Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #1271 Scribbles 12 (2007), all photos via Quincy Childs for Art Observed
The Drawing Center in New York is currently presenting selections from the collection of Sol LeWitt, offering a glimpse into the creative inspirations of one of the Post-War era’s central figures. Showcasing an array of memorabilia and art including Japanese woodblock prints, hand-colored tourist photographs, and letters from his contemporaries, the show traces a lifetime of intellectual exchange and exploration by the pioneer of minimalist and conceptual practice.
Considering The Drawing Center’s focus, the LeWitt Collection affords a germane depth of material, and a true feat for curators Claire Gilman and Béatrice Gross, who ultimately extracted some 120 works from LeWitt’s labyrinthine holdings. Over 60 artists including Mel Bochner, Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Hanne Darboven, Lawrence Weiner, and Jan Dibbets are on view – a group of likeminded progenitors who comprise only a fraction of LeWitt’s creative orbit.
Georges Vantongerloo, Études (Constructions des Rapports des Volumes) (1919)
Beyond the sheer magnitude of his treasures, the show presents LeWitt as a “natural-born collector”, as Gross describes, a point that remains central to his artistic evolution. The oldest works delineate LeWitt’s penchant for reductivism, pursuing the “primacy of the idea” in making art. Two lithograph plates from an 18th Century encyclopedia show a series of basic geometric shapes placed adjacent to a Georges Vantongerloo study on ‘Volume Relations’. Together, they present the rudimentary elements to the LeWitt’s later conceptual systems.
Correlations within logical systems are a common thread in the otherwise sporadic nature of the LeWitt collection. Ruth Vollmer’s geometric anomalies and Jackie Ferrera’s Masonite pyramids, for example, appear as slatted foretastes to LeWitt’s Münster pyramid (1970), a work that teetered between construction and deconstruction. An interplay of influence emerges like a question posed with each tableau: Did LeWitt gravitate towards these works as a reflection of his creative force, or as a propellant to those conceptually-inclined of the ‘60s and ‘70s? Conversely, was LeWitt merely a spectator of sorts, acting on the discovery of these works as the inspiration for his own linear realizations? Throughout, these concepts intermingle, leaving an indication of LeWitt’s inspirations overlapping with his treasured artifacts: to collect was to create.
Perhaps in a salute of admiration, or as a relic of his inspiration, LeWitt also collected scores by Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and John Cage, composers equally compelled by a profound rejection of complexity, and whose work finds an echo of determinism in LeWitt’s wall drawings, becoming, each time finding their point of vitality in the response to and re-enervation of the artist’s instructions. He saw an affinity between his practice and theirs, using repetition and variation within a self-imposed system. He likened his Wall Drawings to musical scores, as they consist solely of written instructions and diagrams for others to execute, and are realized anew each time they are played, open to varying forms and reverberations just as a score is dependent upon musician reading notes.
For an artist whose work was virtually absent of color until the mid-80s, LeWitt’s collection features a considerable number of colorful works, often using the same sense of objectivity that defined his own approach, a momentary variation within established systems. Pat Steir and Robert Mangold exemplify this distinction, using color in a restrained aestheticism to accentuate curvilinear, abstract forms. Steir’s Drawing Lesson (1978), repeats a sequence of squares in alternating hues, while Mangold interprets the “frame” in his Four Color Frame Painting (1985), where his characteristic economy of color, gesture, and shape outline an oval of white. These considerations resonate in LeWitt’s Blue over Color with Color Edges (1992), where dark layers of gouache feel more investigative of formal issues than an expressive detail.
LeWitt’s works are also memorials. Eva Hesse’s post-Minimalist, biomorphic forms and sculptures were reinstated, after the tragedy of her death, through LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #46 of 1970. They are, true to title, “not straight, not touching, uniformly dispersed with density covering the entire surface of the wall.” Hesse’s parallels to LeWitt, and other contemporaries, make this a logical progression. Her numerical processes dematerialized visual work into a reproducible idea, a watershed tenet of late ‘60s conceptualism. He carries forth the ideas of his contemporaries into his own work.
Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Untitled (Falcon Rulers) (1976), via The Drawing Center.
The constructive and cognitive process in LeWitt’s work was a precursor to a sweeping conceptual analogue. The materialist and thematization processes of Hesse, Bruce Nauman, and Mel Bochner, all featured in the show, stem from his modes of thought. LeWitt’s interest in serial logic, however, marks a divergence with those whose examinations would use objects to illustrate concepts themselves, often using the most basic and quotidian of materials, particularly in Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s ruler paintings.
Plimack Mangold’s 1976 “Falcon Ruler” watercolor is tellingly placed next to Bochner’s Measurement Series (1968-69), in which he draws a line at eye-level, used to measure a sheet of graph paper. These works suggest that measurement is an empty signifier, a wink at Wittgenstein that challenges the line between seeing and knowing? Rulers and measurements, tools for spatial demarcation, juxtapose representational codes and expose a purely serial logic. This suggests the act of seeing has no other meaning than what is measured, what is known to be fact. As in LeWitt’s plans, diagrams, and instructions, the notion of human choice is deferred, and subjectivity becomes arbitrary, wavering in surplus. In displaying an ordered series of objects as standards of a personal but highly logical system of variations, LeWitt demonstrates that reality can manifest itself in a theoretically infinite number of ways.
Then there are the artist’s epistolary tokens, postcards that LeWitt sent or received invite the viewer to linger and appreciate his contemporaries’ predilection for visual puzzles. They are “written” in formations and grids, rows, directions, and serial salutations, each a spiral of numbers, dates, and letters that go beyond standard notation. Highlights include four identical postcards from On Kawara sent in sequential dates (October 19-22, 1973) from his I Got Up (1968-79) series, while a postcard from Alighiero Boetti consists of letters that spell “Order and Disorder,” scrambled in a square formation (1984). There are also the many hand-embellished cards signed “Sol,” a signature that is redundant next to the signature grids and shapes drawn onto them. An understanding of how large, yet equally intimate, the LeWitt Collection really is becomes palpable through these letters.
The piece that holds the most seminal value to those who know LeWitt’s work is his Wall Drawing (Scribble) (2007), placed anachronistically at the start of the show. Irrespective of its stunning quality (it resembles a beam of light in the darkness), the drawing is impressive for the number of artists it represents, those working to realize the piece’s somewhat loose instructions. The minimalist tenet to his works, a note of subtraction, is toppled by the many hands underlying the work. His works are echoes and harbingers of even the faintest straits of thought and ideation around him. This work embodies the most compelling aspect of the show, his collection, and his art: its function and position within a community of ideas.
— Quincy Childs