Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

Ideas in Transmission: LeWitt’s Wall Drawings and the Question of Medium

This article considers Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings as artworks poised on the cusp of the ‘post-medium condition’ of installation art. While the wall drawings are site-specific, they eschew the spectacular, immersive effects of subsequent multi-media installation art. They also adhere to the practice of drawing at the precise moment when conventional, medium-based categories were under attack. It is argued that LeWitt’s wall drawings refuted the modernist conception of ‘the medium’ as an autonomous entity, foregrounding instead its relational and communicative potential.

Sol LeWitt A Wall Divided Vertically into Fifteen Equal Parts, Each with a Different Line Direction and Colour, and All Combinations 1970

Sol LeWitt
A Wall Divided Vertically into Fifteen Equal Parts, Each with a Different Line Direction and Colour, and All Combinations 1970
Graphite on wall
Installation view, Tate Modern, London 2000
Tate T01766
© The estate of Sol LeWitt

From a distance, an evanescent mist of colour appears to hover in front of the wall (fig.1). It is divided vertically into fifteen chromatic bands: moving from left to right, diffused primaries are followed by muted greens, browns, purples, greys and finally a dark umber. The intangibility of this optical haze recalls the ghostly etymology of the word ‘spectrum’, along with its more scientific definition as a series of colours organised by wavelength. Six feet from the wall, the darker colours take on a moiré effect, appearing vertically or diagonally grained. At around three feet, a sudden shift in register occurs: black vertical pencil lines snap into focus, followed by blue diagonal lines, red diagonal lines and combinations of the above. Drawn directly on the wall, these marks are scuffed and broken by its uneven surface, traversing microscopic nicks and flecks of emulsion-covered debris. Only after these circumstantial minutiae do the yellow, horizontal lines finally become visible. The dematerialised haze is abruptly replaced by an acute awareness of the wall’s surface; and the laborious process of its inscription.

Once disregarded as an outmoded, decidedly modernist concern, the question of ‘medium’ has come back into focus in art history of the past decade. Most notably, the art historian Rosalind Krauss – who once welcomed a critical postmodernism by charting the fragmentation of medium-based categories – has voiced her regret at the subsequent ascendency of multi-media installation art.1 While the practices initially associated with site-specificity and institutional critique sought to expose and interrogate the art world’s systems of distribution and consumption, for Krauss they were rapidly assimilated by those systems and put to work in their service, as just one more form of ‘global marketing’.2 Like Krauss, T.J. Clark and Alex Potts have located the demise of medium-specificity at the end of the 1960s, when the interrogation of materiality by conceptual art coincided with the rise of installation art and artistic experimentation in a plethora of unconventional materials and ‘new media’.3 A point less often noted is that many conceptual and site-specific practices of this period involved the graphic inscription of the gallery’s interior surfaces, rather than the construction of spectacular, immersive environments within those limits. The onset of what Krauss has termed the ‘post-medium condition’ thus coincided, perhaps surprisingly, with a resurgence of interest in the practice of drawing.

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, artists including Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner and Dorothea Rockburne turned to site-specific, drawing-based installations in order to disengage aesthetic experience from the autonomous object, foregrounding the institution as its constitutive framework. Drawing’s unostentatious physical presence made it attractive to artists seeking to emphasise conceptual content over material form, while its affordability and provisionality made it well suited to temporary installations. Unlike painting and sculpture, which had been theorised and polemicised with renewed vigour in American criticism of the post-war period, drawing remained relatively unencumbered by the burden of recent critical discourse. Curiously, it appears to have escaped definition in reductive, purely material terms by even the most vociferous advocates of medium-specificity.4

Rather than positing an adherence to the ‘medium’ of drawing during this period, this article will suggest that drawing emerged as a key strategy precisely because it problematised notions of autonomy, materiality and medium-specificity. Concentrating on LeWitt’s early wall drawings, I shall argue that they engaged with the question of medium in three related ways. Firstly, they presented drawing as always already mediated by technologies of reproduction, in the face of still-prevailing assumptions regarding its immediacy or ‘primacy’. Secondly, LeWitt borrowed from the emergent discourses of information and communication theory in order to reconceptualise the relationship between artist, art work and viewer as a process of transmission, presenting the work of art as, first and foremost, a means of communication. Finally, the wall drawings pose ontological questions regarding the nature of drawing, and the concept of ‘medium’ itself.

Mediating drawing

Scratches made while on the train, in a plane, a hangover from the High Renaissance where every telephone number and coffee stain (by the right person) revealed the inner or under or deeper or less disguised and more naked creative nerve – so many little exposed nerves; see them trembling beneath the neuritis and neuralgia of the cross-hatching.
Robert Morris 5

Robert Morris’s satirical statement ‘On Drawing’ captures the frustration felt by many artists and critics during the 1960s when faced with the ‘literature of enraptured connoisseurship’ that continued to dominate the discourse on drawing.6 Traditionally assigned a preliminary role in the production process, drawing had been conceived as both fundamental and subsidiary to an artist’s ‘major’ work, often withheld from public viewing in favour of the ‘finished’ painting or sculpture. Yet the preparatory, ‘private’ aspects of drawing had also led to its fetishisation – as supposedly the most direct, intimate and revelatory form of artistic expression.7 As Morris notes, the Renaissance concept of disegno developed in tandem with increasing public interest in the artist’s biography; and stylistic attribution remained one of the primary objectives of the modern-day connoisseur. It is unsurprising, then, that the so-called ‘minimal’ artists, who embraced industrial fabrication and anti-compositional techniques (such as organising their work according to serial progressions or unitary ‘gestalts’), should have evinced a concomitant scepticism towards the practice of drawing. In a now-famous interview with Bruce Glaser, the artist Frank Stella identified drawing derogatorily with an outmoded form of art school education, remarking that it was ‘less and less necessary’ to his own practice.8 Convinced that ‘drawing was getting in the way of painting’,9 he sought to eliminate draftsmanly devices from his work, ‘to keep the paint as good as it was in the can’.10 When Mel Bochner requested a working drawing from Donald Judd for his exhibition Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to be Viewed as Art (1966), Judd apparently replied that he did not ‘do’ drawing, handing Bochner a fabrication bill for inclusion in the exhibition.11 A similar response was elicited when Carl Andre was invited to participate in an exhibition of sculptors’ drawings at the Rijksmuseum Kröller Müller in 1972. Andre replied:  ‘Drawing has never been a method useful to me and I do not want any drawings of mine shown’, offering the curator a selection of his typewritten ‘word-poems’ instead.12

Elsewhere in New York, however, the practice of drawing was being systematically disengaged from its traditional associations with aesthetic composition, subjective expression and technical skill. The work of Agnes Martin – whom LeWitt admired and cited as an influence – offered one escape route from the clichéd assumptions that continued to dominate the discourse on drawing.13 Martin’s meticulously ruled grids refuted the notion of drawing as revelatory of the artist’s sensibility, while reconfiguring it as a ‘major’ practice on a grand scale.14 Elsewhere, I have described Martin’s work as a kind of ‘drawing degree zero’, a concept which could also be applied to the work of LeWitt.15 Like Martin’s gridded canvases, LeWitt’s wall drawings drain the graphic mark of autographic flourishes and demonstrations of technique, approaching something akin to Roland Barthes’s ‘writing degree zero’: a ‘style of absence which is almost an ideal absence of style’.16

In addition to Martin’s example, Bochner’s Working Drawings exhibition offered a means of moving away from the autonomous, auratic art object towards the perfunctory documentation of processes and ideas.17 Although his decision to exhibit Xeroxed copies of the drawings was famously fortuitous, Bochner had already attempted to circumvent issues of style and technique by isolating a notational stage of the production process, ‘where a lot of people’s work looked the same’.18 The book now reads as a collection of jottings by well-known artists (interspersed with notations by scientists, mathematicians, architects and choreographers), but the participants were relatively obscure at the time and as far as Bochner was concerned, these documents had ‘no autographic value’.19 By Xeroxing the drawings, he extinguished any latent auratic potential they may have harboured, directing the viewer to the processes documented within the drawings rather than their material form. Bochner’s Xerox book included four pages by LeWitt, who had already begun exhibiting preparatory calculations and sketches alongside his cubic structures. In ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, LeWitt suggested that ‘all intervening steps – scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed work, models, studies, thoughts, conversations – are of interest. Those that show the thought process of the artist are sometimes more interesting than the final product.’20

But the lasting impact of Bochner’s Working Drawings show upon LeWitt’s practice occurred indirectly. The exhibition appears to have been the inspiration for Seth Siegelaub’s project The Xerox Book, compiled two years later in the autumn of 1968. Siegelaub invited seven artists, including LeWitt, to develop a reproducible art work spanning twenty-five pages of 8½ x 11 inch paper.21 He requested that the artists incorporate the new technology of the Xerox machine as a determining factor in shaping the work – something LeWitt later felt he had failed to do.22 Yet the book’s format, which called for a self-contained, two-dimensional, cheaply reproducible artwork, did prompt a fundamental shift in LeWitt’s artistic practice. It was within this context that he produced Drawing Series I: his first work to use ‘drawing as drawing’, rather than as an adjunct to his three-dimensional structures.23

Sol LeWitt
[no title] (1971)

Drawing Series I was designed to run across the twenty-five pages allotted to LeWitt and to be reproduced by Xerography, which Siegelaub selected precisely because it was ‘such a bland, shitty reproduction, really just for the exchange of information’.24 Colour, tone and visual detail would all be lost in the process: the technology necessitated that the work submitted by each artist be as graphic as possible. LeWitt’s response was to isolate what he perceived to be ‘the four different absolute directions of line’: vertical, horizontal, diagonal left to right and diagonal right to left (fig.2).25 He assigned each line a number (1, 2, 3 and 4, respectively) and devised a twenty-four part series by reconfiguring those numbers within a sixteen-squared grid. One part of the series was shown on each page, while the twenty-fifth page was used to summarise the series. The Xerox machine only reinforced the work’s inherent reproducibility: Drawing Series I laid out a preordained scheme for drawing that anybody with a pen and a ruler could follow.26 When colours were introduced in 1970, they were to be ‘yellow, red, blue and black, the colours used in printing’.27 Against prevailing notions regarding the immediacy, directness and primacy of drawing, LeWitt devised a drawing practice that was always already mediated by technologies of reproduction and communication.

Ideas in transmission

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 LeWitt28

Shortly after completing his project for the Xerox book, LeWitt was invited by Lucy Lippard to participate in a benefit exhibition for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.29 Billed as ‘the first benefit exhibition of non-objective art’, the show took place at the Paula Cooper Gallery in October 1968.30 Eschewing overtly political art in favour of abstraction, Lippard sought to identify a ‘particular aesthetic attitude, in the conviction that a cohesive group of important works makes the most forceful statement for peace’.31 She envisaged the show as itself ‘a kind of protest against the potpourri peace shows with all those burned doll’s heads’, and its distinctly apolitical content was striking.32 Yet LeWitt’s decision to make a drawing directly on the wall of the gallery may well have been influenced by political events in the months preceding, when, as Bochner has pointed out, images of graffiti slogans on the streets of Paris were disseminated globally via the mass media.33 LeWitt simply said that he had been considering making a wall drawing for some time and had discussed the idea with Judd, eventually deciding ‘what the hell’.34 Enlarging the basic scheme designed for the Xerox book, he inscribed two sixteen-squared grids directly onto the wall of the gallery.

In Lippard’s terminology, ‘non-objective art’ referred to abstract art devoid of any representational function, but LeWitt produced an art work that was not, itself, an object. This is not to say that it was ‘dematerialised’ – in fact, the materials used (6H graphite pencil applied to the wall with a ruler) and their precise deployment (‘Light to merge with the surface of the wall’) were essential to the work’s functioning. Rather than covering the wall, like paint, the graphite pencil was abraded by its surface, resulting in a grazed and broken line indivisible from its ground. Barely perceptible and faintly reflective, the graphite grid problematised the act of looking, foregrounding the body of the spectator and the light and space of the environment in structuring visual experience. The labour of the artist was also underscored: while the other works in Lippard’s exhibition had fixed prices, LeWitt’s wall drawing was priced by the hour.35 The material conditions of the work’s existence were thus used to compromise its status as autonomous entity, directing attention to the circumstances of its production and reception.

Although LeWitt installed the first wall drawing himself, from 1969 onwards he began to enlist the help of friends, curators and collectors to install the works according to his instructions, eventually employing a team of specialist technicians. This was in part a practical decision, as LeWitt alone could not fulfil the increasing demand for such labour-intensive and time-consuming works.36 Yet it also reinforced the philosophy laid out two years earlier in ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, in which the ‘idea’ was emphasised over and above its physical execution.  Speaking to Lippard during the early 1970s, LeWitt described conceptual art as a ‘massive reassertion of content’ in the face of the ‘Twentieth Century Formalism’ that continued to dominate art history and criticism.37 He held this mode of criticism responsible for the erroneous label ‘Minimalism’, ‘which was a formalist term, having to do with the appearance of the object and its simplicity’, In conceptual art, ‘the content of the work started to become very complex, while the form stayed very simple. The form was only the clue to the content. The dichotomy between form and content reappeared.’38

LeWitt’s understanding of the work of art as ‘a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s’ran directly counter to the notion of the self-reflexive, autonomous medium propounded by modernist critics – most notably Clement Greenberg. In ‘Towards a Newer Laocoon’, Greenberg argued that from the late nineteenth century onwards ‘the avant-garde saw the necessity of an escape from ideas, which were infecting the arts with the ideological struggles of society’.39 According to Greenberg, this escape was facilitated by a new emphasis on material form, and on the specific properties of each medium. Modernism was thus predicated upon ‘the assertion of the arts as independent vocations, disciplines and crafts, absolutely autonomous, and entitled to respect for their own sakes, and not merely as vessels of communication’.40 By emphasising the opacity and autonomy of each ‘medium’, Greenberg disengaged the word from its relational and communicative connotations. Thus isolated, the modernist ‘medium’ was objectified and reified as a thing-in-itself, abstracted from the broader conditions of artistic production and reception.

Beyond the visual arts, however, the term ‘medium’ continued to describe an intermediary space that was fundamentally contingent rather than autonomous, relational rather than specific. The language LeWitt used to describe his work’s mode of address – ‘transmitting’ ‘information’ like ‘a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s’ – was derived, consciously or unconsciously, from the burgeoning fields of information and communication theory.41 In his foundational text The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Claude Shannon describes ‘the fundamental problem of communication [as] that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point’,42 Shannon’s study originated in the field of cryptology; and ‘transmission’ in this context can be understood as a process of encryption. The transmitter applies a code to the message, transforming it into a signal suitable for transmission over the channel. The receiver must then decode the signal in order to reconstruct the message. In the course of its transmission, however, the signal is subject to a certain amount of interference or ‘noise’: distortions of sound, static, alterations in shape or shading of a picture, or errors in transmission. According to Warren Weaver, who introduced Shannon’s theory to a wider audience: ‘However clever one is with the coding process, it will always be true that after the signal is received there remains some undesirable (noise) uncertainty about what the message was.’43

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: ‘the draftsman perceives the artist’s plan, then reorders it to his own experience and understanding.’44 If the draftsman assumes a role analogous to the ‘transmitter’ in Shannon and Weaver’s model, the viewer takes on the role of the ‘receiver’. The visual signal received is ‘only a clue to the content’ of the message, which must be deciphered using the key provided.45

In the course of its transmission, however, LeWitt’s conceptual message is subject to a certain amount of interference or ‘noise’. His textual expositions wall drawings identify a number of points at which disruptions and distortions to the conceptual message are likely to occur. Primarily, he acknowledges that ‘Each person draws a line differently and each person understands words differently’, suggesting that the ‘idea’ will be altered both in its interpretation by the individual draftsperson and in the process of its execution.46 The plan should then be adapted to suit the conditions of a given site; with the height, length and colour of the wall and any additional architectural features considered ‘a necessary part of the drawing’.47 Most surprisingly, LeWitt suggests that ‘imperfections of the wall surface’ such as ‘holes, cracks, bumps and grease marks’ should be considered part of the work, along with errors made by the draftsperson in the course of installing the work.48 Finally, the fact that the viewer sees (or ‘receives’) the wall drawing does not necessarily mean that she understands it. In order to do so she must be prepared to decode it using the key, reinforcing LeWitt’s definition of ‘perception’ as ‘the apprehension of sense data, the objective understanding of the idea, and simultaneously a subjective interpretation of both’.49

Communication and noise

Stations and paths together form a system. Points and lines, beings and relations. What is interesting might be the construction of the system, the number and disposition of stations and paths. Or it might be the flow of messages passing through the lines … but one must write as well of the interceptions, of the accidents in the flow along the way between stations – of changes and metamorphoses. What passes might be a message but parasites (static) prevent it form being heard, and sometimes, from being sent.
Michel Serres50

In common usage, the word ‘noise’ refers to an unwanted disruption to communication which, in an ideal situation, would be kept to a minimum or eradicated entirely. Yet in information theory the situation is rather more complex. ‘Information’ refers to the amount of freedom available in selecting a message: first on the part of the sender constructing the message, and then on the part of the receiver reconstructing it. The greater the information, the greater the freedom of choice; and the greater the uncertainty that the message selected is some specific one.51 Noise adds to this uncertainty, thus increasing the amount of information in the signal. If noise was completely absent, the message probabilities would be zero, except for one symbol.52 Uncertainty would be drastically reduced, but so would freedom of choice when selecting a message, severely restricting the amount of information that could be sent via the channel. In addition, Shannon recognised that whether or not a certain effect is considered to be ‘noise’ depends on one’s position in the communicative chain. Noise is only viewed as interference by the sender, who is aware of the content of the original message. The receiver might consider it to be part of the information transmitted via the channel, or a useful addition to the signal. Stephen Crocker illustrates this point well: ‘The static sound of Neil Armstrong’s voice on the moon tells us something about his physical distance from us and the newness of space technologies in the 1960s.’53 In the static of the radio, the crackle of the TV screen, or the grey blur left by the Xerox machine, we glimpse both the means and the milieu of the communicative act: ‘noise is the presence of the medium’.54

In his extensive work on the concept of ‘noise’, the French philosopher Michel Serres points out that in French, the term for static or white noise is ‘parasite’, which simultaneously refers to an organism that feeds off a host, and guest who ‘exchanges his talk, praise and flattery for food’.55 These three different senses of the term ‘parasite’ initially appear to be unrelated. But Serres argues that they all have the same basic function in a system: interfering with its order and generating disorder, or producing a new order. It is the first definition that makes the concept of the parasite so useful for systems and communication theory. When observing a system, Serres writes, one might be interested in its structure, the number and nature of its points and paths, or the flow of messages passing between them. ‘But one might write as well of the interceptions, of the accidents in the flow along the way between stations – of changes and metamorphoses. What passes might be a message but parasites (static) prevent it from being heard, and sometimes, from being sent.’56 Using a variety of literary sources, Serres cites stories of dinners, hosts and guests, and the parasites that disrupt communication. Rather than viewing the parasite as a purely negative phenomenon, he suggests that they constitute a productive force around which the system is structured. The parasite – whether biological, sociological, or informational – is a ‘thermal exciter’ that operates on the equilibrium of a system.57

LeWitt’s interest in successive alterations to a conceptual message could be seen to evince a similar interest in the productive potential of the parasite. More than his three-dimensional structures, his instructions for wall drawings actively invite alterations to and distortions of the initial ‘idea’, utilising such interference as a constitutive force. Not only are the wall drawings disrupted and transformed by the conditions of a particular architectural site, they also ‘feed off’ that site, incorporating it into their very structure. While Wall Drawing #49 is adjusted to fit the size of the wall, a work like All Architectural Points Connected by Straight Lines 1970 is entirely determined by the architectural structure of the room in which it is contained. Prior to its activation by the site, the work can only exist linguistically, in the generic form of its title. When a site is identified, lines are drawn connecting each architectural feature of the wall to the other features on the same surface. The drawing is structured by the architecture but also serves to articulate it, rendering the texture, size, shape and fixtures of the wall visible to the spectator. In many ways his approach is reminiscent of Dan Graham’s magazine piece ‘Schema (March, 1966)’, a generic structure which forms an inventory of its own features – these being entirely contingent upon the journal within which the work is placed. If Graham’s work exposed how art magazines over-determine the works reproduced within them, LeWitt’s drawingdemonstrates the extent to which the gallery context can condition the production and reception of its contents.

Poised on the cusp of the ‘post-medium condition’, LeWitt’s wall drawings operate simultaneously as a reflexive exploration of the practice of drawing, and as a radically contingent form of installation art. His early statements are characterised by an urge to isolate that which was absolutely ‘necessary’ in contemporary art-making, an economy of means that he identified as an essentially ethical position.58 LeWitt’s use of drawing was viewed as indicative of his ‘back to basics’ approach, with Bernice Rose suggesting that he had chosen drawing as ‘the fundamental discipline’.59 The reductivism and the non-referential nature of the drawings, prompted Barbara Reise to characterise his work in decidedly modernist, self-referential terms, as: ‘a complete pattern/structure of thought about (and through) the notion of “drawing”: an activity with a particular “art” tradition’.60 And yet, by subtracting even the portable ‘ground’ from drawing to work directly on the wall,  LeWitt did not isolate the essence of drawing so much as open it onto the ‘noise’ of the world. By suggesting that architectural features and ‘holes, cracks, bumps, grease marks’ should be considered part of the drawing, he made it impossible to distinguish the material conditions of the work from those of its site. Indeed, it was this inseparability of work and site, this irresolvable friction between ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, that lay at the heart of LeWitt’s endeavour. LeWitt’s wall drawings dramatised a figure/ground relationship characteristic of drawing – not in the name of medium-specificity, but as a means of generating a productive, parasitic relationship between a conceptual system and its material execution.