Sol Lewitt Demystified
Behind the blind spot
Sol LeWitt’s visual art shows the geometric complexity of dynamic expansions, and he’s also a highly respected art theorist whose statements on conceptual art establish him as one of the leading intellectual lights of that movement. Unfortunately Sol Lewitt’s writing makes no sense at all.
Lewitt’s visual achievements none can doubt, he’s among the best, but his writing doesn’t fare so well. Lewitt claims he’s mystic who overleaps logic, which sounds like an excuse for fuzzy thinking. Logic is a study of arguments; a valid argument has a specific relation of logical support between assumptions and conclusion.(1) In fact the term conceptual art is semantically questionable; art is a child of process hence we speak of a work of art. Without limitations all thinking dissolves in the boundless, consequently alarm bells ring when Lewitt takes a pass on reality checks.
This calls for a review of his Sentences and Paragraphs on conceptual art; if Lewitt’s writing enabled the conceptual mode and his mission statement makes no sense, then the practice and legitimacy of conceptual art is questionable. Even religions no longer count how many angels dance on the head of a pin.
It is interesting enough that Lewitt’s visual art touches the sphere of genius but his writing fails common sense. “If an artist changes his mind through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.” In fact it’s the opposite; not changing your mind repeats past results whereas a work of art is made of change that builds on past results. It’s an ill omen no one noticed the obvious, thought this through… respect for authority is the enemy of inquiry.
Lewitt’s a brilliant artist, a creative mind so gifted we’re surprised his visual complexity is not matched by equally developed intellectual powers. And so we learn that creation and comprehension each use a different toolkit.
Carl Jung writes of four mental functions; sensation, feeling, intellect, and intuition, each with qualities of equal value to consciousness. We all have a dominant function, some more intellectual, others more sensory or feeling types. Jung also notes a person relying only on their main function is a rather shallow character… while engaging more functions creates depth of personality, for example when an intellectual listens to their feelings and intuition, or a sensory type like a dancer also engages their intellect, feelings, and intuition.
The visual cortex is located in the occipital lobe at the back of the head; language functions such as Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are found on the left and right sides; intellectual thinking resides in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Such areas can grow at different rates, and a weakness in one can lead to hypertrophy in another, as seen with legendary blind musicians Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder. I suggest Sol Lewitt’s admirable visual ability counterweighed a lesser intellectual cognition. Not that Lewitt was less intelligent, but his primary thinking may have been a visual mode processed in the visual cortex, leaving less space and time for intellectual faculties. And then Lewitt was asked about his work, and of course it’s hard to resist playing prophet to the people.
Is art mainly the idea? “Ideas alone can be works of art,” Sol Lewitt proposed in his epic “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” a primer on the ins and outs of postmodern art making. Ideas “need not be made physical,” he continued. “A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s. There’s the possibility that the idea may never reach the viewer, or that the idea may never leave the artist’s mind. But all ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.”(2)
The contradiction is obvious; if art is a conductor by that same rule any ideas remaining in the mind cannot conduct, so can’t be art… We also note that art is not a conductor, it’s the medium that’s the conductor. An idea is a precursor and art is a product. It is more realistic to say that a work of art starts with an idea, eventually conducted from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s. This happens once a work of art is made, when a work is produced to express that idea. Words betrays Lewitt when he speaks of a work of art, for work means work. The concept of speech can never equal the art of conversation, an idea of cuisine can never surpass the art of cuisine.
Intellectual effort consists of thoughts of ideas, but an idea alone is basically an unproven assumption. It must take form for us to know if it’s a great idea or a brilliant mistake, we can’t tell when that idea stays hidden in the back of the mind. “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” Johan Wolfgang von Goethe
Sol Lewitt was also wrong in taxonomy; ideas are not art, they are science. Wikipedia says science is systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. These are ideas. Wiki then says art is a diverse range of human activities in creating. That’s production in the physical sphere. It’s obvious “the art” of anything means more than just thinking about it; an idea needs to be realized to be effective. Art requires a reality check and a higher standard than a professional product; art is a judgment, a qualification, as there’s good art and bad art. Which means an idea that claims to be art is mistaken. Because it’s wrong the idea cannot be science either; it’s simply a mistake.
Sol LeWitt laid out the terms for conceptual art in his seminal “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” published in the June 1967 issue of Artforum. “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work,” LeWitt wrote. This is a contradiction; we’re talking about work, something that comes after one has an idea. Through work change is inevitable. The first state of the idea, before it is worked on, can’t be the most important aspect of a work’s multiple changes.
Nor is this criticism of the language unwarranted quibbling, when Lewitt’s words influence so many people. We could interpret this generously and say “the idea after it has been considered”… for consideration is work; so let’s interpret it as an idea or concept that was worked, planned and decided in the artist’s mind.
“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.“(3)
This is a serious error, a failure to understand the nature of art and the role of matter in a material world. The etymology insists that art comes from long experience and repeated interaction with the subject, be it the art of cuisine or the art of conversation, the art of medicine or the art of decoration. Specifically, it is the making that, over time, gives the artist the knowledge and mastery that makes the product art. When the execution of anything is a perfunctory affair the results are always bad.
The qualities in a work of art accrue by overcoming the problems an artist solves as the work takes form, and Lewitt at times also revised his instructions as problems came up. Here is the core of Sol Lewitt’s thinking and his error; a belief that consciousness is the sole factor, a blind spot concerning the subconscious mind that contributes depths of meaning. Ignoring the changes that occur through process is unrealistic. It’s not an ideal world so we must be pragmatic rather than neurotic; denying reality brings unhealthy results.
“Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.”
There are no conclusions that logic cannot reach, even illogical ones. Logic is pragmatic and living in a competitive world we cannot accept mysticism as the nature of conceptual art. When LeWitt writes of being a mystic who overleaps logic he suggests that he wishes what he said was true; which is the nature of mysticism. Does the artist have the power to declare ideas to be art, contrary to the laws of physics? Unfortunately wishing for something does not make it come true.
Marcel Duchamp also believed that painting should be about the idea but ironically he proved that wrong. In a 1968 BBC interview with Joan Bakewell, Duchamp claimed the conceptual mantle when he said that until his time painting was retinal, what you could see, that he made it intellectual. After which Duchamp stopped painting, he made no paintings anymore after he made painting intellectual.(4) Art historian and critic Barbara Rose now complains of ignorant and lazy artists whose thinking stops at the idea of putting a found object in a museum. (5)
Lewitt also confuses us when he writes “the idea becomes the machine that makes the art“.(6) A contradiction if the idea is already the art, this sentences reveals an assumption that there is a need for process, a machine to make one thing into something else. Lewitt “maintained that like an architect who creates a blueprint for a building and then turns the project over to a construction crew, an artist should be able to conceive of a work and then either delegate its actual production to others or perhaps even never make it at all.”(7) Of course when you delegate the making to others they are the ones to learn the lessons and gather the experience. Then most buildings are utilitarian; not making them defeats the principle and denies learning from the experience of making. And if art is never made it at all, then obviously it is not art but wishful thinking.
“LeWitt would provide an assistant or a group of assistants with directions for producing a work of art. Instructions for these works, whether large-scale wall drawings or outdoor sculptures, were deliberately vague so that the end result was not completely controlled by the artist that conceived the work.”(8) We can’t forget that in all these cases, the assistants are co-creators, although Lewitt denies credit both to them and himself in favor of the idea. Quality must enter somehow, for without quality to make his art outstanding, the work won’t stand out. Consider how work suffers when the assistants are poorly paid and badly motivated.
“For Lewitt, the directions for producing a work of art became the work itself; work was no longer required to have an actual material presence in order to be considered art.”(9) Imagine an audience enters an auditorium, at which point the orchestra rises from their chairs and hands them a musical score. John Cage’s 4’11 is clever but it is not a masterpiece; eventually everyone yawns nor would anyone return for seconds; the work lacks depth, it’s a one trick pony. As a work of art it fails compared to any musical performance. Nor are sexual instructions anywhere close to the experience of the real thing. The magic of language is that you can say many things that make no sense, and sometimes it is necessary to explore nonsense, but we should not take that too seriously.
Wikipedia tells us that inspiration, (from the Latin inspirare, meaning “to breathe into”) refers to an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical, or other artistic endeavour. The concept has origins in both Hellenism and Hebraism. The Greeks believed that inspiration or “enthusiasm” came from the muses, as well as the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Inspiration is prior to consciousness and outside of skill (ingenium in Latin). Technique and performance are independent of inspiration, and therefore it is possible for the non-poet to be inspired and for a poet or painter’s skill to be insufficient to the inspiration.(10)
On e.flux in a conversation with Benjamin Buchloh, Lawrence Weiner said that art is not about skill.(11) How can this be if one’s skill needs to be sufficient to the inspiration? Does that mean Weiner’s inspiration is a lesser kind? We note that Weiner identifies as a “non-artist” whose assistants do his work, and he calls his work “non-art”; simply put, Lawrence Weiner’s work is not art. It is nothing more nor less than what it always was, sentences written on a wall by his assistants, a kind of interior decoration.
Taking a position against skill, Buchloh also argues the slapdash look of Sigmar Polke’s drawings, which he admires tremendously, is grounded in a self-conscious avant-garde rejection of virtuosity. Buchloh calls for us artists to “de-skill”, to lose our skill in order to bring about a golden age of the simple mind. But then we notice that Sigmar Polke’s work is juvenilia; he just never learned to draw. No crippling of one’s ability, nor downsizing one’s skill, will by any miracle exceed the mastery of a skilled practice.
And such is the difference between one’s genius and the other’s lack of it. As much goes in so much comes out. Unfortunately Lewitt’s brilliant visual statements garner such authority that his writing is praised without thinking, which is not such a good thing.
Lewitt again contradicts himself in “Sentences on Conceptual Art”; “The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.” This conflicts with all his earlier statements that the idea is already art, and so does not even need to be realized. Obviously an artist must imagine his art to have an idea of it, in order for that idea to be art, whose performance is then perfunctory, we can just read the instructions.
Lewitt retorts that “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” There are no conclusions that logic cannot reach, even illogical ones. Logic is pragmatic while mystics are irrational… but we live in a competitive world of budgets and credibility, so we do not accept mysticism as the condition of conceptual art.
Lewitt claims art is about ideas yet it is our sense of vision that allows us to appreciate his visual work, lacking which the idea is not visible, nor can we see his work by reading his instructions… his sentences are “senseless” because art is grounded in the senses. Duchamp proved this when he made painting intellectual and was no longer able to paint. Sol Lewitt was an amazing visual artist, a visual genius… although Walter Benjamin writes that geniuses do not exist. Benjamin is a great writer denying reality, Lewitt is a great artist who fails at theory. Their words do not make sense and are debunked by simple reasoning, and yet so far no one dared judge and dispute these gods.
What this means is anyone claiming the conceptual mantle can no longer rely on Sol Lewitt’s assumptions nor use Duchamp’s precedents to dump a pile of rubble on the gallery floor, or to hang pictures cut out of art books. They would have to answer how such destabilization could possibly be justified when the theory contradicts itself, when Duchamp serves as a cautionary tale of how an intellectual approach is destructive to art practice.
The most influential art theories of our time are flawed yet remain the base for academic teaching and creative practice. Hence the highly praised yet equally deplorable state of contemporary art, for which we are responsible. For decades academia spread a cult of jargon to cover a lapse of judgment. That happens when the garage mechanic says your brakes are shot but people still go for a drive.
2-Sol Lewitt, Sentences on Conceptual art http://www.altx.com/vizarts/conceptual.html
3-Sol Lewitt, American conceptual artist and painter, The Art Story, Museum Art Insight, http://www.theartstory.org/artist-lewitt-sol.htm
4-Joan Bakewell, Joan Bakewell in conversation with Marcel Duchamp Late Night Line-Up, 1968 BBC ARTS
5- Katherine Meadowcroft in Huffpost Arts & Culture – March 10, 2015
6-Sol Lewitt, Paragraphs on Conceptual art
8- Sol LeWitt Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works, The Art Story, Museum Art Insight,
9- Sol Lewitt, Rosenthal Fine Art
10- Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artistic_inspiration
11- Benjamin Buchloh interviews Lawrence Weiner: “Art is not about skill. e-flux conversations
Miklos Legrady is a visual artist, anti-hero and protagonist who’s expecting trouble. He steps out of the art world’s blind spot, deconstructing myths and fictions. Emerging as a hybrid between scholar, ad buster, and poli-sci commentator, Legrady moves through a world of political, social, and cultural intrigues, trends, and events; like the Energizer Bunny, Legrady just keeps on going and going.
Miklos Legrady holds a B.Sc. in Photography from the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, N.Y., and an M.F.A. in Photography and Multi-Media from Concordia University in Montreal. He was co-founder of the New York performance group The Collective Unconscious and co-director for 3 years. His writing on art theory has been published since 2015; as of 2017 Legrady is Toronto Editor of Chicago’s New Art Examiner.
Volume 32 no 4 March/April 2018 pp 19-21
1 thought on “Sol Lewitt Demystified”
Brilliant ! thank you……and i would disagree with his “art work” being genius…..