This exhibition is classic LeWitt. Consisting of massive wall pieces, a sculpture and two gouaches, the show functions as a concise look at LeWitt’s output. Entering the gallery from the street, the first piece encountered is Wall Drawing #469, 1986, a grid of four rectangles filled with arcs of primary colors. Beyond it, the main gallery is filled with eight more wall drawings, all variations on a “tilted form” and stretching from floor to ceiling. In a small nook is an iceberg-like sculpture, Complex Forms Structure VI, 1990-1, and a small gouache, Untitled (Black on Gray), 1992. This black and white moment of sculpture and intimate work on paper offers a perfect counterpoint to the precisely executed and colorful wall drawings.
It is curious these pieces are referred to as “wall drawings,” as opposed to paintings, since clearly the materials and the execution lean more in that direction. The later, more complex, wall drawings did evolve out of pieces executed in pencil and graphite, but perhaps this quote from LeWitt himself provides more of an explanation: “8. When words such as painting and sculpture are used, they connote a tradition and imply a consequent acceptance of this tradition, thus placing limitations on the artist who would be reluctant to make art that goes beyond limitations.” So calling them wall drawings is a calculated position in this regard.
Installation view of Wall Drawing #530s-tilted forms (A, C, F, G, I, K, M, N), at Rhona Hoffman Gallery. Image courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago and the Estate of Sol LeWitt. Copyright Estate of Sol LeWitt. Image credit: Michael Tropea.
Filling the entire main gallery beyond the sculpture is Wall Drawing #530s-tilted forms (A, C, F, G, I, K, M, N). These “tilted forms” completely activate space, the viewer’s experience and perception of space are foregrounded. The deep colors that permeate the walls cause the space to constrict, bring the ceiling down and the walls inward, while simultaneously producing the sensation of expansion. The result is a space that feels like an ominous dark chamber. The other effect these wall drawings have is to draw attention to the inconsistencies of the space they exist in. In their regularity, irregularities such as pipes, rafters and the ceiling come to the fore. But with LeWitt, reading into the experience of viewing may seem like a misstep.
From Sol LeWitt's "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art":
“If the artist carries through his idea and makes it into visible form, then all the steps in the process are of importance. The idea itself, even if not made visual is as much a work of art as any finished product. All intervening steps–scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed work, models, studies, thoughts, conversations–are of interest. Those that show the thought process of the artist are sometimes more interesting than the final product.”
Diagram for Wall Drawing #530s-Tilted Forms: N. From Kunsthalle Bern: Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings 1984-1998. Image courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago and the Estate of Sol LeWitt. Copyright Estate of Sol LeWitt.
Before seeing the show I had a conversation with one of the preparators that installed it and was surprised to learn that even after the artist’s death, the studio goes on. It seems natural that an artist passes and then shop gets closed down. But in LeWitt’s case, the studio assistants still travel the globe overseeing the installation of his wall drawings. Of course this makes perfect sense, but seems odd at first. LeWitt always employed the assistance of others to carry out the instructions. Aside from the small gouaches, the artist never had a physical hand in the work.
It is interesting to examine the intricacies of LeWitt’s practice in the face of received history. And taking his statement quoted above, it appears to be well within the realm of his interests. LeWitt’s wall drawings are typically described in general art texts as being based on a list of instructions; the artist has written them out, and when you buy the piece, you get the instructions. You execute them and he certifies that it was done properly. This myth is in the service of romanticizing the belief that conceptual art is simple, free and absurd. But the story is more in line with Joseph Beuys (“everyone is an artist”) or Ed Kienholz (selling a piece of paper with the idea for The Portable War Memorial, 1968, in order to have the piece actually realized). In reality, Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings have never been that simple, or free. The truth is more bureaucratic, artisanal and fascinating.
Take Wall Drawing #469, the piece was sold when Rhona Hoffman first showed it in 1987. The collectors have since moved and now no longer have a wall that can accommodate it, and the gallery bought it back. So it has been temporarily installed in the exhibition currently on view. To do this the Aesthetic Director at LeWitt’s studio worked up a blueprint based on the drawing’s instructions to install it on the wall of the gallery. A new collector has recently purchased the piece and gets the original certificate LeWitt signed in 1986, when he created the piece, and the Aesthetic Director will draw blueprints for installation in the collector’s home. But in order to have the piece installed, the collector has to have the wall prepared and make arrangements for someone from the studio to come out and oversee, or execute the work.
The studio has always been so intimately involved in order to maintain a level of quality and precision, to preserve the look and the brand of Sol LeWitt. Beyond this is the fact that in addition to the instructions are techniques passed down over the years that are responsible for that essential look and feel that makes it a Sol LeWitt. I find this all interesting considering LeWitt stated, “What the work of art looks like isn’t too important. It has to look like something if it has a physical form.” That statement was made early in his career of course, but I think it goes to a more fundamental conflict in the artist’s work. One that gives it a captivating edge. LeWitt seems to have been perpetually in battle with an aesthetic impulse toward beauty and an urge for a cool subjective program. After all, he did say, "I would like to produce something I would not be ashamed to show Giotto."