“When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” 1
Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing # 831 (Geometric forms),1997. Acrylic on wall. Site-specific dimensions. Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
Sol LeWitt was born in 1928 in Hartford, Connecticut. After receiving his B.F.A. degree from Syracuse University and serving in the Korean War as a graphic artist, he moved to New York in 1953, just as Abstract Expressionism was gaining public recognition. He found various jobs to support himself, including working for the young architect I.M. Pei as a graphic designer. This contact proved formative, for as LeWitt would later write, “An architect doesn't go off with a shovel and dig his foundation and lay every brick. He's still an artist.” 2
For LeWitt and his colleagues, Abstract Expressionism had become an entrenched style that offered few new creative possibilities. LeWitt began to create works that utilized simple and impersonal geometric forms, exploring repetition and variations of a basic form or line as a way to achieve complex works. Perhaps most importantly, he evolved a working method for creating artworks based on simple directions, works that could be executed by others rather than the artist. The fertility of this approach is demonstrated by the aesthetic richness and variety of the wall drawings, none of which were drawn by him. LeWitt rejects the notion of art as a unique and precious object. Formulated from an initial idea outlined in a diagrammatic sketch accompanied by a set of instructions, his works are installed on the wall of the gallery or museum by a team of assistants, who rigorously follow the artist's directives. Some instructions are simple and straightforward, and some are long and complex. By placing his drawings directly on the wall of the gallery or museum, LeWitt merges his drawing with the architecture, while also calling into questions ideas about permanence, value, and conservation.
While the early wall drawings were executed in pencil, colored pencil, chalk, or crayon, over the following decades LeWitt's directives mandated the use of inks and colored ink washes (from the early 1980s) and acrylic paint (beginning in 1997), with increasingly bold, colorful results. Relatively austere combinations of straight and curved lines in the early works also gave way to increasingly irregular, playful shapes and patterns. "When presented with the scale that walls have one must begin to engage their physical properties. The theatrical and decorative are unavoidable and should be used to emphasize the work," the artist explained. 3 Both of these qualities—theatricality and decorativeness—are evident in Wall Drawing #831 (Geometric Forms), a site-specific work that LeWitt conceived for a large gallery (Gallery 208) on the second floor of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997, the year of the museum's opening. Among the earliest of the artist's wall drawings in acrylic paint, this work is rendered in highly saturated, vibrant tonalities of red, blue, orange, green, purple, and gray. The irregular and cropped geometric forms bend with the curved and sloping wall of the Frank Gehry-designed gallery, so that the painting both merges with and transforms its architectural setting.
1. Sol LeWitt, quoted in Andrea Miller-Keller, "Excerpts from a Correspondence, 1981–1983," in Susanna Singer et al., Sol LeWitt: Wall Drawings, 1968–1984 (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1984), p. 19.
2. and 3. J. Fiona Ragheb. "Sol LeWitt." In Nancy Spector, ed. Guggenheim Museum Collection: A to Z. 3rd rev. ed. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2009.
Sol LeWitt’s methods challenge what we traditionally think about how works of art are created. With your students, look at Wall Drawing #831 and discuss the questions on the right.
LeWitt likens his method of creating art to that of an architect. He has stated, “An architect doesn’t go off with a shovel and dig his foundation and lay every brick. He’s still an artist.” Do you agree or disagree with LeWitt’s line of reasoning? Explain.
This work was executed, not by Sol LeWitt, but by a team of assistants according to a set of directions written by the artist. It is LeWitt’s premise that the art is in the idea. Do you think that it is important that the artist actually draw or paint the work, or is it equally valid that the artist conceive the work and have others execute it? How does this method of making art change what we mean when we call a work “an original”?
This work is drawn directly on the wall, and in many cases will be destroyed at the end of an exhibition. How do you feel about art that is created to exist only for a short time and then destroyed? How does making a drawing that will later be painted over challenge traditional ideas about the importance and value of the art object?
The fact that this work can be re-created many times in different settings raises a key question: Must a work of art be unique?
Each student should create directions for a drawing. The artist may stipulate the media, size, tool(s), color(s), shape(s), placement of all elements, or only some. Then ask students to exchange directions and create the drawing based on their classmate’s directions. This activity can be done with traditional art materials or by using drawing applications on a computer. How is the finished drawing different or similar to what the author envisioned? Describe the process of creating a drawing from someone else’s directions.
LeWitt’s drawings are frequently labor intensive, requiring many people and many days to complete. If your school has an empty wall in need of art, try a class collaboration to create a LeWitt-like wall drawing. Teams of students can collaborate both in writing and diagramming the project and then following the written directions to execute it on the wall. In keeping with the spirit of LeWitt’s work, the finished drawing can either be a temporary installation that will soon be painted over, or a lasting addition to your school environment.