LeWitt’s early practice was based on a desire to redefine art and to move away from what he (and others) perceived as the emotional excesses of the Abstract Expressionist movement, which had reached its peak in the 1950s. Turning away from the American abstract expressionist ‘fathers’, he looked instead to the post-Cubist European ‘grandfathers’, such as the Russian and German Constructivists of the 1910s and 20s. His search for a non-expressionistic means of making forms, which could bypass the subjective, led him to geometry and quasi-logical systems.
LeWitt began making open geometric structures in the mid-1960s. At the same time he formulated a serial approach to art making in which the progression or development of a structure was preset by an initial determining idea. He used the cube as his basic primary structure and the common denominator of works which followed the principle of elementary progression through addition or subtraction. Initially painted black, by the late 60s his open-grid structures were universally painted white. They were constructed either from wood or, like Two Open Modular Cubes/Half-Off 1972 (see Tate T01865) of enamel on aluminium. Others were made of steel. Although the progressions or permutations of LeWitt’s modular forms appear logical, he has emphasised the intuitive nature of his process. In his famous self-defining Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (first printed in Artforum, June 1967) the artist laid out various means by which he aimed to avoid the subjective in his work. He wrote:
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. 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 ... Conceptual art is not necessarily logical. The logic of a piece or series of pieces is a device that is used at times only to be ruined. Logic may be used to camouflage the real intent of the artist, to lull the viewer into the belief that he understands the work, or to infer a paradoxical situation (such as logic vs. illogic) ... Ideas are discovered by intuition.
(Quoted in Sol LeWitt: a Retrospective, p.369.)
Five Open Geometric Structures exemplifies this statement. The five open geometric structures which it comprises are constructed from sections of wood of similar width and have the same height. They are the three-dimensional extrapolations of the two-dimensional figures of a square, a triangle, a rectangle, a trapezoid and a parallelogram. Although they are all related to the cube, there is no logical development from the first structure to the last and their relationships to each other vary. All the figures the structures are based on have four sides, except the triangle which has three. The base of the rectangle is half that of the triangle, the square, the trapezoid and the parallelogram, which are all equal. And the structures are all symmetrical about their vertical axes, apart from the parallelogram which is asymmetrical about one of them. An artist’s book published in the same year as these sculptures were made, Five Open Geometric Structures and Their Combinations (Lisson Gallery, London), illustrates the twenty-five possible combinations of the structures in groups numbering from one to five. A related work, Four-part Open Geometric Structures 1978-9 (private collection), comprises the same five structures, each repeated four times. Arranged in the five possible permutations of groups of four in non-sequential rows, they convey the superficial impression of order, the logic of which it is not possible to discern on closer analysis.
Monique Beudert and Sean Rainbird, Contemporary Art: The Janet Wolfson de botton Gift, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1998, reproduced p.36 in colour
Gary Garrels, ed. Sol LeWitt: a Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 2000
Sol LeWitt: Structures 1962-2003, exhibition catalogue, Pace Wildenstein, New York 2004, reproduced p.34