It took nineteen people six weeks to create seventeen drawings by Sol LeWitt onto the Fundacion Botin, and yet at the end of the exhibition, they will simply be painted over. This most recent installation of LeWitt’s wall drawings, in Santander, Spain, represents one of the country’s most significant exhibitions of the conceptual artist. “Sol LeWitt: 17 Wall Drawings” is devoted to the artist’s driving principle of placing the idea of the work at the centre of its execution: in this case, asking others to carry out the drawing according to his instructions. So, even though LeWitt passed away in 2007, the artworks are still properly by Sol LeWitt, applied directly to the walls by a team of artists who carry out the instructions. These range from exacting (specifying, for example, the size of the wall) to more vague descriptions which allow the artists to add their own interpretation to the work.
For example, in “50 Randomly Placed Points All Connected by Straight Lines”, LeWitt’s instructions entail the element of randomness. The artist trusts in the person executing the work, allowing them to choose what “random” means to them. In fact, the work has been carried out multiple times and not only has been different in impact each time, but even the process the draughtsperson has used to simulate the randomness has differed on each iteration – some have chosen to flip a coin, others to blindfold themselves and place a marker on the wall, and so on.
Most of the works don’t require a particular size of wall space, and often continue beyond the boundaries of traditional hanging space. For example, “Wall Drawing 51, All architectural points connected by straight lines” has been drawn onto the stairwell of the exhibition hall, in blue architectural snaplines. Just as with the randomly placed points, the idea is part of an attempt to address the unknown and define it, creating an artwork that can work in any opportunity for space. The crisscrossing blue lines join at hubs where the banister meets the wall, making these mundane elements of the room a crucial part of how the work looks formally. This choice of medium, as well as the space occupied, nods to LeWitt’s intention to work within the constraints of the architecture – a throwback to his formative years working in the architecture offices of I. M. Pei.
In a similar use of space, the entrance features one of the crucial elements of LeWitt’s work – his “coat of arms” for his visual vocabulary. Painted in ultra-shiny white acrylic on a white wall, it might be difficult to see. But the horizontal, vertical and two diagonal lines are the starting point for much of LeWitt’s other works, often in combination with the standard tones of yellow, red, blue and grey that he combines them with. It is this visual vocabulary that is shown in “Wall Drawing 7A”, 2015, which is being exhibited for the first time at the Fundacion Botin (hence the contemporary dating of the work). Its side-by-side shaded squares may look pastels from afar but, on closer inspection, present combinations of grey, red, blue and yellow, in a logical combination of the horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines in series.
This is one of the reasons that LeWitt’s work remains so contemporary: its form is completely dependent on the space, the moment and the person carrying it out according to the instructions. The draughtsperson, in particular, carries the knowledge and understanding of the visual forms of the moment with them, making LeWitt’s work contemporary art on every iteration.
As John Hogan, director of installations and archivist of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings at Yale University Art Gallery, explains at the exhibition’s press conference: “This is how it lives.” After all it’s his job to ensure that LeWitt’s legacy continues, not just for his lifetime, but for perpetuity. For while this collection of wall drawings is an impressive collection of works, in their formal character, their significance resides in their nature as a temporary phenomenon. This is conceptualism at its most fundamental: the idea lives forever.
“Sol LeWitt: 17 Wall Drawings. 1970-2015” is on show at Fundacion Botin, Santander, Spain until 10 January 2016
Text by Josie Thaddeus-Johns
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