Art

As a pioneer of conceptual art, Sol LeWitt produced deceptively simple but dramatic works whose influence transcends. By Patrick Hartigan.

Art Gallery of NSW opens its doors to the art of Sol LeWitt

Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #604H (1989) of cubes with colour ink washes superimposed.
Credit: COURTESY ART GALLERY OF NEW SOUTH WALES

Number 10 of Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969) states: “Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.” 

LeWitt emerged as an artist when the axis around which artists began to rotate was language; language was something to respond to, whether defensively – as a clearly definable entity – or more provocatively, as the dodgy scaffold to wobble and pull pieces from. This continuum of responses to language roughly defines what became known as conceptual art. 

Sol LeWitt, sometimes described by his peers as the father of the movement after writing his famous Paragraphs and Sentences, circuited the language of art through a meditation on space. 

It is instructive to bring to mind the backdrop of abstract expressionism to LeWitt’s sentence No. 10 and artistic trajectory. Both conceptual art and its sometimes bedfellow minimalism, becoming post-minimalism, emerged at the moment when the gruff, personality-foregrounding paintings of the 1950s were becoming quotations of their own riskiness. Younger artists responded by turning the canvas to the wall, clearing the desk, taking a deep breath and reconsidering the elements of this increasingly non-introspective enterprise. 

The lingual and spatial elements invisibly holding together what had previously been taken for granted as art were the feed for a generation of art philosophers and scaffold shakers that emerged in the 1960s. 

LeWitt, with his quiet, open-ended works, is at the metaphysical end of the conceptual art spectrum; in some ways he did with the language of space what his monkish peer On Kawara did with the language of time. In any case, his work, unemotional and utterly sober in its methods, proceeded in the polar opposite direction to that of his tumultuous predecessors.

One begins Sol LeWitt: Your mind is exactly at that line at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (to August 3) in a room of baked enamel structures (LeWitt refused the term sculpture) and three large wall drawings. They present a skeletal, objectified ruin of art history. Much of LeWitt’s output, but most powerfully the implications of many works experienced together, have a drama that gains momentum like few other artists’ work. 

It’s a quiet, creeping drama – symptomatic of its neutrality and plainness perhaps – that can startle you to your senses. As suggested by the points of intersection in his Wall Drawing #303 (1977), we are suddenly, exhilaratingly aware of our co-ordinates, spatial and historical, made vital by the artist’s interventions. The monumental Wall Drawing #604H, showing colourful permutations on a cube in warm-toned inks, brings to mind the frescoes of Piero della Francesca’s, reminding us of the relative totality and minimalism of much earlier works and the spaces they occupied. 

The weightlessness in these first two rooms engages with something distinctly archaeological. LeWitt was an archaeologist of the space around art as much as that embodied by it. 

As with Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963) – a Perspex box containing condensation that fluctuates according to the temperature in the room – LeWitt’s structures, mostly deriving from cubes, make space aware of people and people aware of space. By doing so, they demystify our relationship with the institution of art, or what might merely have been a container for it. 

In the third room of the exhibition we are further still behind the edifice of art, reading instructions that are both birth certificate and epithet to LeWitt’s wall drawings. This is a defining feature of LeWitt’s work and one that takes us back to the opening sentence. LeWitt doesn’t physically produce his large works so much as ideate them in the form of small drawings and sentences that are later realised by teams of assistants. 

There is a gripping quality to these fixed, tersely written instructions – tiny lead sinkers on the arc of ideas becoming forms – particularly having just been among the vast, open drawings and structures they entail. 

Later in his career, LeWitt produced painted wall works and structures in exuberant colours from glossy acrylic paint and fibreglass. Later still he was painting paintings with swirly lines that in a strange sort of way brought him back towards the point of his departure, abstract expressionism. 

Extending beyond the grid while remaining doggedly aboard the line, the very late works are doodle-like slackenings of the grid-based systems of earlier drawings and structures. Some of these are actually framed paintings that seem quaint in relation to the spatial propositions but are also pleasing reassurances of this artist’s humility. LeWitt’s artistic trajectory was typified by an approach that was systematic and grand but never doctrinaire. 

Sharing a room with these works are paintings by two indigenous Australian artists, Emily Kam Ngwarray and Gloria Tamerre Petyarre, from his personal collection. The proximity of these works to LeWitt’s later paintings reveals the way this artist allowed influence to breathe in and out of his work. This presence is a little bit awkward but nevertheless somehow in keeping with the calm, cloud-like porousness hovering over the entire exhibition.

Sol LeWitt was a key figure in the opening of boxes previously intent on enclosing art. Being among the elemental things that transpired from this constant opening is to experience a gravitas both firmly within and far beyond the walls of a gallery, out into a world of objects and structures conspicuously taken for granted. 

That is what this kind of art does: it creates a hyperawareness of everyday objects and the space folded around them. This work is ultimately about leaving the gallery, and feeling the momentum of the art as it follows you out.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 22, 2014 as "Elemental things". Subscribe here.

Patrick Hartigan
is a Sydney-based artist.