Sol LeWitt is probably most famous
for wall drawings. They are an extension of work he had done in sculpture and
on paper, in which a simple rule specifies permutations and variations of elements.
With wall drawings, the rule is given for marks to be made on a wall.
In the earliest wall drawings, the
marks are made with pencil on a white wall that has no special preparation. For
example, Wall Drawing11 (1969) calls
for horizontal, vertical, diagonal right, and diagonal left lines, following
this rule: “A wall divided horizontally and vertically into four equal parts.
Within each part, three of the four kinds of lines are superimposed.” A
particular inscription of Wall Drawing 11
is erased or painted over after an exhibition is complete, but this does
not destroy the work. It can be drawn elsewhere. Provided that the rule is
followed, the new inscription is as much Wall
Drawing 11 as the earlier one was.
Although LeWitt wrote of wall
drawings as conceptual art, it is important to note that the work is not merely the idea or the instruction. It
is importantly different than a single-instance mural,
but it is nevertheless something realized on actual walls. Contrast, for
example, Yoko Ono’s Closet Piece II—
an instruction piece which has this rule: “Put one memory into one half of your
head. Shut it off and forget it. Let the other half of the brain long for it” (Grapefruit: A book of instructions and
drawings by Yoko Ono, 1970). Jesse Prinz (Artbouillon, July 11 2013) claims that this and other works in Ono’s
book Grapefruit perfectly exemplify
Sol Lewitt’s precept that artworks are ideas, and that it doesn’t matter
whether they are (or can be) physically instantiated. Lewitt’s own works never
realized that vision as well as Ono’s. Prinz paraphrases LeWitt’s claim (in the
journal Art-Language, 1969) that “Ideas
can be works of art” and that “ideas need not be made physical.” But there is a
difference between something that need
not be realized and something that cannot
be realized. Closet Piece II does not
specify an act that you could actually carry out, and moreover it is unclear
what you would even do if you were to try. Ono's piece is more like a poem with
the grammatical form of an instruction than it is an actual instruction.
Regarding conceptual art (in the
article quoted above) LeWitt writes, “The concept of a work of art may involve
the matter of the piece or the process in which it is made. ... Once the idea
of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided,
the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist
cannot imagine.” When others implement the artist’s work, the implementation
may produce results which the artist did not intend or foresee. This would be
impossible if the idea were one that could not possibly be instantiated. So
defining a process that might actually be executed is crucial for the
instructions to constitute a wall drawing. The specified procedure for marking
up a wall does not depend on being realized on this or that wall, but the
instructions are not just an evocative piece of prose. They present a rule
which might be followed on some wall or every wall.
In short, a wall drawing is an
algorithm for generating a mural. I mean algorithm
here in the literal sense of “a specific set of instructions for carrying out a
procedure” (Eric Weisstein, Mathworld).
Lewitt made lots of wall drawings
over the years. Over time, he moved beyond just pencil on rectangular white
walls. In the catalog of the 2000 LeWitt retrospective at the San Francisco
Museum of Modern Art, Brenda Richardson notes several turning points: reference
in the instructions to architectural features of the wall (1970), ground colors
other than white (1975), shapes rather than merely lines (also 1975), india ink
rather than pencils or crayons (1981), color ink washes (1983), and acrylic
paint (in the 1990s). In the same publication, Gary Garrels highlights the shift
from lines to bands, shapes, and blobs, as well as the introduction of “purer,
sassy, and electric” color. Importantly, these changes are aesthetic rather
than conceptual. An algorithm may refer to corners on the wall, it may specify
shapes, and it may specify colors. Although the resulting wall drawings realize
different ideas, the fundamental core of what it is to be a wall drawing
remains. What this list of changes overlooks is that some of the later wall
drawings deviated from the original, fundamental innovation. Wall Drawing 793B (1996) consists of irregular
wavy bands of color that are not laid down according to some rule, but instead are specified
in a drawing which LeWitt provided. In realizing it at the Massachusetts Museum
of Contemporary Art in 2008, draftsmen proceeded by projecting LeWitt’s
original drawing onto the wall and tracing it. This is not an algorithm but
instead is a familiar, old-school way for a mural to be painted: The master
painter does preparatory sketches, and assistants help realize those sketches
on a wall.
LeWitt’s revolutionary invention
was that a mural could be the realization of an algorithm for marking a wall
rather than just a marked wall. Critics like Richardson and Garrels, so quick
to remark on the introduction of sassy color, miss that this gets left behind
in later work like Wall Drawing 793B.
To sum up, impossible-to-implement
instruction works (such as Ono’s Closet
Piece II), algorithmic works (such as LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 11), and works realized by following preparatory sketches
(such as LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 793B) are
different in kind. Taking the core feature of a wall drawing to be that it is
algorithmic, a later LeWitt like 793B is
a wall drawing in name only.
Professor of Philosophy, University
at Albany, State University of New York
Published September 3, 2018.
*The author would like to thank
Jason D'Cruz, Cristyn Magnus, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful feedback in
the course of writing this paper.