Even as someone who will defend modern art and its contributors until my dying breath, I occasionally find myself skeptical of certain allegedly important artists and their place in art history. Sol LeWitt has always been one of those artists.
In my rather brief life I’ve yet to encounter LeWitt’s infamous wall paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of photographs along with dozens of imitations, so maybe I’ve seen them after all? But no, what I’m talking about are those infuriating cubes. When I see Lewitt’s cubes I don’t think twice and just keep walking. I always assumed there had to be a reason they were in art museums and not just children’s playrooms or my math textbook and not surprisingly there is.
According to the artist Joseph Kosuth in his landmark essay “Art after Philosophy,” the 20th century saw a radical redefinition of philosophy that was the impetus in the same for art. By Kosuth’s line of reasoning philosophy has historically concerned itself with the “unsaid.” For many centuries, scientists and philosophers were one and the same, contemplating the great unknown with many questions.
It’s a given that today’s science is different than the science of the philosophers and there is very little left “unsaid,” leading Kosuth to ask the question, is man and his “intelligence” such, “that he cannot believe the reasoning of traditional philosophy?” Maybe the unsaid is unsayable.
Now these conclusions are only one man’s opinions but hear me out. Philosophy was struggling with its place because science had entered the technology age. Suddenly we knew what else was out there and had ways to analyze ruins and determine where we came from. In this age of the automobile, electricity, the atom bomb and space travel, what was the point of traditional philosophy?
Traditional art too, suddenly seemed irrelevant. With the advent of modern science, aesthetics as a societal value was second to an emphasis on modernity; formalist artwork somehow seemed trivial.
For Kosuth then, aesthetics could not be the basis of good art. After all, judgments based on aesthetics are based entirely on taste and never on a work’s “reason for existence.” It was that “reason for existence” that became the defining quality for artists of Kosuth’s generation. Traditional art was valuable as a certain type of art, but it was just that, one function of what should be art in a much larger context.
The vaccum left by the dissolution of traditional philosophy was filled by these new artists who were suddenly creating work in which the idea was the central focus, what I like to think of as art as philosophy. The birth of conceptualism in art.
According to Sol LeWitt, the new breed of artists associated with this conceptual movement were so-called because they concerned themselves solely with the conception of the idea and its realization. The finished product was meaningless.
Apart from the centrality of ideas, conceptual art also grew out of the modern artist’s distaste for the commodification of art and its status, by the mid 20th century, as little more than consumer good. Robert Smithson reacted to this by avoiding the gaze of the consumer and using nature as his gallery. While all conceptual artists didn’t shun the public art world, most at least expressed their distaste for the traditional by creating works based on a framework that differed drastically from that which came before them.
Sol LeWitt, in his essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” may have defined the practice the best. According to LeWitt, conceptual art must be mentally interesting. It must be intuitive to the artist, free from an artist’s skill and most of all free from what he called the “emotional kick” the audience had grown to expect from the expressionist artists. That kick inhibits the significance of the idea being expressed.
One way to look at the new art was expressed by Kosuth as a difference in language. Conceptual art wasn’t the beginning of modern art, obviously. Before the insurrection brought about by Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, modern artists were already changing our definition of what was acceptable (Manet, for example) but were doing so by speaking the same language as traditional artists; what Kosuth called the European painting/sculpture dichotomy. With Duchamp’s revolution, artists realized an ability to speak another, new language.
Another artist who famously laid out the framework of the new movement was Lawrence Weiner in his brilliantly brief “Declaration of Intent.” This is it:
- 1. The artist may construct the piece.
- 2. The piece may be fabricated
- 3. The piece need not be built.
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.
In summary, whether or not the artist created the piece or even built it was immaterial provided the intention and idea were satisfied. It could be instructions concerning how to create a piece, as LeWitt was famous for, or it could be a piece that never even took on material form. As long as the idea was fulfilled, the artist had succeeded.
While LeWitt wasn’t the founder of the conceptual art movement by any stretch, he for many personifies the central notions of the movement. LeWitt, like many of his contemporaries, was dissatisfied with the state of modern art and early in his career as an artist determined to “start over.”
He acquainted himself intimately with shapes and lines; the shapes, squares, circles and triangles we know so well. We take them for granted but without them there would be no art. LeWitt’s art was about essentials.
It was also about concepts. He focused on ideas such as volume, transparency and sequences, things he believed, as did the other conceptual artists, equaled aesthetics in importance.
Perhaps what helps to enlighten the casual viewer concerning LeWitt’s artistic oeuvre more than anything else is his definition of the artist. By LeWitt’s line of reasoning, if we consider architects artists and their creations works of art, why can’t art function like architecture? The artist creates a set of directions carried out by a team of artisans and a piece of art is born. It actually makes perfect sense.
LeWitt’s wall paintings were his embodiment of this. When we see a LeWitt wall painting today we’re not seeing something physically created by the artist, but we are seeing the embodiment of his idea, and isn’t it the idea that counts? Isn’t it the idea that spurs every action and accomplishes every goal.
LeWitt prized the idea over the object, taking our 20th century redefinition of art one step further than the Abstract Expressionists who valued the process over the object.
“Conceptual art is not necessarily logical… “ LeWitt once said, “Successful ideas have the appearance of simplicity because they are inevitable.”
Conceptual artists and Sol LeWitt once again changed our notion of what we can and should consider art. They didn’t negate formalist art (although many were disdainful of the practice), they simply enlarged the artistic framework and they did so in a way that made us stop and think. These works of art force us to stop and think about the simple things we take for granted, like a chair, and they do so in a way that really elevates the idea in a way complicated art could never do.
LeWitt’s art may on first glance appear simple or trivial, in my case boring, but when you understand the concerted effort he makes to draw the artists and the viewers attention to the concepts and systems without which we could not work or function, it becomes clear that conceptual art, just like the ideas within it, was itself, inevitable.
“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Sol LeWitt