because he was ‘interested in the types with lines since this is what I am doing also’. Upon receiving this work in 2001, LeWitt faxed Kaldor with the remark: ’I have just seen the two Emily paintings. They are both beautiful and wonderful. I feel a great affinity for her work and have learned a lot from her work’.

Questions and activities

  • Reflect on how LeWitt’s early career as a graphic artist and a designer in an architect’s office would have assisted him to develop this conceptual approach to art production. Discuss in class and debate whether the concept or the physical artwork is more important in the art world.
  • Research LeWitt’s art practice and theories. How do his definitions of an artwork and the role of the artist compare to more traditional definitions? How has LeWitt challenged the role of the artist? Discuss your view of LeWitt’s position, making specific reference to his body of work. To what extent have his theories influenced contemporary art practice?
  • Compare and contrast the development of LeWitt’s structures. Describe the characteristics of each work in relation to colour, form and scale. Discuss the impact of the use of organic and geometric forms on the viewer.
  • Survey LeWitt’s wall drawings over the years. Identify key developments in his practice and record the various elements that he incorporated into his later vision for wall drawings. Which series of wall drawings appeals to you, and why?