Dataisnature, April 9:
Sol LeWitt died yesterday. If you have had your eye on Dataisnature for a while, you will have heard his name mentioned a lot on these pages. Just after time of the 'heroic' gestures of Abstract Expression Lewitt conceived of a new language utilising simple impersonal forms in repetition and modulation, often drawing directly onto the wall. The fact that these Conceptual drawings were designed to be painted over solidified Lewitt’s claims that the 'idea behind the work supersedes the work itself' and that 'The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.' Prophetically for our times Lewitt also said that "Ideas cannot be owned. They belong to whomever understands them."

The works are conceptual and aesthetically pleasing at the same time and Lewitt’s path eventually lead him to writing instructions for making a piece of art. These instructions meant that his works could be recreated anywhere and more importantly it represented a shift in 'artistic authority' from a centralised model to a distributed one. The idea of 'instruction based art' was incredibly forward thinking when we consider the contemporary practices of digital generative artists and their use of code and algorithms to make 'pictures.' More so the concepts and philosophies dealing with ownership have never been more relevant.
This is a nice tribute and a good explanation of LeWitt's importance. Yet the early sentences on conceptual art were better than the somewhat boring process-based line drawings that resulted from them and those line drawings were better than the later, somewhat tacky ink wash drawings that became permanent fixtures of museums after LeWitt's canonization. Would that it were true that many works were "designed to be painted over." Also, I believe many artists using computers misunderstand LeWitt's relevance to them. The key sentences for me are the first ones:
1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach. 2. Rational judgements repeat rational judgements. 3. Irrational judgements lead to new experience. 4. Formal art is essentially rational. 5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.
As Rosalind Krauss interpreted LeWitt,
the experience of the work goes exactly counter to 'the look of thought,' [which critics such as Donald Kuspit and Suzi Gablik were claiming for it] particularly if thought is understood as classical expressions of logic. For such expressions, whether diagramatic or symbolic, are precisely about the capacity to abbreviate, to adumbrate, to condense, to be able to imply an expansion with only the first two or three terms, to cover vast arithmetic spaces with a few ellipsis points, to use, in short, the notion of et cetera.


In Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes....what we find is the "system" of compulsion, of the obsessive's unwavering ritual, with its precision, its neatness, its finicky exactitude, covering over an abyss of irrationality.

Krauss compared the "Open Cubes" to the activities of an obsessive-compulsive in a Beckett novel who had an elaborate system for moving "sucking stones" between various pockets and his mouth (see earlier discussion re: Manfred Mohr). Yet many digital artists still fetishize logic and "the look of thought" with artworks based on data analysis and modeling, even more egregiously when the art purports to highlight or "solve" some social condition. (See generally VVork.) LeWitt is not really for them, only a recuperated idea of LeWitt.

- tom moody 4-10-2007 5:58 pm

nicely put. I adore the early Sol LeWitt, kind of like how I adore Bach. Like Ruscha, he was doing less didactic conceptual art than, say, Lawrence Weiner or Kosuth. But for all of them the feeling of emancipation in the "etc"—the proposal of a formula, which is then followed (or not followed) to produce aesthetic results—belongs to that point in history. You can sense the simultaneous presence and absence of the artist, and the resulting (sometimes lovely) forms feel like a real gift to the viewer, full of space and mental space. It's very possible to feel that excitement, looking back, but the excitement doesn't carry over into transpositions of those methods in a present day context.
- sally mckay 4-10-2007 8:03 pm

Thanks. It was an exciting moment, which is one reason so many artists from that (dematerializing) period are now (material) names in the art world. LeWitt was reputedly a great mentor and adviser to artists--I remember reading the Eva Hesse especially valued his insights. And I don't mean it in the current way of mentoring heh heh heh but actually being helpful to others' careers.
- tom moody 4-11-2007 4:17 am

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