The Casual Geometry of Sol Lewitt

Sol Lewitt published “Serial Project #1” in an art magazine during 1967. He commented at the time, “The series would be read by the viewer in a linear or narrative manner (12345; AB B C C C; 1 2 3, 3 1 2, 2 3 1, 1 3 2, 2 1 3, 3 2 1) even though in its final form many of these sets would be operating simultaneously, making comprehension difficult.” This description of his thought process would find itself manifested in a mindboggling number of subsequent works over the following decades. Yet it might be argued that underlying this comment is a more revealing interest of Lewitt: A fascination with the Idea of Geometry.

Let’s consider one of Lewitt’s biggest artist’s books (measured by square inches) in defense of this notion. For an exhibition by the Societe des Expositions, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels in the spring of 1974, an 11.5” by 17” folder containing a tri-fold sheet printed on one side was published by the artist. Three geometric figures – a square, circle, and triangle – accompanied by Lewitt’s commentary in three languages – English, French and Flemish – provide a telling artifact. “Location of Three Geometric Figures” offers an engaging set of images accompanied by mind-numbing texts supposedly explaining the drawings.

Lewitt used this combination of texts describing the creation of images extensively for small books, colorful prints, and large wall drawings. Some of the most compelling works from this series embed the text inside and alongside the spaghetti-like tangle of lines and curves that result in revealing basic geometric shapes like circles and triangles. But make no mistake, there is nothing Euclidian about this geometry.

In fact, the text is a wicked indictment of mindless academic pabulum attempting to explain art in intellectual terms. Lewitt creates paragraph-long sentences describing how random and convoluted measurements can be used to create, for example, a simple square. The response of a typical viewer is to ignore the texts and focus on the artwork. An excerpt from the book being discussed explains why:

“…the first of which is drawn from a point halfway between the center of the square and a point halfway between the center of the square and the upper left corner and the midpoint of the left side to a point halfway between the center of the square and a point halfway between the center of the square the midpoint of the bottom side…”

In other words, forget any explanation of the artist’s possible intentions and focus on the visual impact of the actual drawings. With all the “points from” lines rendered delicately and the final object – square, circle, triangle, etc… – boldly described in black outline, the images overpower the text. It doesn’t take reading but a couple of lines to ignore the words and return to the image. Just as it should be with any type of art, where too often criticism becomes the focus instead of the object.

So, the often-suggested notion of a cold, geometrical approach to making art turns out to be an incorrect assessment of Lewitt’s intentions. Geometry as a theme? Undoubtedly. Mathematics as a key component? Hardly. Once again Lewitt shows himself to be a master of the shaggy-dog joke.

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