Thursday, September 24, 2009

LeWitt for jerks

I had the privilege of working on the Sol LeWitt retrospective at MASS MoCA last year. If you're unfamiliar with his work, Sol LeWitt was a conceptual artist who rose to prominence in the late 60s. He is most famous for his short essays, which a lot of people credit with identifying and legitimating the tenets of conceptual art. In this mode, he said, "the idea becomes a machine that makes the art" and that the art object is inconsequential. He demonstrated this by applying his drawings to the walls of the spaces he exhibited in and often had his plans carried out by draftsmen other than himself. All aspects of his ideas were made transparent to the audience and ideally, the finished works couldn't be owned because they were adhered to the wall and would ultimately be painted over. Eventually, the plans for LeWitt's drawings became the objects of value instead, functioning as certificates for his work's execution. However, he had no objections to people recreating his works on their own so long as they kept his ideas intact. So I started making them in MS Paint.

LeWitt initially worked with simple systems and a very limited visual vocabulary. He used lines, regular shapes and only primary colors in his early and mid-career drawings. These make for easy Paint translations and I tried to use only the colors and shapes standard in the Paint toolbars.

Wall Drawing365: A square divided horizontally and vertically into four equal parts, each with a progressively darker gradation of gray.

Wall Drawing 381: A square divided horizontally and vertically into four equal parts, one gray, one yellow, one red and one blue, drawn with color and India ink washes.

He began to inflect the grid format he had imposed on his systems and produced new relationships with the wall itself. Still pretty easy to remake. I did try to account for changes in medium, be it ink wash or crayon.

Wall Drawing295: Six white geometric figures (outlines) superimposed on a black wall.

Wall Drawing 343B: On a black wall, nine geometric figures (including right triangle, cross, X) in squares. The backgrounds are filled in solid white.

Later, LeWitt began to combine pigments on the wall to make new secondary colors from them. And as he developed into his “baroque” period, he did away with the instructions and systems entirely, requiring many of his works to be reproduced from transparencies of his plans. I tried to account for LeWitt’s method of configuring his works to fit any wall dimensions by eyeballing the important loci of the MS Paint canvas. These are probably a little bit off here and there.

Wall Drawing 725: On a blue wall, a black square within a white border.

Wall Drawing 853: A wall bordered and divided vertically into two parts by a flat black band. Left part: a square is divided vertically by a curvy line. Left: glossy red; right: glossy green; Right part: a square is divided horizontally by a curvy line. Top: glossy blue; bottom: glossy orange.

Wall Drawing 1005: Isometric form.

Wall Drawing 880: Loopy Doopy (orange and green)

I did begin to tackle one of drawings that’s simple in idea and painfully complicated in execution. Wall Drawing 51 was one of LeWitt’s breakthrough pieces, and it involved connecting all relevant architectural points on a wall to each other with a snap line. Using my entire screen as the wall, I began to connect one point to every other and realized how difficult this would be. I might continue it one day, but I think I’d end up with a mostly black screen.

Wall Drawing 51: All architectural points connected by straight lines.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the authentic drawings overwhelm the ones I made when you see them in person. And I couldn’t possibly reproduce the amount of time and skill the draftsmen need to materialize the works IRL. But Paint is oddly appropriate for producing his instructions in a new medium.

Please check out the MASS MoCA Retrospective website to see some better examples as well as some time lapses of the works being made, they’re amazing.