In order to thoroughly understand conceptual art, it is essential to be familiar with its history. Conceptual art came into being in the early 60’s, as an artistic movement which opposed formalist art, which was advocated heavily by art critic Clement Greenberg. Sol LeWitt, whose Wall Drawing #118 will be analysed further on, initially set the terms in the 1967 issue of Artform where he stated “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work” (LeWitt 1967, pg.79). Essentially, conceptual art is not so much focused on what is represented, but rather the system used to design the art. Conceptual art was heavily criticized due to the fact that it was so focused on the concept that the artwork’s individual meaning could not be interpreted. Conceptual art is often perceived as complex, logical and rather cold. For Sol LeWitt, however, he believes that “Conceptual art is not necessarily logical. The logic of a piece or series of pieces is a device that is used at times, only to be ruined.” (LeWitt 1967, pg.79). LeWitt believes that because the public were so accustomed to art that would draw an emotional response, that Conceptual art was too different and hence deterred people from appreciating that the art was not the work itself but rather the system used to form it (LeWitt 1967, pg.79).
Considered by many as the figurehead for conceptual art, LeWitt briefly studied art at Syracuse University before being called up for the Korean War in 1951 (Kimmelman, 2007). Once he returned, he soon worked for a year as a graphic designer. It wasn’t until he encountered the early works of Jasper Johns and Frank Stella that he realized that Minimalism was the way for him to pursue his passion. However unlike minimalist artists, LeWitt was not interested in Industrial materials, but rather became fascinated with systems and ideas. This then kick-started his revolutionary body of work, where the idea and system was the art, not the product itself.
LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #118, produced in 1971, was part of his famous “Wall Drawings” series and consists of only 8 short lines, which instruct the exhibitionist on how to present the artwork. The lines are as follows:
“On a wall surface, any
continuous stretch of wall,
using a hard pencil, place
fifty points at random.
The points should be evenly
distributed over the area
of the wall. All of the
points should be connected by straight lines. “
Of course, for LeWitt, the visual aspect of the artwork is insignificant. For LeWitt, it was all about the system. Translation and transmission is a process that is an essential to all of LeWitt’s work, including Wall Drawing #118. In fact, the process of translation and transmission is fundamentally the piece of art in all his artwork, including the aforementioned one. For Wall #118, tasks of instructions are presented in an almost poetic form, consisting of 10 lines of 3 or 4 words. According to Russeth, the Wall Drawing originated when Sol Lewitt was supposed to give a lecture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but instead decided to offer students the chance to become involved in his new piece (Russeth,2012). Much like the rest of his work, Wall Drawing #118 is all about the repetition of geometrical shapes, in this case a series of straight lines connected to each other. One of the interesting things about LeWitt’s work in general, is how interpretations of each individual work differentiate from each other, whilst still maintaining the central concept in the instructions. Differences could be down to several factors, such as different wall sizes and of course personal interpretation of the instructions. For example, when distributing the 50 points at random for Wall Drawing #118, space would play a huge part in how the points are spaced out and also what shapes are created. LeWitt often likened his works to musical scores, as his instructions often lead to different to variations and incarnations. Conceptual art and the work of Sol LeWitt is not about aesthetic value. It’s about the system (instructions) itself functioning as the real artwork.
Kimmelman, M 2007, ‘Sol LeWitt, Master of Conceptualism, Dies at 78’, New York Times, viewed 7th August 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/09/arts/design/09lewitt.html?_r=1&module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Art%20%26%20Design&action=keypress®ion=FixedLeft&pgtype=article
LeWitt, S 1967, “Paragraphs on conceptual art”. Artforum, vol.5, no.10, pp.79-83.
Russeth, A 2012, ‘Here Are the Instructions for Sol LeWitt’s 1971 Wall Drawing for the School of the MFA Boston’, The Observer, viewed 10th August 2016, http://observer.com/2012/10/here-are-the-instructions-for-sol-lewitts-1971-wall-drawing-for-the-school-of-the-mfa-boston/