SOL LEWITT, Untitled, 1982
Our untitled watercolour dates from Lewitt’s period living in Spoleto, Italy. During this time he produced a large number of works on paper continuing his earlier explorations of geometric forms in series. Although not part of an edition or specific group of original works, it is a piece which needs to be viewed within the context of his whole oeuvre and the wider development of conceptual art during the 1960s.
Sol Lewitt is a very important artist. Clearly his work is both significant and profound within the discourse of contemporary art practice, but what marks him out as slightly unusual is his ability to communicate and demystify complex art theories. His ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’ – first published in Artforum during the summer of 1967, was required reading when I was a student. One paragraph was particularly reassuring to me and I shall quote it verbatim:
“Recently there has been much written about minimal art, but I have not discovered anyone who admits to doing this kind of thing. There are other art forms around called primary structures, reductive, rejective, cool, and mini-art. No artist I know will own up to any of these either. Therefore I conclude that it is part of a secret language that art critics use when communicating with each other through the medium of art magazines.”
From that point on, he had me onside, and throughout the rest of the article he brilliantly broke down what conceptual art was (and wasn’t) whilst reassuring the apprehensive consumer of said art that their response was an individual reaction; that there was no set way (or even a need) to fully understand the artists’ intent from viewing the artwork.
Lewitt’s work is concerned with series and repetition of simple forms, whether realised on paper, on walls or in 3 dimensions. Whilst not dismissive of expressionist art per se, he saw the role of the conceptual artist as one who actively rejects the emotional response that expressive art gives the viewer. If the viewer has an emotional response to the work, the artwork becomes secondary to those emotions, which is what conceptual artist seeks to avoid. A work should be emotionally dry – to use Lewitt’s own phrase – but his intent is not to bore. The use of simple geometric shapes was, in Lewitt’s case, the purest and simplest way of communicating his ideas.
Perhaps surprisingly, Lewitt was not particularly concerned with mathematics in the form of number systems or arithmetic. The artworks he made were not illustrative of formulas; they were merely the language he chose to express himself. For such a progressive artist, he was also surprising traditional with regards to the mediums he employed. Our work is simply executed in pencil and watercolour – materials which have been used for centuries – and Lewitt was sceptical about artists who chose to use new mediums. He described new materials as “One of the great afflictions of contemporary art,” before going on to note rather scathingly that “some artist’s confuse new materials with new ideas.” He viewed the employment of new materials as another form of expressiveness which further distances the viewer from the true nature of the artwork.
Lewitt’s work is complex and cannot be broken down simply in a short article. He also explains conceptual art far better than I can in his own numerous texts. This piece is simply designed to suggest that the present artwork is both successful in its own right, and a gateway to a more significant understanding of one of the key thinkers in 20th century art.
SOL LEWITT (American, 1928-2007)
signed lower right and dated '10/82'
Pencil and watercolor on paper
8 1/2 x 16 1/8 in
21.5 x 41 cm