Sol LeWitt || Translation and Transmission of a Message

Sol Lewitt has been described as one of the most influential artists of his generation. He played a huge role in the Conceptual Art movement; changing the way people thought of, called and viewed ‘art’. LeWitt’s worked in many mediums and medias from sculpture and painting to almost exclusively working with conceptual pieces “that existed only as ideas or elements of the artistic process itself”.

And it is in this presentation of artistic process as art that he transmits his message.

LeWitt, and well many other artists, authors or musicians of the time, saw the artist or creator as the generator of ideas. LeWitt believed that it was the idea that should be called the work of art, like an architect who creates a blueprint but doesn’t move brick and mortar.

According to LeWitt the work of art was in fact the piece of paper handed to us in class last week; the words on the page; the specific order and arrangement of letters and punctuation. The algorithm.

We were assigned The Quadrangle. It was a complex message, despite the assumed simplicity in the first 10 words.

And so, like the architect who then turns the project over to a construction crew, we were handed the artwork’s blueprint, a pencil and a blank space on the wall.

The Mathematical Theory of Communication provides a useful model for thinking about the relationship between ‘form’ and ‘content’ – or ‘medium’ and ‘message’ – in LeWitt’s wall drawings. For LeWitt, the most important aspect of the work is the ‘idea’, which in the earlier drawings is a numerical permutation (all possible combinations of 1, 2, 3 and 4) and in the later works a verbal description (‘Lines not short, not straight, crossing and touching, drawn at random, using four colors, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall’). This message is then translated into a visual ‘signal’ using a code devised by LeWitt (1 = vertical, 2 = horizontal, 3 = diagonal left to right, 4 = diagonal right to left). In the later drawings, this process of translation is less programmatic, but still involves a kind of transposition

– Anna Lovatt, Ideas in Transmission: LeWitt’s Wall Drawings and the Question of Medium

While many of LeWitt’s pieces are about and the compression of information (a whole wall decoration into a few sentences) this one seemed to take a simple image and use language to make it deliberately convoluted. It came down to our ability to translate (or interpret) the meaning of the one long sentence and to extract the procedure hidden in it.

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“The main idea – outside of figuring out all this stuff – was how things can be perceived in different ways.  It was about transmitting an idea in different ways through visual means, but also verbally, because there was a title … All are different aspects of communication.”

– Sol LeWitt (1)

Because we did have to translate it. And if google translate is an example, no translation is perfect. And those imperfections affected our making of the work. I mean we completed it. It was tricky, we struggled through, and I am still second guessing the placement of some lines. But we were successfully able to follow the process to achieve the outcome.

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Because despite the instruction, there was a lack of contextual instruction – like with a fax machine we needed that handshake– we needed to know more about what this artwork meant and was meant to convey. LeWitt’s Rule did not specify which medium to use, nor did it specify the size or shape of the wall being used, he didn’t say if grids would make it easier, and he didn’t mention if we should be keeping or erasing our work lines…

Translation and transmission of the message also affected the reception of our work.

We were so worried about presenting this piece correctly we ensured we cleaned the working lines, the graphite smudges and the finger prints off as we went. But once we started googling some of the best examples, the detailed, the impressive, the visually appealing, were ones that had left those lines in.

LeWitt wanted us to be architects with a blueprint, and the other examples of this piece really bring that construction and blueprint feeling alive within the work. Ours doesn’t have that same sense because we translated the message differently.

Beyond his expression of communication and the role of ‘noise’ in transmission, this work raises questions of authorship. Because LeWitt worked on and through the changing contexts of modernism and postmodernism it stands to reason that the postmodernist theme of authorship is present in his work. Because regardless of the technicalities in the written process the human’s translating and interpreting those instructions are able to, and subconsciously do, place pieces of themselves into the work.

If LeWitt believed the art was the words on the page does that mean that the lead pencil on the wall is mine? Before Gutenberg and the printing press, the scribes who copied texts onto manuscripts have been known to change, edit or ‘enhance’ the text they are copying. Who becomes the author of that text?  There is a reason there is so many versions of The Canterbury Tales. It was incomplete at the time of Chaucer’s death yet it is his name that is still printed on the cover. 

This type of art work, also raises another postmodern theme of the death of the author. The idea is that once an author releases the book into the world he/she no longer owns it. The author becomes the person reading and interpreting it. It is doubly interesting to consider because since LeWitt’s death 100s of genuine LeWitt’s continue to be created by those who read and follow his procedures.

Because LeWitt expected that an artist should be able to conceive of a work and then either delegate its actual production to others or perhaps even never make it at all.

TheArtStory.org


  • (1) Sol LeWitt cited in Nicholas Baume, ‘The Music of Forgetting’, in Baume ed., Sol LeWitt: Incomplete Open Cubes, Cambridge MA and London 2001, p.27.
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