Art outside the box

ART AND SOL: Sol LeWitt is one of the acknowledged gurus of conceptual art and minimalism, although he disavowed both labels.
ART AND SOL: Sol LeWitt is one of the acknowledged gurus of conceptual art and minimalism, although he disavowed both labels.

American Sol LeWitt has been called one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Ahead of a documentary on the artist this week in the New Zealand International Film Festival, John McDonald saw the some of his works in Sydney.

'Souless twit!" was the verdict from a Sydney art identity when an exhibition of works by American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt opened this year.

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 the exhibition Your Mind is Exactly at That Line demonstrates, he loosened up considerably in his old age.

This weekend the New Zealand International Film Festival will screen the documentary Sol LeWitt on the artist. He was notoriously camera-shy, rarely gave interviews and refused to become "an art personality".

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"'. He was even more dismissive of minimal art.

"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, an aspect of LeWitt's wall drawings and minimalist "structures" 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!"

Although he worked in many different media, he 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) resembles a slightly dysfunctional set of shelves.

So clean, dull and obdurate are they that 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. Many critics noted the 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." Looking back over the totality of LeWitt's career we can see he was not being merely provocative. He may have been a serialist but he was never a rationalist. A buyer of LeWitt's wall drawings would acquire a contract that gave instructions as to how the work should be created. It wasn't necessary the artist himself do the drawing. In most cases it was done by assistants who would be credited for their input.

Instructions might be precise or left deliberately vague: the process was similar to the way a composer expects a musician to interpret a piece. Elevating 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 prolific, turning out thousands of works that had only to be dreamed 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's happened for the Sydney exhibition.

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. 


Sol LeWitt screens Soundings Theatre, Te Papa on July 25, 11.15am and July 27, 11am. Other documentaries on artists, photographers, film- makers, musicians and writers include The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (July 26, 27, 31 and Aug 9); Looking or Light: Jane Bown (July 30, Aug 2, 6), Michael Smither: Music (Aug 7), Regarding Susan Sontag (July 26, 27 and Aug 4) and Violette Leduc, in Pursuit of Love (Aug 5 and 8).


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