Sol LeWitt Prints 1970-1995
There are several ways of constructing a work of art. One is by making decisions at each step, another by making a system to make decisions. -Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt's art is about ideas, not form. The ideas that inform a system become the content of his work. Beginning in the mid-1960s, with a simple artistic vocabulary of lines and cubes, LeWitt (born 1928) used systems to devise an art free from previous stylistic associations. In three-dimensional work, these generated austere serial structures that belied the artistic mark. When LeWitt began drawing directly on the wall and using a team of assistants to execute his written systems, he overturned traditional assumptions about the permanent, unique, and autographic nature of art. LeWitt's work has always been characterized by a tension between the perceptual beauty of his objects and the rigor of the concepts behind them.
LeWitt's first New York solo exhibition was in 1965, and he executed his first wall drawing in 1968.(2) While he had made woodcuts and lithographs in college and contributed to a Xerox book project in 1968, his first published prints were issued in 1970. An audacious beginner, LeWitt had made three major print projects by 1971, each in a different medium and at a different workshop. His imagery in over 170 printed projects has developed alongside that of his sculptures and wall drawings. The ease with which elements of a print can be altered-by changing colors or adding layers-has allowed LeWitt to expand his serial work beyond the scope of sculpture or drawing. For LeWitt, the printmaking technique becomes a component of his art through a systematic manipulation of its tools and a broad exploitation of its possibilities.
One of LeWitt's first serial drawings, Drawing Series 1, with its twenty-four possible permutations, appeared in printed form in a 1968 artist's book known as the Xerox Book.(3) This contains LeWitt's first printed serial statement and predicts how he would use printmaking to fully explore his sequential ideas. LeWitt acknowledges that a wide range of serial work has influenced his thinking, from Eadweard Muybridge's motion-study photographs and Josef Albers's Homage to the Square series, to Frank Stella's black paintings and Jasper Johns's grids of alphabets and numbers. In particular, one thinks of Johns's 0-9 lithographs of 1960-63 as the quintessential serial printed project: a porttolio of ten images with a single digit on each sheet.(4) Turning the pages of LeWitt's section of the Xerex Book, one experiences a powerful narrative sense in anticipation of the next stage in the visual progression. He has said, "I thought that narration was a means of getting away from formalism: to get away from the idea of form as an end and rather to use form as a means."(5)
Among LeWitt's earliest prints after the Xerox Book were rigorous serial projects. In 1971, encouraged by publisher Robert Feldman of Parasol Press, LeWitt went to Oakland, Calllornia, to make etchings with Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press. Because etching is inherently reductive and its basic element is the line, it was an ideal medium for LeWitt. That year he completed a set of etchings entitled Bands of Color in Four Direclions & All Combinations. LeWitt mastered etching's subtleties in this early series, making all sixteen images from only two plates: one with a band of parallel lines with pointed ends, printed in red and blue, the other with flat ends, printed in black and yellow. The entire set was accomplished by rotating and layering the two plates, changing the ink color as needed. LeWitt devised this sophisticated printing system himself, an indication of his precocious understanding of the medium.(6)
LeWitt's "hands-on" approach to etching differs greatly from his approach to the screenprint technique, which he began in 1970 with the printer John Campione. LeWitt provided Campione with a template of parallel lines in black ink, which he wouid use for over twenty editions by 1972. For each screenprint, LeWitt made a sketch of the composition and numbered each component to indicate color and line direction. He restricted his palette to red, yellow, blue, and black, and the lines' orientations to vertical, horizontal, and the two diagonals. Campione was responsible for making the screens from LeWitt's template.(7) This printmaking system is analogous to LeWitt's method of creating wall drawings, which draftsmen execute based on his instructions and diagrams.
According to LeWitt, "Ideas may also be stated with numbers, photographs, or words or any way the artist chooses, the form being unimportant."(8) For him, words and lines carry equal weight as expressions of an idea. In his early work, a lengthy written description accompanied every piece, often installed on the wall as a verbal equivalent. Working again with etching printers at Crown Point Press in 1975, LeWitt made his most important printed statements about the role of language in his art. In a series of five prints entitled The Location of Lines, words and phrases become part of the work, not merely parallel to it. This creates an interdependence of language and image: words describe the position of lines, and lines demarcate the placement of words. Words occupy more and more of each successive sheet; in the fifth print, they dominate the composition. An undercurrent of chaos exists, a sense of the machine gone out of control. LeWitt may be mocking Conceptual art's dependence on text or his own now famous quotation, "The idea becomes a machine that makes the art."(9) Such tension between an ordered system and its potential for disorder is an underlying theme in LeWitt's work.(10)
By the early 1980s LeWitt was relaxing the rigor of his systems. His series no longer exhausted all possible variants, and he allowed certain subjective decisions to intrude. The work of these years shows an increasing interest in tone and surface. In 1981, LeWitt began using gray ink washes in the wall drawings, and by 1982, broad areas of aquatint appeared in his prints. In an elaborate aquatint series entitled Forms Derivad from a Cube (1982), LeWitt chose to depict only twenty-four of the almost limitless possible forms within the structure of a cube and used different shades of gray to depict each plane.
In this series, LeWitt also shifted his focus from the depiction of the two-dimensional to the creation of flattened, isometric renderings of three-dimensional forms. The Forms Derived from a Cube and the subsequent Pyramids series marked a turning paint in LeWitt's work. In each there is a tension between a two-dimensional and a three-dimensional reading of the image. In the Pyramids, color determines the degree of illusionism of the forms. Moreover, this series has no system, evidence of the growing role of personal artistic choice-a trend that continues in series of the 1990s.
While LeWitt had used mixed colors rather than pure red, yellow, and blue for several series in 1983,(11) he began layering colors the following year in Forms Derived from a Cube in Color (Simph & Superimposed) & Black & Gray, a series of six large screenprints.(12) This series was printed by Jo Watanabe, a former wall drawing assistant and specialist in screenprint, who became LeWitt's principal printer in the mid-1970s and remains so today. Watanabe's understanding of LeWitt's work and his masterful craftsmanship made him indispensable to LeWitt's printmaking. Watanabe has developed an impeccable sense of LeWitt's color and compositional systems that allows the artist to simply sketch and diagram his ideas as he does for his wall drawings. So central has Watanabe become to LeWitt's printmaking that when the printer's Brooklyn facilities expanded to include etching and woodcut, LeWitt in turn devoted increasing efforts to these mediums.
LeWitt's prints of the last ten years, composed of sumptuous surfaces and layered colors, have taken on a new exuberance accompanied by a softening of the geometry. For instance, the interlocking webs of triangulated facets in the Complex Forms prints, derived from the structure of the Pyramids, resemble stained-glass windows and glisten in their vibrant 1990 screenprint version. As is customary with LeWitt, this motif was also explored in etching, as well as in both color and black-and-white. LeWitt's interest in an allover composition, evident throughout his career, culminates in the shimmering equilibrium of these images. Unlike LeWitt's sculptural interpretations of the motif, the printed versions do not conform to a system. Subjective choices have largely replaced theoretical constructs. The aesthetic balance has been tipped, and in his most recent prints of richly colored, undulating curves, perception prevails over conception. It is a testament to LeWitt's vigorous mind and artistic integrity that he has allowed his work to evolve from tightly conceived and often austere to open-ended and luxuriant.
The collaborative nature of printmaking, in which artists create in tandem with printers, is intrinsic to LeWitt's working method. It has fostered his twenty-five-year involvement with graphic mediums and has made these techniques central to the development of his artistic thought. Along with other pioneers of Conceptual art, LeWitt has irrevocably altered our understanding of what constitutes a work of art and has creatively employed printmaking in this aesthetic revolution.
Department of Prints and lllustrated Books