As you walk down the stairs into the Kaldor Family Gallery at the Art Gallery of NSW for the exhibition Sol LeWitt: Your Mind is Exactly That Line, one of the first things that you see is a quote from the artist placed on a wall. It’s just a single line taken from the essay Paragraphs on Conceptual Art written in 1967: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important part of the work.”
This statement works well as an introduction to the astringent minimalism of LeWitt’s art. Like his American counterparts Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, LeWitt reduced his work to basic elements from which a seemingly endless array of variations could me made, meanwhile rejecting the demonstrative emotions of expressionist art. Your Mind is Exactly That Line surveys 30 years of the artist’s output up to 2006, the year before his death, and provides an overview of an artist dedicated to his process.
While conceptual art had many forebears in the early 20th century, and would later become a more politicised critique of art-making and the art world, in LeWitt’s work the concept is the engine that creates it. Early pieces such as his large wall drawings describe in their titles exactly how they were made. The complete title for one reads: “Wall Drawings #337 and #337: Two part drawing. The wall is divided vertically into two parts. Each part is divided horizontally and vertically into four equal parts. 1st part: lines in four directions, one direction in each quarter. 2nd part: Lines in four directions, superimposed progressively” (1971).
Minimal or conceptual sculptures – or to use LeWitt’s preferred term “constructions” – have a kind of inscrutable alienness to them but in LeWitt’s case, once you crack the code, all becomes clear. In Wall Structure 54321 (1974), LeWitt creates a lattice-like arrangement of squares on the wall that reduces from a five-by-five grid to a single square at the top. In Horizontal Progression (1990), the step-like sculpture made from bricks increases at each rise by one brick, starting at one and ending at eight. Instead of feeling alienated, the viewer understands the concept and the process, and looks to the next work to see how the rules can be varied to produce a different outcome.
The exhibition includes later works such as the rather lovely Wall Drawing #604H (1989), featuring five isometric cubes coloured in variations of red, blue, yellow and green and applied to the wall using rags dipped in inkwash. Post 1996, LeWitt further embraced colour in his sculptures and wall works, and a collection of brightly-hued floor sculptures edge up to Wall Drawing #1091: Arcs, Circles and Bands (room) (2003), a now-familiar part of the Art Gallery of NSW’s permanent collection. Like most artist toward the end of their careers, LeWitt’s latter works feel a lot looser and even funkier than his early 70s pieces.
A third gallery space has been largely given over to a collection of what might kindly be termed ephemera – the sorts of things artists experiment with but which are a sideline from the main work. A long vitrine features boxes, glasses and plates designed by LeWitt, as well as correspondence between John Kaldor and the artist, a fruitful collector/artist relationship that has given us this exhibition. It’s surprising to learn that Kaldor gifted artworks by Indigenous artists Emily Kame Ngwarray and Gloria Petyarre to LeWitt, and the visual resonances between their painting and the American’s art is profound; but more startling still is to see paintings by LeWitt such as Tangled Bands (2002) and Irregular Grid (2001) that owe such a clear debt to Aboriginal painting.
When you read LeWitt’s now-famous line in the context of the essay, something rather surprising is revealed about the artist and his intentions. “This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless,” LeWitt writes, before admitting that, while the work might seem dry, there is “… no reason to suppose […] that the conceptual artist is out to bore the viewer.” For me, LeWitt’s work is a type of classicism that, far from being boring, has the resolute completeness of truly great works of art. If art is about removing all that’s unnecessary, getting down to the heart of something, then LeWitt removed everything until he found a new kind of truth.
Guardian Australia, February 2014
Pic: Sol Le Witt, Tangled Bands, 2002.