Sunday, 23 September 2007


SOL LeWITT (1928-2007)

(First published 2nd May 2007)

Sol LeWitt’s murals, sculpture, prints and publications are mostly seen as key works of Minimalism, while others, including the artist, argue that they belong to Conceptualism. What is the difference between the styles? No assessment of LeWitt can get very far without addressing this general point. This post does so, in an appropriately severe tribute.

Briefly, Minimalism is concerned with abstraction in painting, supposedly arrives at minimal requirements for representation of basically two-dimensions (strictly, multi-directional two-dimensionality, but in the interests of keeping the post short and simple, two-dimensions will do here). Earlier abstraction had been content with reducing pictorial representation to almost or obscure patterns, with converging upon recognised two-dimensional configurations that do not refer to three-dimensional objects. Minimalism, which occurs around 1960 (a window of two or three years around this, might be allowed) takes a further step. It deals in obvious and familiar patterns, and uses them to project or refer to pictures, through striking application of painting. Later, Minimalist sculpture provides something similar for three-dimensional reference.

The approach of Minimalism is tracked through the gradual adoption of conspicuous symmetry throughout the 50s, (in Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Joseph Albers, Ad Reinhardt et al). The arrival is signalled by the stricter double axis used in Frank Stella’s Black Paintings and the steady adoption of stripes and grids, single or repeating angles and concentric circles in Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, David Novros Robert Ryman, John McLaughlin and many others. Monochromes exploit symmetry and extend instances through bolder versions of pigment and application, scale and situation (see alsoPost 24) extend to a ‘lyrical’ branch.

Conceptual Art or Conceptualism accompanies rather than derives from Minimalism. Its approach is traced in the 50s through the growing use of motion in sculpture, performance to painting or sculpture and then script or score, each underlining a phase or phases of a given work. Some of this discussion also arises in Posts 4, 17 and 22. Identity of a work by these phases is normal in the performing arts but traditionally seen as redundant in the plastic (or fine) arts. But a performance or duration, score or recording treated as plastic art (mainly through exhibition and gallery context), is a way of sampling these phases to meaning in ways unavailable within the performing arts. In other words, it takes the fine arts to show these phases to a performed or temporal work as just this: their stark definition or identity, causal and logical necessities. The plastic arts are stretched for the exercise, establish important differences to painting and sculpture, at just the time when painting and sculpture explore adjacent issues of pattern (in Minimalism) and printing (in Pop Art).

There is thus a crucial synchrony to Conceptual Art and Minimalism, concerning how a work is defined – as an instance of a standard pattern; or phase of a temporal work (script or score, performance or just duration, recording or documentation of this). Conceptual Art is so named because any phase firstly refers to the larger process – to a ‘concept’ - that identifies the work’s relation to others. Unfortunately the name also suggests there is somehow a ‘pure’ concept, floating free of sign or material, which is philosophically unacceptable to CAP.

However this post contents itself with establishing the difference between the two styles. LeWitt’s famous simple instructions for making drawings would seem to fit comfortably in Conceptual Art, to identify the drawing as a performance or record, to link it to a prior ‘concept’. But competing practices tend to undercut or override this. As noted, Minimalism uses strict symmetries- recognised patterns – to guide impressive painting to novel materials, application, scale, location, shaped canvas, etc. LeWitt’s instructions firstly conform exactly to such patterns, so that works refer by sheer weight of influence, to Minimalism rather than his preceding text. Either text cannot adequately distinguish the instructions from pattern, or the work cannot convincingly indicate its allegiance firstly to instructions rather than pattern. Either way its identity as Conceptual Art is outweighed by the practice of Minimalism. LeWitt stands as a Minimalist by default.

Later works follow the precedent, but LeWitt’s contribution remains the early large scale drawings, which extend Minimalism to mere line, line to mural scale drawing. LeWitt is uninterested in other aspects to performance or event, recording or document, and cautiously expands the repertory of drawing to more elaborate shapes, volumes and colour, to considerations of scale and location, but is essentially conservative in his acceptance of pattern and decoration, materials and application. Works look and feel like dutiful but uninspired civic works, ultimately spell a dead end.

No comments: