by Caroline Riley

Sol LeWitt’s Rip Drawing R734 is compromised of three different layers of shapes, one on top of the other. The shapes of Rip Drawing R734 are recognizable in their difference from one another. First is the existing shape of Manhattan, drawn by city streets and bounded by water and land. Manhattan is recognizable in its relationship to water and other land structures. Second are the different lines that extend and intersect on the surface of Manhattan, creating different grid structures. These gridlines are the most commonly repeated forms throughout the work. Cutting across and through these grids is a third layer, a surgical cut perhaps done by an X-Acto knife. This “drawing” is recognizable by its radical difference in medium and shape. Upon first glance it appears utterly impersonal, given that the hand of the artist is not present in a traditional sense. Under further investigation, though, Rip Drawing R734 is highly personal in that it provides a great deal of insight into the methods and theories that inform Sol LeWitt’s art making practice.

Sol LeWitt, American (1928-2007), Rip Drawing R734, 1977. Cut photograph, 16 in x 16 in. University Museum of Contemporary Art, University of Massachusetts. Purchased with funds from National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, D.C., UM 1978.3.

The physical “rip” in Rip Drawing R734 is a triangular cut through the photograph. The three points making up the triangle are three notable geometric structures visible from the air: Madison Square Garden, Rockefeller Center and Lincoln Center. These sights are all major tourist destinations. The cut in the photograph traces, perhaps, the potential tourist’s route of New York City. In relation to the “rip” new shapes also emerge around the triangle. Shapes and forms are dictated by their relationship to one another as well as the spaces in which they exist.

Rip Drawing R734 is an action done to a photograph; however, the urban topography that the photo depicts connects it to LeWitt’s practice of drawing. LeWitt creates a strong parallel between the imposition of city limits and the physical act of drawing. The repetition of grids in this work parallels the way that LeWitt’s famous Wall Drawings are repeatable to anyone who purchases the instructions for them. In his Wall Drawings, LeWitt conceives of an idea for a drawing on a wall. These ideas can be carried out by anyone. Site specific directions are provided by LeWitt himself. No artistic background is necessary. The point of this is to question the different positions and expectations of artist and draftsman. The artist in this circumstance thinks of the idea but need not make the actual marks. The draftsman makes the marks but has no responsibility for the idea. The two work together in order to produce a finished work.

The Wall Drawings assert the capabilities of the human imagination to think up endless series of combinations. Rosalind Kraus writes in “Line as Language: Six Artists Draw” that “the wall drawings testify to the possibility of executing any system of combination that the artist can think of. One might say that they stand for the predicates of any proposition, which once made (or imagined) must be able to achieve itself physically.” The Wall Drawings are always made up of different systems of combinations. A wall drawing is never one singular visual representation or idea. The series reveals the way that art itself becomes recognizable only through its boundaries, just as physical spaces to. Boundaries in both senses are dictated by line. As in his Wall Drawings, in Rip Drawing the hand of the artist is not directly present.

The “rip” in Rip Drawing R734 suggests Lewitt’s own form of mark making. Rosalind Krauss proposes that LeWitt’s artistic practice relates to physically marking spaces. She makes a parallel between LeWitt’s Wall Drawings and marking the world. The Wall Drawings comment on the human desire to mark the world. The desire to mark the world is inseparable from human existence. The topography of the city of New York was similarly created from a complex trajectory of desires to mark the world. The “rip” present in Rip Drawing R734 indicates LeWitt’s personal desire to mark New York City. The layers of the drawing are deceptively simple, yet become complex in relation to each other. The word “rip” is critical to the interpretation of Rip Drawing R734: consider the construction of New York City as a sort of rip—a violent mark—on the physical world. Different rips in linear extension become streets. This process repeated innumerable times makes up the city. The making of a city, of course, is destructive to the natural world.

The  aerial photographer—LeWitt’s anonymous collaborator here—reduces the city of New York to a series of extending lines that take the shape of grids. The repetition of shapes forces the viewer to look at the city of New York from a purely visual standpoint. The grid of the city from bird’s eye view directly recalls the grids of LeWitt’s early wall drawings. There is no sense of authorship in the different streets that make up the city of New York. It is extremely difficult to look at the city of New York from a purely visual standpoint. Its rich history and different connotations make the viewing of the city challenging. LeWitt challenges the viewer to put these preconceptions aside and see New York as an abstract composition.

Symbolically if not literally, he traces the route of the average New York City tourist. LeWitt potentially comments on the common tourist’s superficial engagement with the city. An individual’s trip to New York City might feel personal to them, but the places they are visiting as well as the route they are taking are highly impersonal. The tourist visits New York but only experiences one small slice of the city, as if viewed from a great distance.

The parallels between Rip Drawing R734 and LeWitt’s attitude toward his wall drawings are uncanny. LeWitt’s statements regarding his Wall Drawings can be equally applied to Rip Drawing R734 because a large amount of his work mirrors itself. LeWitt is consistent in his ideas and methods. He comments on his wall drawings that, “it seems more natural to work directly on walls than to make a construction, to work on that, and then put the construction on the wall.” LeWitt works on structures and in environments that are readily available. He acknowledges that different surfaces and types of environments contribute to a different type of work. A strong parallel between the wall drawings and Rip Drawing R734 is the draftsmanship suggested in both. LeWitt comments that “different draftsmen produce lines darker or lighter and closer or farther apart. As long as they are consistent there is no preference.” In Rip Drawing R734 some lines are bolder and more apparent than others, based on the difference of “draftsmanship” suggested by the more or less unintentional compositions created by city streets.

The use of the grid, repeated throughout the work of LeWitt, is critical in the execution of both two and three-dimensional art work. LeWitt defines the space in which he works through his use of line. Thus the space the work is in and the content become inseparable. LeWitt writes in relation to his three-dimensional gridded structures, “the grid in its articulated form, like the present lattice-work, was simultaneously a two-dimensional representation both of the entire space of the interior enclosure and also of itself as idea beginning from a line.” The more grids and repeated structures present within the work, the more present the extension of the line becomes.

LeWitt’s choice of forms is intentionally simple. The shapes he tends to work with are typically primary. In “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” LeWitt writes that he prefers forms that are “deliberately uninteresting.” The grids within Rip Drawing R734 aren’t necessarily uninteresting; but they are readily recognizable as shapes because they are commonly seen in everyday life. He writes, “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.” The repetition of the rectangular grid structures in Rip Drawing R734 suggests the power that a simple geometric unit has when repeated over and over again. The redundancy of the rectangular cement blocks is what creates the unique experience of New York City. The repetition of the shape begins to make a new composition. The grids repeat time and time again until they ultimately stop, at the water’s edge. The wider forms of water confine and contrast the repetition of the grid. Art becomes recognizable in the face of difference. The grid in this context achieves its visual power through its very redundancy. Although the rectangle is repeated innumerable times, there are also other specific shapes present within Rip Drawing R734. There is the shape of Manhattan, the shape of the original geographic location, as well as the shape of LeWitt’s rip. The repetitive background of cement blocks makes the other geometries, and especially the surgical removal of an almost isometric triangle, more striking. Rip Drawing R734 is unique in LeWitt’s work for this juxtaposition of forms and geometric absence.

The “rip” present within Rip Drawing R734 adds a significant value contrast to the work as a whole. LeWitt remarks in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” that, “if certain distances are important they will be made obvious in the piece.” The disruption of the grids with the triangle immediately grabs the attention of the viewer. LeWitt adds: “When the interval is kept regular whatever is irregular gains important interest.” LeWitt creates a deliberate contrast among all of the shapes that he uses. The triangle stands out because of its radical difference.

The idea of the Readymade and the tradition of Marcel Duchamp are central to the work of LeWitt. LeWitt carves his work out of what already exists, just as Duchamp selected his Readymades out of already-produced consumer items. Critic Lawrence Alloway writes, “LeWitt uses segments of the space itself, unmediated in that they are the result of prior decisions that had nothing to do with their occupancy by his art.” In Rip Drawing R734 LeWitt uses a photograph to impose his own boundaries on a city dictated by boundaries and limits. He contrasts the idea of the straight line of a road extending across the city with the impossible trajectory of an isometric triangle. LeWitt thinks of the line as a readymade, meaningless in itself (and thus directly opposed to the tradition of drawing as a special activity requiring great talent or training). LeWitt remarks on the Wall Drawings that “Each line is as important as each other line. All of the lines become one thing. The viewer of the lines can see only lines on a wall. They are meaningless. That is art.” The use of line is intrinsic to the practice of Sol Lewitt because it is so readily available. Lines define the structures and objects of the world. Each line within a structure is critical to the shape of the object as whole.

The expressive hand of the artist is absent in LeWitt’s work. Rip Drawing R734 relates to LeWitt’s practice and conceptual art in general in this regard. In “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” he remarks that “The idea is the machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman.” This statement reduces art to an idea. LeWitt suggests that the process one executes in order to make art is not the objective of art. Conceptual art is based on the concept, not the execution. Nowhere in the three layers that compose Rip Drawing R734 is the hand of the artist visible. The grids of New York in this work could potentially be read as a wall or canvas for mark making. One might, of course, argue that the landmass that makes up Manhattan is drawn on by urban planners or developers. The photograph calls to our attention the natural composition of shapes that form the island of Manhattan, as well as the grids of New York City created by the city’s inhabitants. The third drawing, LeWitt’s contribution, appears to be the most intentional of the three. Yet the hand of the artist remains invisible, as is characteristic of his work. Still, this work is personal in ways his Wall Drawings and sculptures are not. The incision on the photograph presents his mark on a system dictated by preexisting boundaries and limits. He inflicts his own boundary on a system of boundaries.

Rip Drawing 734 appears impersonal in the way it was created by the artist; however the work exposes many of the ideas central to LeWitt’s artistic practice. Rosalind Krauss suggests that although LeWitt’s practice upon first glance appears very simple, it is highly theoretical in nature. Joseph Kosuth describes LeWitt’s practice as “art transformed into philosophical investigation, art focused on an interrogation of how semiotic systems come to mean, beginning with language as such, before going on to the cultural production of meaning.” LeWitt’s drawing is at first glance simple. The structure and grid of New York already exists. It is through LeWitt’s isolation of and intervention into Manhattan that the viewer begins to think more critically about it. LeWitt captures what is already there and makes it visible. By presenting an altered photograph of New York as an art object, LeWitt asks us to question how we organize our systems of living. Much like his own work, this approach to mark making is routed in simplicity but suggests complex perspectives on how culture is created and defined.

Rip Drawing R374 is unique in that the triangular cut gives the work a strong focus. Typically in LeWitt’s work there is deliberately no focus because the composition of the grid is repeated over and over again. Rip Drawing R374 is personal and allows LeWitt a new way to share his ideas. By making an incision on New York, a city that is historically rich and multifaceted, LeWitt creates a unique intervention into a massive and impersonal space.

Bibliography

Alloway, Lawrence. “Sol LeWitt: Modules, Walls, Books,” in Network: Art and the Complex Present (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984): 223–31.

Bochner, Mel. “Either Black or White” in Sol Lewitt (Centre Pompidou-Metz, France) 2012: 62-65.

Krauss, Rosalind. Line as Language: Six Artists Draw (Princeton University Press), 1974: 6-32.

———. “The LeWitt Matrix” in Sol Lewitt (Centre Pompidou-Metz, France) 2012: 50-62.

LeWitt, Sol. “Texts by Sol LeWitt” in Sol LeWitt: Critical Essays (Incontri Internazionali d’Arte, 1994): 69-131.