Unreal Nature

November 14, 2017

The Way Art Ought to Look

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… At the heart of conceptual art is the ambition to return to the roots of experience, to recreate the primary experience of symbolization uncontaminated by the attitudes attached to traditional visual modes, whether representational or abstract.

This is from the essay ‘Sol LeWitt and Drawing’ by Bernice Rose found in Sol LeWitt edited by Alicia Legg (1978):

LeWitt’s transposition of his drawings from the restricted if traditional format of a sheet of paper to the architectural space of a wall with which it became absolutely identified was a radical move. It suggests transformation in the role — and the very nature — of the drawing medium, within both his own work and the history of the medium.

LeWitt’s move was catalytic, as important for drawing as Pollock’s use of the drip technique had been for painting in the 1950s. Both opposed, through radical transpositions in the way in which the thing is made, expectations of the way art ought to look — what it ought to be.

LeWitt’s working method for his wall drawings is simple. As Lawrence Alloway described it:

A site becomes available, not necessarily one that the artist has seen in advance. After consideration of the dimensions and physical properties of the walls, LeWitt stipulates a certain kind of mark, and a certain form of distribution of marks by a sketch and/or verbal or written account. The instructions also serve as the work’s description after it has been done, so that the wall is bracketed verbally, both before and after execution. The process-record is abbreviated, compressed between identical accounts of conception and completion.

… By establishing system as method for himself, LeWitt had created a way of working that was almost infinitely elastic and open-ended, one idea leading to another and still another, in intuitive leaps, from suggestions inherent in the work. Later work expanded to incorporate circles and sections of circles (arcs), irregular lines and, later still, a new use of color. The new permutations were systematically exploited to produce variations.

The use and disuse of systems in intellectual history was outlined by John Chandler in a discussion of LeWitt:

The current concern of artists with “systems” recalls the rejection of systems by the eighteenth-century philosophes. The seventeenth-century philosophers, following the model of Euclid’s Elements, constructed elaborate systems, long chains of deductive reasoning where every link depended on all those which preceded it and upon which all further links depended. The eighteenth century, following the lead of Newton and natural philosophy, rejected this kind of deduction and rejected a priori systems. Rather than beginning with principles and arriving at particulars, the process was reversed.

[line break added] Knowledge became more elastic, open-ended and concrete. Since then, attempts to make systems have been negligible, and when they have been formulated, they have been useless. The formulator of a system of aesthetics has nothing to say to working artists because he has not observed the relevant phenomena — in this case, contemporary works of art. Nevertheless, some of the most beautiful of human productions have been these philosophical systems. What is more beautiful than the systems of Aquinas, Spinoza, Hobbes and Descartes?

[line break added] Every part in its appropriate place, deduced from those prior and antecedent to those that follow, the whole being an attempt to reduce the apparent variety to unity. Even their uselessness enhances their aesthetic quality, just as a ruined Gothic cathedral is perhaps more a work of art now than it was when it was functional. Although systems are useless for philosophy and science, their inherent adaptability to art must now be evident. It is perhaps in art that systems have found their proper domain. Not all art should be systematic, but all systems are art.

Systems have other attractions, too. A simple system may yield a complex field. Systems may seem logical but can be used to confound logic when extended to absurdity. Systems have no purpose outside of themselves: they engender purposeless, therefore aesthetic, mental processes.

… At the heart of conceptual art is the ambition to return to the roots of experience, to recreate the primary experience of symbolization uncontaminated by the attitudes attached to traditional visual modes, whether representational or abstract. For LeWitt, system was one means of achieving an art as free from previous stylistic associations as could be conceived at that moment.

LeWitt was anxious to avoid subjective decisions in order to remove the obstacle of ideas of quality (in the work itself) and in order to think in terms of kind. Therefore he made the initial intention more important than the execution. He wanted to concentrate on sensitivity of decision and so he made it a rule not to deviate from original decisions; he refused the idea of changing a work because it didn’t look right. His view is that the same thing can look different on different days, one day right, one day wrong. He wanted to concentrate on the whole conception rather than on the day-to-day decisions.

… Lines themselves have always been meaningless. LeWitt’s strike at formalism is a deliberate reminder that it is always and has always been the idea that is important, even more than the emotion. Only the unifying idea that creates the structure of the work can make the work manifest. This precedes the content of any work; in LeWitt’s case it is identical to the content.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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