Just as Pablo Picasso challenged realistic forms of presenting a human and Vincent van Gogh revolutionized colour, Sol LeWitt pushed the boundaries and definition of what constitutes art. His art focused on the concept of art rather than the physical craft of making art objects. Working as a night receptionist at the Museum of Modern Art let him become friends with future art critic Lucy Lippard and artists Dan Flavin, Robert Mangold, and Robert Ryman. And he was introduced to the work of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Jasper Johns, who influenced his later career. Admiring their art made the young LeWitt think that an idea behind an artwork was more significant than its material form.
In 1967, in his essay Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, LeWitt claimed, “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.” Abandoning the belief that the role of an artist is to be a craftsman, he decided to approach art from a different angle. He was guided by the idea that creative thoughts in the head are more important than products made by hand. “The idea,” he said, “becomes the machine that makes the art”.
If art is a creative human activity that stimulates emotionally and intellectually, then Sol LeWitt’s works are most certainly art. They make us question the things we’ve been taught by history and allow us to experience colours, spaces, and structures differently. All famous artists have been remembered because they were creating something new and very often incomprehensible to their contemporaries.
LeWitt’s Wall Drawings – They look easy, but they are not.
The creative works of this artist can be compared to the work of an architect or composer. They give rise to magnificent structures and songs, but without workers and musicians, these great ideas could not be experienced by an audience. Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings could not be admired by the audience if it weren’t for other artists and museum staff who install them. The Wall Drawings are site-specific installations that begin as instructions written by LeWitt and are then executed by others. In consequence, every mural will be different as it will be prepared in a different place by different people. While the drawings often appear simple, preparations take up to a few months, and the process involves many precise calculations, planning, and specialised equipment.
Sol LeWitt designed more than 1,250 Wall Drawings that raise a lot of controversies. Whenever museums and collectors acquire a Wall Drawing, they receive a certificate with LeWitt’s instructions for the creation of the mural, but many questions arise: What is the actual work of art here? Is it the painting on a wall? The piece of paper with instructions? Or is it the intangible idea itself? Adding to the complexity, the drawings on the walls are ephemeral: most of them are exhibited only temporarily in a gallery or museum and then simply painted over, but the intangible idea of the drawing remains immutable. That is also why LeWitt’s art is so different. Very often, the way we view artists’ works change when curators present them with a different narrative. The reading of the Wall Drawings will always remain the same because their feature is that they will always be drawn or painted in a different way by someone else.
According to the artist, Conceptual Art is “made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions”. I look at LeWitt’s Conceptual Art as another step in art history. From idealized ancient sculptures, breath-taking paintings in the vaults of basilicas, and inspirational political posters and collages, Sol LeWitt asks us to rethink everything we know about art, not only as the end product of many years of painting and sculpting practice, but also as ideas, philosophies, and beliefs.
If you would like to learn more about Sol LeWitt’s life and his other artworks, you can read it on The Art Story website.
Written by Zofia Nowakowska, Student Ambassador for The Art Story. I recently, graduated with a BA Fine Art from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. I’m passionate about conceptual and socially-engaged art, and my research focuses on the impact of digitalisation on the art world.