As part of the final assignment I must produce an illustrated report of around 2,000 words on a subject of my choice. I have chosen The Stripe. Loom weavers spend a lot of time designing stripes or fighting / hiding stripes. There’s a lot more to weaving of course, but that fundamental step of warping the loom has you making decisions about all those parallel lines. Painters have so many options, yet for different reasons some choose stripes. In my initial list I have Barnett Newman’s zips, the stripe flags of Jasper Johns, the conceptual of Sol LeWitt, Bridget Riley’s op art, Daniel Buren, in Australia David Aspden (colour field)… Over the coming months I’d like to explore their approaches and along the way perhaps get some ideas or questions that have me approaching the loom differently.
The series of posts will be my research notes for the final report and as such they will be sketchy and incomplete, an overview of things I think might be relevant or that interest me despite being irrelevant.
Starting with a bang – Sol LeWitt. The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) has quite a large collection, much or all the gift of the John Kaldor Family. This work was first installed in the Kaldor residence. Imagine that as a room in your house. I think I’d furnish it with a single sun lounge and spend an hour a day basking in colour :)
Originally associated with Minimalism (not a label he would accept) LeWitt was a major theorist of Conceptual Art. In 1967 LeWitt wrote: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” (LeWitt, 1967) Start with an idea (simple is good). Choose a form (simple is good). Select some rules. Then the fewer decisions the better.
For example, select a cube. There are 12 edges in total (on the left of the diagram). That’s the basic form. You can take away an edge and still see it’s a cube, even if incomplete – so 11 edges on the right. What are the variations of an incomplete cube? That’s it – except I used too many words. LeWitt developed very terse but sufficient ways of documenting his concepts.
Some of the results can be seen on the left. I find them … satisfying … to look at. They are crazy and obsessive. An irrational pursuit of a rational idea? Vice versa? When you start following the rules it turns out you need at least 3 sides – to give height, width and depth – otherwise it’s not an incomplete cube. Don’t you think that’s kind of a nice idea – plus that someone was focused enough to lay out 122 variations? (Bullock (2014, p. 21) records LeWitt consulted a mathematician when finalising the sequence).
It’s strange to see these incomplete cubes, each in a sense a separate (autonomous?) work, in a gallery setting. They now form a series, parts of a larger work, and the spacing between, the lighting and cast of shadows on the polished flooring, become part of the whole for the viewer.
Adding further complexity are the other works in the exhibition. On the wall in the background of this photograph is Wall structure 123454321 (1979) (www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/L2011.62/). A different but kindred idea, this time mounted on the wall in a hybrid not entirely three dimensional but not a flat surface way.
Work on the walls brings me back to focus on The Stripe – which I now see can refer to lines or bands.
LeWitt wrote “The form itself is of very limited importance; it becomes the grammar for the total work. In fact, it is best that the basic unit be deliberately uninteresting so that it may more easily become an intrinsic part of the entire work. Using complex basic forms only disrupts the unity of the whole. Using a simple form repeatedly narrows the field of the work and concentrates the intensity to the arrangement of the form. This arrangement becomes the end while the form becomes the means.” (LeWitt, 1967). A straight line makes an ideal basic unit.
On the AGNSW website the full title of one of the works above is “Wall drawing #338: 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.” A diagram drawn on the wall next to the work shows how this has been implemented. At the bottom are the four directions and colours of line used, with identifying numbers. Above are the combinations of lines used in each section of the work.
My detail photos of the wall drawing are very fuzzy, so here I’ve shown a page from a book with a related sequence. The book is included in the current AGNSW exhibition Sol LeWitt: Your mind is exactly at that line (www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/
The work invites viewing as a sequence. Haxthausen (2012, p. 17) suggests that LeWitt felt “thwarted by the nature of the easel picture as a single synchronous image, a spatial rather than a temporal structure”. Adopting a serial approach, and the wall, LeWitt challenged this. (Another approach, seen for example in works on Arachne, is to combine scenes of multiple times in a single picture – see 8-Jul-2013).
Kaiser (1992) wrote “LeWitt employed [abstraction] with a view to simplifying, rendering unambiguous, even encoding visual language. He sought a kind of basic vocabulary, in the fashion of musical annotation”.
This first piece of research is already testing the borders of my topic. The thumbnail on the right shows Wall drawing #1274: scribble column (horizontal), graphite (2006). The detail at the left shows it is indeed “scribble”. In LeWitt there is line (often straight and orderly), band, grid (superimposed straight line), and in this example disorderly line organised into forming orderly line. Probably I’ll find very few if any artists whose works remains entirely within “the stripe”. I should still be able to find a range of approaches within those who use stripe on occasion.
Bringing a weaverly eye to the discussion, the simplified notation appears equivalent to a pattern draft, which gives an unambiguous, succinct description of structure.
Fairbrother (1992) wrote “LeWitt’s serial exercises produce objects for contemplation that may strike views as both structurally intriguing and abstractly beautiful, regardless of whether they understand the guiding parameters and variables”. That’s more of a challenge for weaving. The structure which is so important to the weaver is generally not even seen, let alone understood, by the viewer. Scale is clearly key here, but also the underlying sequence and basic unit – not just line but the unit of the draft – is virtually never revealed to the viewer. That could be an interesting sequence in a “New Weave” type exhibition.
In much of loom weaving a lot of calculations and decisions are made up front, with little decision making during the execution – although as a weaver I would say the final outcome is generally a very important part of the process, and rather than being cool and without emotion like some Conceptual Art, the tactile nature of cloth and all its cultural meanings (wrapping / protection…) make emotion of some kind almost inevitable. The focus on the concept supported LeWitt’s practice of allowing assistants to realise works following his written instructions. I happened to be at AGNSW while the current exhibition was being prepared and took this photo of work on LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 604H, cubic rectangle with color ink washes superimposed (1989). The two men were working as fast as they could, one working from the bottom the other from the top, rubbing on the ink. As they finished one gave feedback, presumably training, looking for even more speed and a slight change in rubbing technique. The thumbnail at the left shows part of the finished work a month or so later.
There can be similar division in design and execution in weaving – Liz Williamson (see 24-Nov-2012) is one example of a highly experienced and proficient weaver who frequently has her designs realised by others. I suspect this is more a matter of time management than a basic conceptual division of process.
Fuschs writes of LeWitt’s “precise, lucid principles”, that he “ceased to rely on inspiration and coincidental impulses”, and “it is a way of doing and approaching without a real aesthetic premise” (Fuschs, 1992). The further I have gone with this investigation, and despite finding a few parallels, I think in the end LeWitt’s objectives make no sense at all in the weaving world – just a meaningless coincidence of a basic form. Perhaps we arrive there from different directions. Kaiser suggests “this extreme reduction [straight lines] was countered by an expansive use of the basic elements as a regularly repeating module” (Kaiser, 1992). Weaving isn’t a reduction to straight lines, it builds from them – so always expanding?
From Fairbrother (1992): “LeWitt’s first structure announced his reciprocal concerns to reduce subjective expressivity and to give the clearest exposition of ideas concerning basic form, modularity, gridding, stacking, extending, containing, repeating, and amplifying. To these ends he exercised the strictest economy with regard to color, surface, texture, and shape”. Obviously there was later development, particularly in color and shape, but again this seems totally opposed to most weaving. What would weaving look like if one tried to bring the same concerns? Can there be weaving without surface or texture? On the other hand Bonin (2012, p. 35) suggests “LeWitt exemplified his interest in two-dimensionality, in the plane’s physically flat surface. Gradations in wall texture became gradations in pencil lines. Subtle changes in the wall’s surface are made internal to the drawing’s form. The surface fluctuations lend the work a gentle dynamism, as if a barely noticeable, sheer cloth has been swept over parts of the wall”.
Some more brief notes and thoughts:
* “Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable.” (LeWitt, 1967). True in so many areas! A lot of thought and effort is needed to achieve strong, simple, obvious, even “inevitable” results.
* “New materials are one of the great afflictions of contemporary art.” (LeWitt, 1967). I’d say that’s very relevant to today’s textile work. There are really exciting new materials and tools and techniques coming available all the time. The trick is to use them meaningfully, to take them beyond ‘look at this flashy new thing’ (“gaudy bauble”, as LeWitt put it).
* Scale. LeWitt devotes a paragraph to scale and placement. I’ll have more on that in an upcoming post.
* LeWitt’s comments about art. First a selection of sentences from 1971:
“10. Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical. …
17. All ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.
18. One usually understands the art of the past by applying the convention of the present, thus misunderstanding the art of the past.
19. The conventions of art are altered by works of art.
20. Successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by altering our perceptions.”
The above I take to provide an overall understanding of what art is and how it changes over time – or at least a conceptual form of art. In his Paragraphs LeWitt mentions that this isn’t for all artists. Sentence 18 seems very relevant to art history studies. I wonder about the magnitude of misunderstandings due to time compared to all the other differences in context and knowledge when viewing works. Elsewhere LeWitt comments that the artist can’t control a viewer’s perception and also that the artist may perceive another’s work better than his/her own. I suppose that links back to the difference between conception and perception.
Another LeWitt statement, originally from 1974 and reprinted in Fairbrother (1992): “Each person, being different, conceives of art differently. There is no high or low art or good or bad art, but different kinds of art to satisfy the aesthetic needs of all. Whatever one understands to be art is art”.
Bonin, C. (2012) “Between wall and paper: rethinking LeWitt’s wall drawings” In Haxthausen, CW (ed) (2012) Sol LeWitt: The well-tempered grid. Williamstown: Williams College Museum of Art, pp. 27 – 43.
Bullock, N. (2014) “Sol LeWitt: An overview and a preview” In Look 0414 Sydney: Art Gallery Society of New South Wales, pp. 20 – 23.
Fairbrother, T. (1992) “Sol LeWitt’s drawing and the art of ‘logical statement’” In Singer, S. (ed) (1992) Sol LeWitt drawings 1958 – 1992. The Hague: Haags Gemeentemuseum.
Fuschs, R. (1992) “Sol LeWitt” In Singer, S. (ed) (1992) Sol LeWitt drawings 1958 – 1992. The Hague: Haags Gemeentemuseum.
Haxthausen, CW (2012) “The well-tempered grid: On Sol LeWitt and Music” In Haxthausen, CW (ed) (2012) Sol LeWitt: The well-tempered grid. Williamstown: Williams College Museum of Art.
Kaiser, FW (1992) “Drawing as notation – or just as drawing” In Singer, S. (ed) (1992) Sol LeWitt drawings 1958 – 1992. The Hague: Haags Gemeentemuseum.
LeWitt, S. (1967) “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” originally published in Artforum, June 1967. [online] Available from http://radicalart.info/concept/LeWitt/paragraphs.html (Accessed 22-Mar-2014).
LeWitt, S. (1971) “Sentences on Conceptual Art” originally published in Art Now 3 (2), 1971. [online] Available from http://radicalart.info/concept/LeWitt/sentences.html (Accessed 23-Mar-2014).
UA1-WA:Research: The Stripe – Sol LeWitt
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Review: The Stripe
Research: Sol LeWitt