Sol LeWitt: Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
In April of 2008, within a larger article in Artforum on the subject of art and money, I expressed admiration for the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt, works of art that exist as ideas until someone wants to produce them locally at their own expense.1 In any wall drawing the network of idea, institution, local draftsmen, and LeWitt (by proxy, if not in spirit) determines how the work will be materially produced, all the while that the idea (for example, Wall drawing 69: Lines not long, not straight, not touching, drawn at random using four colors) hovers in the vicinity of the actual drawing without ever becoming fixed by it. LeWitt’s instinct for how an artwork might “be” in the world proposed a fundamental shift in how and where it might be produced, as well as the minimum form of existence it needed to achieve in order for us to assign it value. Whereas the value of most artists’ works still depend on the quality of their personal output, the value of the wall drawings is that they can be made by many people in different places simultaneously and repeatedly. Thus, like the best aspects of the information economy, LeWitt’s wall drawings collect and make sense of diverse points in space without privileging any one of them, creating art (and meaning) out of the relations between things rather than out of the things themselves.
This is not to say that LeWitt’s wall drawings are produced collaboratively, however much agency their producers have; nor is it to suggest that the process of making a wall drawing is democratic, that the people with pencils who are physically drafting the image are somehow equal to the artist. In writings and interviews throughout his career, LeWitt was quite clear: he appreciated the work that everyone did, he but didn’t think the people who made his art were necessarily artists, nor did he think that “anyone” could make his work. LeWitt also wrote that his ideas were based on his experiences and that they were subject to change as his experience changed. It’s fair then to think that his authority in the wall drawings grew as he gained fame as an artist and, over time, came to realize that unequal power relations were a necessary dynamic for ensuring their sublime commitment and beauty. I also suspect LeWitt shared Max Weber’s view of the division of labor, meaning that he did not see disparities in responsibility or status as unjust; rather he saw them as a way of recognizing and protecting the particular credit that each participant was due. Serving as pencil sharpener every day is not an occasion for bitterness or envy. Rather, it is an opportunity to be the best pencil sharpener you can be until the day you get asked to draw some lines—at which point you are free to accept or reject that opportunity, because the dynamic allows even a “lowly” pencil sharpener the illusion of being able to choose one’s station in life. Consequently, whatever surplus distinction might accumulate in the process of making a wall drawing gets distributed by osmosis–the communal glow that equalizes diverse people who are engaged in benevolent work.
Still LeWitt’s attenuated version of authorship did not preclude the possibility that all the participants could follow all the guidelines and still make an artwork that wasn’t “good enough.” Even though this seldom occurred in LeWitt’s lifetime, it is fair to wonder how could it happen at all. Isn’t the premise of the wall drawings that the idea produces the work, meaning that if everyone performs in accordance with the idea’s parameters a satisfactory artwork should result? Apparently not, as was the case after Wall drawing 271 (1975) was first executed at Dia:Beacon in spring 2007, after which the sandpaper and rollers were brought back out, the wall roughed up and repainted, and the Black circles, a red grid, yellow arcs from four corners, blue arcs from the midpoints of four sides was drawn all over again. Why? Because Sol said so.
I can only conjecture how this rare and unexpected fiat affected the otherwise rosy social scenario of making a wall drawing, to which the increasingly hagiographic treatment of LeWitt’s draftspersons attests.2 Perhaps LeWitt’s fiat was a way of countering a burgeoning sentimentality around his work, a way of complicating the caricature of the artist as the quintessential nice guy. Given his elegant taste for mischief, maybe LeWitt rejected a wall drawing from time to time just to keep everybody on his and her toes. More likely, given his love of music, I would aver that LeWitt thought that a group functions best not only when it comes together and tolerates as many different participants as possible, but also when one of the participants has the wisdom and the courage to tell the rest of the group what to do.
1. See “Modest Proposals,” Artforum (April, 2008): 312–19.
2. It would seem that the desire to organize survey exhibitions of LeWittt’s wall drawings engenders a desire to document their various drafters over the years as well. See, for example, Susanna Singer, ed., Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings, 1968–1984, exh. cat. (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1984); Sol LeWitt: Twenty-Five Years of Wall Drawings, 1968–1993, exh. cat. (Andover, Mass.: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993); and Sol LeWitt, exh. cat. (A Coruña, Spain: Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza, 2002). This trend is unique to the wall drawings as compared to, say, the collective fabricators of Michael Asher installations over the past four decades or, more recently, the collective participants of a Relational Aesthetics event. It is even unique within LeWitt’s oeuvre, since no one has yet endeavored to catalogue the names of LeWitt’s sculpture fabricators or printers. The exceptional character of the desire to document workers using pencils to make art, but not workers using machines, deserves greater analysis than space here allows.
First published in the Sol LeWitt: 100 Views exhibition catalogue published by MassMoCA and Yale University Press, 2009.
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