At first, it seems a career as graphic designer for Seventeen magazine is rather different to that of a genre-defining conceptual artist. Laying out covers of lipsticked teens, first crush woes and nail art dilemmas surely requires a rather different head to one that could, say, provide probably the best known definition of conceptual art we have. Unless you’re Sol LeWitt, that is.
On reflection, perhaps the worlds of the graphic designer and the conceptual artist aren’t so different. In LeWitt’s famous 1967 Artforum piece, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, he defined the practice as art in which “the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. 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.” Similarly, when a graphic designer creates a comprehensive series of brand guidelines for a project, used by perhaps an in-house team of less experienced creatives down the line, his hand is off the controls, but his ideas live on in directions followed by others.
In a new show at Spain’s Fundación Botín in Santander, this notion of sublimating the artist’s ego and giving over ideas to draughtsmen encircles us, presenting 17 of LeWitt’s wall drawings that take over the entire gallery space, from the walls to the stairwell to the entrance. Within six weeks – which seems rather short, given the scale and complexity of many of the works – a troupe of 19 people realised the pieces, using only the written instructions of the artist. The team comprised four draftspeople from the LeWitt Studio and 15 local creatives including mathematicians, graphic designers, an architect and artists, some of whom had never heard of LeWitt before beginning work on the show. In LeWitt’s words, “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” the hands that draw the lines are its conduit. Every piece is, in a sense, brand new; its democratic in betraying neither the hand of the artist or those who execute his ideas.
Even with no sense of these ideas and this bold approach to eschewing history and the artist’s hand, you couldn’t fail to be impressed with the show. 17 Wall Drawings 1970-2015 is utterly immersive, and demonstrates LeWitt’s art’s ability to neatly sit in any space. With his concise (yet often brain-wrangling) instructions, the idea was that each piece could fit the area it was shown, so lines snake round the gallery staircase and deftly step over fire alarms and fittings. While many works are colourful and bright in their geometric precision, like the isometric figure of 1989’s Wall Drawing 620 (Fig.E) or mid-80s piece Wall Drawing 413, a series of squares arranged with a complex mathematical patterning; many are far quieter. The muted tones of Wall Drawing 7A are formed from lines of different colours arranged in four directions; LeWitt’s preferred palette of yellow, red, blue and grey now form new tones. In a beautiful touch the piece is dated 2015, as this is the first time it has been installed, despite being conceived in 1969.
The work at the show’s entrance is so quiet as to be almost invisible, formed of thick lines in white differentiated only in the way the paint reflects or dulls the light. While process and instruction are the key to these works, we see a glimpse of narrative and emotion in Wall Drawing 46, created by LeWitt in May 1970 days after the death of artist Eva Hesse. LeWitt’s sadness for the loss of an artist he so loved and admired led him to these irregular lines as a sort of abstract homage to her work, and have been read as both a meditative working-through of grief and a representation of shedding tears.
LeWitt’s work is the most logical conclusion to the idea of art as ensuring immortality. Even with the most diligent preservation, works will deteriorate and transmute over time. If your art is your idea and your instructions, each time it is created it is new: this is eternal youth and constant rebirth. Better make those brand guidelines as “timeless” as they’re claimed to be.
Sol LeWitt. 17 Wall Drawings. 1970 – 2015 runs until 10 January 2016
About the Author
Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.