“Soulless Twit!” was the verdict from one local art identity, when I mentioned Sol LeWitt: Your mind is exactly at that line, at the Art Gallery of NSW. It’s a harsh call because LeWitt may not be the most expressive of artists but his precise, geometric work has that appeal we associate with anything so blatantly perfectionist. Besides, as this exhibition demonstrates, he loosened up considerably in his old age.
LeWitt is one of the acknowledged gurus of Conceptual Art and Minimalism, although he disavowed both labels. He consistently argued that the idea of a work of art was more important than the realisation, but he referred to his own work as “conceptual art with a small ‘c’.” As for Minimal art he was even more dismissive. “It went nowhere,” he said, which seems a reasonable assessment of a style that aimed to reduce art to its most basic elements.
Despite his conceptual rigour there is an aspect of LeWitt’s wall drawings and minimalist ‘structures’ (a word he preferred to ‘sculptures’) that makes us feel good. By all accounts LeWitt (1928-2007) was a charming, easy-going man and a great supporter of other artists. This makes him an anomaly among his American peers of the Minimalist generation, who were notoriously self-centred and irascible. It’s doubtful anyone ever met Richard Serra or Dan Flavin and said: “What a nice man!”
LeWitt’s passion for Aboriginal art, which he collected with a little help from his friends in Australia, is characteristic of an artist who believed one should constantly remain open to new ideas. As his career progressed he kept introducing elements that might never have been predicted from his early geometric investigations. LeWitt’s first notable works are mostly large-scale drawings in black and white, but by the end he was working in an extraordinary range of colours.
The AGNSW show is based on the pieces amassed by John Kaldor over the course of three decades. Indeed, of all the artists Kaldor has collected, LeWitt is probably his favourite. This is demonstrated by the quality and quantity of his holdings, which make so many other artists in the collection seem like after-thoughts. It’s proof that a collector can be passionate about the most austere works, and go along for the ride as that oeuvre gradually opens up.
Sol LeWitt: Your mind is exactly at that line is not a large show but it is a very handsome one. There is no entrance fee, and many viewers will enjoy paying multiple visits during the six months it resides at the AGNSW. The long duration is a great tribute to the artist but alarming for what it says about the barrenness of the gallery’s exhibition program. Let’s hope the shows are good even if they are not plentiful.
The other disturbing aspect of this project is the lack of a catalogue or even a decent brochure. The curators have had plenty of time to prepare this display, which is largely composed of works gifted by Kaldor to the permanent collection. In an age when commercial galleries turn out museum-quality catalogues on a monthly basis, it’s a poor effort not to have anything for viewers to purchase to enhance their experience.
Although he worked in many different media, LeWitt is chiefly known for his three-dimensional modular structures, such as the Incomplete Open Cubes of the 1970s, and for large-scale wall drawings. The structures are radically simplified, gaining power through repetition and the artist’s single-minded determination to explore every possible variant on a given form. The Three part variations on three different kinds of cubes (1975) resemble a slightly dysfunctional set of shelves. They are so clean, dull and obdurate the viewer is forced into a grudging admiration of the chutzpah it takes to make such a piece and call it ‘art’.
In these early works, LeWitt did not indulge the decorative impulse that would characterise his later production. He stuck doggedly to the grid, producing works in serial fashion until they became something quite different from the cold, industrial-style fabrications they resembled as singular units. As many critics have noted, there was a burgeoning absurdity in producing so many variations on a geometric theme, usually the square or the cube.
The first proposition in LeWitt’s quasi-manifesto, Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969) is: “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” Now that we are able to look back over the totality of LeWitt’s career we can see that he was not being merely provocative. He may have been a serialist but he was never a rationalist.
In buying one of LeWitt’s wall drawings, the client would acquire a contract that gave instructions as to how the work should be created. It wasn’t necessary that the artist himself should do the drawing. In most cases the work was done by assistants who would be credited for their input. Instructions might be precise or left deliberately vague, as LeWitt would allow his collaborators a little creative leeway. The process was similar to the way a composer expects a musician to make an interpretation of a piece without departing too far from the written score.
Privileging the idea over the actual labour of making the work was not simply an avant-garde gambit. It had a practical corollary in terms of LeWitt’s productivity and marketability. It meant he could be amazingly prolific, turning out thousands of works that only had to be dreamt up and described on a piece of paper. It allowed the most exacting pieces to be executed according to a plan, regardless of his own physical frailties as he grew older and battled cancer. Even after his death, new versions of his wall drawings can be created by accredited assistants – which is exactly what happened at the AGNSW, with assistants being flown in from overseas.
When the show is finished the drawings are painted over, retreating to the world of ideas until their next incarnation.
From 1968 to his death in 2007, LeWitt was responsible for well over 1,200 wall drawings. They began in a rather cool and severe manner as in Wall Drawing No. 303, which consists of two large geometrical figures inscribed on a white wall with black crayon. Soon they become more complex, incorporating thousands of small, straight, parallel lines; tightly drawn squares and grids.
The most strikingly beautiful piece in this show is Wall Drawing No. 604 (1989), which consists of five cuboid shapes – each plane a different colour – on a mauve-grey wall. The colours are made by applying coloured ink washes, lending complexity and translucency to these rudimentary shapes. He attributed the discovery of colour to the frescoes of Giotto and other Renaissance masters that he studied when he lived in Italy in the 1980s.
By contrast, Wall Drawing No. 1091 (2005), employs bands of the most vivid, solid colour to completely cover the interior of a room. The version at the AGNSW is a reconstruction of the original commission made for a room in the Kaldor house. Even the most gung-ho Pop artist might have hesitated to make something so aggressively in-your-face.
The last work in the show is a sublime feat: a long band of black scribbles that resembles a beam of light in the darkness. It’s an impressive way to sign off.
Many of LeWitt’s late pieces are surprisingly loose and free – gouaches painted by hand, full of twisting, overlapping lines. The affinities with the yam root paintings of Emily Kam Ngarraye are unmistakable. LeWitt wrote to Kaldor that he was learning a lot from Emily’s paintings, and he wasn’t kidding. Neither was he only learning about mark-making, his Irregular Loops (2001), with its white lines on gold, is positively luminous. It’s an up-beat work by a man coming to the end of the line, filled with joie-de-vivre.
The longer one spends with LeWitt’s art, the less clinical it grows. No wonder he rejected the dogmatism of the Minimalists. His carefully designed works might be best described as a refined form of play. In this show we can chart a life’s course from incomplete open cubes to complete openness of heart.
Sol LeWitt: Your mind is exactly at that line
Art Gallery of NSW, until 3 August.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 1 March, 2014