In the run up to the opening this Sunday of the big 25-year installation Sol LeWitt wall drawings at MASS MoCA, I’ve been thinking about what made those drawings fascinating. LeWitt was one of the earliest Conceptual artists, a pioneer of the idea that the idea behind a work of art was more important than the execution. As an artist and a polemicist, he was counted among the Conceptualist and Minimalists who were bringing art back to square one, reducing it to its essentials. Early in his career, in the mid-60s, he was probably best known for white cube gridwork sculptures — he preferred to call them structures — physical expressions of ideas about relation and sequence. Ideas, really, of pure order.
But in 1968 he made his first wall drawing at the Paula Cooper gallery in Manhattan, a drawing (which he executed himself) of a kind that not only brought drawing back to its most basic element — the straight line — but which eventually didn’t require the artist himself to execute it. LeWitt very soon understood that a LeWitt drawing could simply be a set of instructions to assistants — or to anybody — fastidious directives that described a structure of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines that the drawing would make make visible.
The earliest LeWitt at MASS MoCA, Drawing #11, which was executed at Paula Cooper in 1969 by LeWitt and two other artists, is like that. The instructions describe “a wall divided horizontally and vertically into four equal parts. Within each part, three of the four kinds of lines are superimposed.”
The outcome looks like this.
The lovely paradox of course was that these stringent rules could produce strangely beautiful drawings, not just diagrams but angular forcefields and cloudy, fluctuating surfaces. Much more than his sculpture, which was just as hard as the thinking behind it, the drawings eventually took on a lyrical quality.
It wasn’t long before LeWitt added color to the mix, first colored pencils, then latex paints, India ink and acrylics.
Early on he also started to produce directions that allowed his assistant more latitude in the drawing process. “Vertical lines, not straight, not touching, covering the wall evenly” — try doing that twice the same way.
And it’s here that I think LeWitt’s work took off in directions you wouldn’t have predicted. In the ’60s he could describe Conceptual art this way: “All decisions are made beforehand, so execution becomes a perfunctory affair.” But gradually a certain amount of subjectivity and individual decision making crept in. He conceived drawings that depended in the execution upon how tall the assistants were who drew them. And drawings that directed an assistant to make a wiggly line and then for other assistants to attempt to imitate it. Towards the end of his life there were dark, pulsing scribble drawings that will inevitably be different every time they’re executed.
In this he reminds me sometimes of Eva Hesse, the artist who was the great hinge on which a lot of possibilities turned. She was just 34 when she died in 1970 but she had time to extend the possibilities of Minimalism by using very basic forms — boxes, lines, coils — as a way to suggest all kinds of human dramas and anxieties, especially about the body. Anxiety wasn’t necessarily LeWitt’s concern, but he gradually re-admitted the human touch into what were supposed to be his immaculate conceptions. His drawings may begin as purely rational constructs…..
But they end as the signs of a human hand on the wall, a definition of art so basic and “minimal” it goes back to those prehistoric handprints in the caves in Lascaux.