Sol Lewitt

Your mind is exactly at that line
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
20 February - 3 August 2014

Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) was a pioneer of Minimalism and Conceptualism in the 1960s and 1970s in America. While he eschewed these art historical terms, his work stands as one of the leading innovations and legacies of that era. Your mind is exactly at that line, curated by Natasha Bullock, is a forty-year survey of LeWitt’s wall drawings, ‘structures’, archival material and works from his personal collection. The exhibition brings to the fore the notion of ‘concept’ versus ‘realisation’ or ‘idea’ versus ‘material execution’, the collaborative nature of authorship, and the dynamic or tension between LeWitt’s instructions, the allowance of improvisations by technical installers (whom LeWitt referred to as ‘artsworkers’ or ‘drafters’) and the impact of varying conditions of architectural and spatial environments. 

Coinciding, not surprisingly, with Mass MoCA’s (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s) twenty-five year landmark exhibition of one hundred and five wall drawings (Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective (2008-2033)), this local, condensed version provides an insightful and skillfully installed overview of LeWitt’s rigorous approach. He wrote in Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967): ‘In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work… all decisions are made beforehand and the execution becomes a perfunctory affair’. In 1968 his first wall drawing was exhibited at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, and following his peers, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, LeWitt began to experiment with activating a site’s surrounds and contours—the wall and floor—thus making it an integral element of the artwork. 

LeWitt’s early experiments with neutral, three dimensional structures and seriality is illustrated in Incomplete Open Cube (1974) and Wall structure 123454321 (1979), whereas his later playful inventiveness occurs in White Styrofoam on black wall (1994). LeWitt’s interest in improvisation can be seen in Wall drawing #124 (1972; 2014) where one hundred and thirteen lines are drawn to the following instructions: Horizontal not straight lines. Each drafter draws one not straight horizontal line from the left side of the wall to the right. The lines should not touch. There are as many lines as drafters; each draws one. Pencil’. Its mesmerising effects echo a seismograph’s output. Contrasting surface texture to create subtle planar effects is investigated in Wall drawing #871: a black square divided vertically by a wavy line. Left: glossy, right: flat (1998). The curving arcs, created by different acrylic material, both cut and unite the plane in two segments—one half a glossy surface, the other matt. Although LeWitt defines this as a wall drawing, synthetic polymer paint has been used, which opens up the possibility of interpreting the work as a monochrome, or field, alluding to painting. 

Similarly, a painterly or mural quality, as well as LeWitt’s reliance on the material of the surface, is reflected in Wall drawing #604H (1989) where a series of five isometric cubes have been rubbed onto the wall with coloured ink. Influenced by Giotto, the effect is a mottled, colourful surface; visibly present are the imperfections or texture of the wall, which coalesce with the subtle gestures of the installers. LeWitt’s work is monumental, predetermined and reductive, yet simultaneously expansive, allowing for subtle permutations within each installation. 

A curious inclusion is the paintings and drawings by Indigenous artists Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-1996) and Gloria Tamerre Petyarre (b.1946) sourced from LeWitt’s personal collection. These highlight the artist’s relationship with and interest in Indigenous linear motifs, as seen in his Tangled Bands (2002) and Irregular Loops (2001), where yellow web-like, fluid lines swirl and arc over a solid grey ground. Providing another link to the artist’s long history of projects in Australia is a large collection of LeWitt’s ephemera, letters, catalogues and photographs. Alongside is a selection of works on paper, studies and diagrams from 1970–2000, which provide a contrast to the expansive wall drawings. Intimate in scale, these drawings, mostly depicting grids or geometric shapes, provide rich insight into LeWitt’s approach to conceiving and resolving his ‘ideas’. 

The exhibition features one of LeWitt’s final landmark ‘scribble’ drawings, Wall drawing #1274 (2006), which took three assistants over twenty-five days to realise. The lengthy horizontal drawing is a band of graphite scribbles that shift from dark black through to charcoal to soft greys, white and back again. It is reminiscent of an energy field or electric static band. Through the pressure of the hand, the differing weights of graphite and the organic ‘scribble’ motion, a nuanced tonal gradation is achieved, resulting in a vibratory or hovering form that appears to emanate a band of light. While LeWitt rejected the notion of illusion, both in the drawing and also in the surface plane of the wall, which remains resolutely flat, Wall drawing #1274 does have an expansive and infinite quality—simultaneously horizontally and towards the viewer. 

As LeWitt posited in 1967: ‘Conceptual art is intended to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions… Conceptual art is good only when the idea is good’. This is an exhibition, which indeed showcases an intelligent and inquiring mind; an artist who, through the line, highlighted and championed the endless possibilities, rather than limits, of drawing. 

 

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #604H, 1989. Cubic rectangle with color ink washes superimposed, colour ink wash. © Estate of Sol LeWitt. 

Sol LeWitt, Wall drawing #1274, Detail, 2006. Scribble column (horizontal), graphite, images. © Estate of Sol LeWitt.