By Matt Stec
Systems for drawing have been a useful tool for artists in every historical art movement. Mark-making strategies, such as cross-hatching, or hatching, have been in place for hundreds of years and still continue to be used by artists today to create values and render form. Sol LeWitt is well known for his iconic renderings of geometric shapes that are systematically composed of directional lines made in basic color. He began these drawings in 1968 in graphite applied directly to the gallery wall, and moved in the 1970s toward the use of color.
Sol LeWitt’s Untitled, the most complex print from the “Composite” series, 1970, is a silkscreen print directly based on his drawing practices. Unlike his earlier compositions that are hand-drawn through the assistance of a set of guidelines and concepts, this work is instead a silkscreen print using four colors of ink. What is consistent throughout LeWitt’s hand-drawn and printed square compositions is the fact that LeWitt uses the marks of the past to create the art of the present. Linear elements, like hatched lines, and their visceral effect on the viewer are important qualities in his work that are present regardless of the medium. In a Baroque drawing such as Studies of Giambologna’s Neptune Fountain, a drawing done after the Fountain of Neptune by Giambologna, one may see the series of classical mark making strategies used by Pierre Puget in 1654 to create the forms of the statue, specifically in the portrait of the child. Puget uses swift, parallel lines in an effort to convey facial features, build value, and render form.
Though the subject matter and intentions are completely different in both artworks, the same basic use of mark making strategies is shared by both artists. Sol LeWitt builds the composition in Untitled from the “Composite” series by using the traditional mark-making strategies of the past for the visual qualities seen in Baroque art: to create value and form. However, Sol LeWitt rejects natural form and instead renders abstract geometric motifs. Though LeWitt’s square compositions feel mechanically-made, the artist’s hand, an important concept in LeWitt’s work, is still the driving factor of the printing process and preparation of the silkscreen itself. Through rendering his work in different media, Sol LeWitt’s print becomes a more permanent icon of his systematic, originally hand-drawn depiction of the square.
Sol LeWitt’s print, Untitled from the “Composite” series made in 1970, consists of a four-color silkscreen on paper, numbered 120 out of 150 original prints. The overall dimensions of this print span twenty by twenty inches. Sol LeWitt began working with the square composition in the late 1960’s with hand drawn sketches in black and white ink on notebook paper. This print is composed of four different colors: black, yellow, blue, and red, with the negative space between each line left white. These saturated, mostly primary colors are a staple in LeWitt’s work because they are the building blocks of color. Using simple primary colors allows LeWitt to experiment with their visual effects, as well as superimpose two primary colors to create the impression of a secondary color.
The box-like composition of Untitled is repeated in the other prints the “Composite” series as well. Though there are variations of color between the screenprints in the “Composite” series, the same steps are followed to create the same visual effect in all of the prints. This print features four rows of squares that span vertically.
In the top quadrant of the print lie four equally-sized squares that each contain their own color and directional line. The first square contains black horizontal lines. The second square is composed of yellow vertical lines. The third square has blue diagonal-left lines. Finally, red diagonal-right lines are featured in the last square of the row.
The second row of squares contains six rectangles. Each of the rectangles are composed with a combination of lines and colors from the first row that are superimposed together. The visual effect of the superimpositions create new colors. The rectangles in this row read as dark green, then blue, then red, light green, orange, and finally purple. Though there are two similar green colors, the effect of cross-hatching as well as the color difference create different values of the same secondary color.
The third row contains four squares, with each line and color variation derived from the previous row. The lines of these squares create an effect and pattern similar to a close-up view of threads on a plaid shirt. The colors are not as obvious in these squares as they are comparable to a palette of unmixed paint. In this row, the color of the first square reads as a blue-green, with a hint of yellow. The second square is red-orange, the third square resembles shades of violet, and the final square is more neutral colored, similar to tan or a sandy gray.
The final row, the base of the print, consists of a superimposition of the four-color combination and their lines. Though this heavy bar of lines reads as a dark tone, it’s difficult to pin down what color it suggests. A viewer may instead see the myriad lines that create different values, and different colors appear in their own moment. A smooth transition of values, beginning at the darker, heavier base and lightly blending upward, becomes visible in the composition as a whole.
Through hatching and the use of parallel lines, LeWitt is able to create a range of values. Dark values created from hatched lines in this print lines are reminiscent of cross-hatched values used to render form in Baroque drawings and intaglio prints. LeWitt doesn’t hide his process, and it is somewhat simple, but this print reminds us that these simple, playful colors have a large range of possibilities. LeWitt uses a systematic set of guidelines in his square compositions, and the basic vocabulary of line, line weight, direction, and color that could be manipulated in infinite ways. Mark-making combinations created in different colors have the potential to create many different possibilities of outcomes, values, compositions, and visual effects. (On Paper, 18). Instead of focusing merely on the systematic hand-drawn lines of each individual composition, LeWitt at this time begins to investigate line, and the range of values created via the distance of two or more parallel, or divergent lines, in a way drastically simplified from the representational manner of Baroque artists.
Sol LeWitt was an artist obsessed with concept and the act of drawing, so the question arises: Why did Sol LeWitt begin to print his compositions? In converting the visual effect of drawings into prints, Sol LeWitt gives his ideas and drawing systems a sense of permanence. Printmaking allows for LeWitt to create variations of his drawings. Printmaking is a technology used for making information available to many people, often through the mass media. Prints have an automatic significance, in that editions of prints imply that many people would like to collect the work. To have a concept multiplied in print, as in a mass-market poster, makes it feel iconic and important.
LeWitt was invested in the visual effect of color when shown in closely drawn, parallel lines. For example, the yellow lines used in LeWitt’s work become especially difficult to read on an individual level. In an article titled “Dimension of Drawing: The Prints of Sol LeWitt,” author John T. Paoletti states that yellow in this instance, “radiates light, shattering the clarity of line by expanding it liminaristically onto the adjoining space” (Paoletti, On Paper, 16). Yellow, in fact, does appear to “bleed” over into the exterior of its box more than the black, red, and blue, though all lines have similar measurements and line weights. The author continues, “the yellow lines, by the very nature of the color, are very difficult to read individually, let alone track, in the noise of the red, blue, and black lines” (Paoletti, On Paper, 18). The black is more striking and bold. It is easier for the viewer to see the static, individual lines in black. The blue and red lines move smoothly towards their respected diagonal direction. The squares that feature superimpositions of different sets of line and colors are much more grounded and heavy, but the lines are much more busy. It is almost impossible to begin to track the thousands of intersecting lines. This visual effect is even more convincing towards the bottom of the print, where all of the lines blend together, and viewer is left with little more than a texture of woven lines. Every colored line has its own visual effect. LeWitt experiments with the different combinations of line to create different values, colors and patterns.
As noted above, LeWitt is best known for his concept-based drawings. Untitled From the “Composite” series resembles what a hand-drawn Sol LeWitt composition would look like. The print is based on the visual power of his hand-drawn, conceptual drawings. In this print, LeWitt uses line and color for the visual effect created for the viewer. The effect of color is separate from the set of instructions used to create the drawing or prepare the silkscreen. In Sol LeWitt: Drawings 1958-1992, Fanz W. Kaizer describes LeWitt’s work as a “semiotic analysis of the abstract image” (Kaizer, Drawings, n.p.). Sol LeWitt is able to analyze, break down, and reconstruct a square through the use of hatched lines. Kaiser refers to this process as an analysis of the abstract image, and that is exactly what LeWitt does: analyze the effects of creating an image through color and line, and allow the viewer to analyze its visual effect. Susanna Singer writes, “one device within the art conventions of the present is abstraction. LeWitt employed it with a view to simplifying, rendering unambiguous, even encoding visual language” (quoted in Kaiser, Drawings, n.p.). LeWitt’s compositions are simple so that they are effective and instantly recognizable. The composition of this print exemplifies the way his systematic drawings focus on the effects of line and color and the range of possible superimpositions they create. Untitled is an icon of his approach to drawing, featuring systematic bundles of lines and color.
Though this print from the “Composite” series is not hand-drawn, the link between the artist’s hand and the work is still present, as the artist needed to prepare the silkscreen and execute the print. John Paoletti observes that “it is precisely the issue of ‘drawing’ however that is central in any discussion about Sol LeWitt’s graphic works” (Paoletti, On Paper, 17). Although the original concepts of Sol LeWitt’s compositions are developed in his drawings, LeWitt’s concepts and systems for abstracting an image are fully realized at this point in his career through the use of printmaking. In Line as Language: Six Artists Draw, Rosalind Krauss states that “these lines that LeWitt has forged and reforged have nothing to do with the task of projecting another world. Rather, they are part of an attempt to to something that might be characterized as an ambition to draw or mark on this one (Krauss, Line As Language, 3). LeWitt is telling the same stories through different voices. LeWitt’s screen-printing process is not an attempt to create something different, or secondary. Through printing, LeWitt reinforces his visual systems in a new medium. His concepts do not need to be limited to hand-drawn works, but could be implemented in print and other media, and by doing so LeWitt is showing that his work can have the same visual impact in another medium, as well as potentially in any location.
In “Dimensions of Drawing: The Prints of Sol LeWitt,” Paoletti reminds the reader of one of LeWitt’s basic tenets: “since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use any form, from an expression of words [written or spoken] to physical reality, equally” (Paoletti, On Paper, 17). For LeWitt this meant that the effect and quality of his drawings could be shared equally among his prints, wall drawings, and any other visual medium. As Paoletti states, “LeWitt’s print retrospective was like seeing old friends. Many of the prints, after all, use the same concepts as LeWitt’s wall drawings. In fact, the prints, in some ways, make a number of wall drawings visually ‘permanent’— presenting them in another form” (Paoletti, On Paper, 17). LeWitt’s prints perpetuate the visual effect of his line drawings by reproducing them in different media. This is significant since art itself is not always permanent, even though it was usually intended to be, and concepts and ideas are even less permanent. Print is a medium used to make information and art more accessible, and accessibility is a large part of our society. By taking a visual system that creates a visceral effect and multiplying it in different mediums, one gives it a new purpose: the art becomes iconic.
For an artist who is primarily known for conceptual drawings, LeWitt made a smart, yet bold choice to produce his series of compositions in print. The effects perceived in LeWitt’s print can be directly related to his drawing method through his color palette and line quality. By rendering his conceptual, abstract artwork in different ways he gives an idea importance, and expands its meaning. LeWitt uses traditional mark-making strategies in a mindful, abstract way that is nevertheless reminiscent of the way it was once used in traditional drawings such as Studies of Giambologna’s Neptune Fountain created by Pierre Puget in 1654. While Puget uses linear marks to create ranges of values, and ultimately to create an illusion of three dimensions, LeWitt uses hatching and cross-hatching in Untitled to give the print weight, systematically unfolding a range of values, tones, and colors even if the artist rejects the idea of creating an illusion. Illusion persists, nevertheless, in the unique perceptual experience created by the overlapping colors. Instead of the illusion of another artist’s form, the work suggests, in a way, that all visible reality is riddled with illusions of color and line.
Susanna Singer states that “vocabulary and syntax are now more complicated, but still are the result of the same basic idea – a perfect example for the machine which makes art and a sort of language” (Singer, Drawings). It is the combination of both vocabulary and syntax that makes LeWitt’s process a sort of language. He then applies this language to different mediums. As Paoletti observes, multiplying a concept or a system of creating values in different materials and mediums gives a sense of permanence to that concept or system. LeWitt has always valued the concept over the execution and outcome: as he often stated, it is the idea that matters. It is the visceral effect of the artwork for the viewer that brings printmaking and drawing together in the work of Sol LeWitt.
LeWitt, Sol, and Susanna Singer. Sol LeWitt, Drawings 1958-1992. The Hague: Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, 1992.
Paoletti, John T. “Dimensions of Drawing: The Prints of Sol LeWitt.” On Paper, vol. 1, no. 1, Oct. 1996, 17–21.
“Biography.” Sol LeWitt Prints Catalogue Raisonne, 2012.
Anna Lovatt, “Ideas in Transmission: LeWitt’s Wall Drawings and the Question of Medium,” Tate Papers, no.14, Autumn 2010.
Krauss, Rosalind E. Line as Language: Six Artists Draw. Princeton, NJ: Art Museum, Princeton U, 1974. Print.
Giambologna, Fountain of Neptune. Bologna, Italy.1567.