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Cover to cover Sol Lewitt's artist's books

image: 'Autobiography' 1980 photo-lithography Collection of the National Gallery

'Autobiography' 1980 photo-lithography Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

The 1960s witnessed a proliferation of alternative art forms, including the artist’s book, which set out to challenge the historically privileged status of painting and sculpture. An artist’s book is a book as art, authored or conceived by the artist as a vehicle for his or her ideas.1

The emergence of the artist’s book was fuelled by the political and socio-economic climate and facilitated by developments in commercial printing, which presented artists with the opportunity to produce relatively inexpensive books in large editions as a democratic means of disseminating their art practice to a wider audience. What is characteristic of this type of artist’s book is that it challenges the preciousness of the unique work of art and, at glance, is often indistinguishable from the mass-produced commercial publications from which it draws impetus.

Since the mid-1960s, Sol LeWitt has been one of the most important and enduring exponents of the artist’s book. His books are inseparable from his output in other media, such as wall drawings, three-dimensional structures, or prints, and are not ‘spin-offs’ of LeWitt’s ‘real’ art.2 It could be argued that the intrinsic nature of the book, coupled with the convention of reading from cover to cover, makes the book the ideal medium for LeWitt’s serial systems.

One of the artist’s earliest projects was instigated by the conceptual art dealer and publisher Seth Siegelaub who, in 1968 with John W. Wendler, published Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner, generally known as The xerox book. The seven artists were asked to provide 25 pages each. LeWitt’s contribution was xeroxed copies, or photocopies, illustrating the pen and ink work, Drawing series IA 1–24 1968, in which a series of line drawings is derived from combinations of numbers 1,2,3 and 4.

Whereas LeWitt’s Drawing series IA 1–24 in The xerox book is no more than a tentative chapter in a collaborative work, his Four basic kinds of straight lines 1969, published by Studio International in London, is a classic autonomous artist’s book. It is a flimsy, softcover, staple-bound book. The first page presents the four basic kinds of straight lines: vertical, horizontal, diagonal from lower left to upper right, diagonal from upper left to lower right, then all possible super-imposed combinations. This ‘table of contents’ outlines the set of permutations, which is then followed though in the subsequent pages of the book as the idea merges with the medium.

image: 'Four basic kinds of straight lines ' 1969 photo-lithography Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
'Four basic kinds of straight lines ' 1969 photo-lithography Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge  

LeWitt’s books have often been published in conjunction with exhibitions, such as Arcs, circles and grids 1972 for a solo show at the Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland, and Incomplete open cubes 1974, published on the occasion of an early installation of the work at the John Weber Gallery in New York.3 Both books adhere to the standard format and recognisable ‘look’ that unifies LeWitt’s prodigious output.

The location of lines 1974 was published by the Lisson Gallery in London to coincide with an exhibition of wall drawings, which are works of art that are drawn directly onto a wall in accordance with written instructions provided by the artist. In the book a correlation between the textual and the visual is established on each double-page spread. The left page presents the reader with a statement that describes the location of a line on the facing page or metaphorical white wall. In the first pages there is a visual balance between the text and the line. As the reader proceeds through the book, however, the instructions become increasingly verbose and tedious. It is a book that is not finished when the reader reaches the last page, but rather when they realise the futility of the process.

In the late 1970s LeWitt produced two books, both called, in short, Color grids. The first, subtitled Grids, using straight, not-straight and broken lines in yellow, red & blue and all their combinations, was printed at Crown Point Press in Oakland, California, and published by Parasol Press in New York in 1975. The second, which explores a similar proposition, Color grids: all vertical and horizontal combinations of black, yellow, red and blue straight, not-straight and broken lines, was published by Multiples in New York in 1977.

The first, Color grids 1975, is a finely printed book, containing 45 etchings for 45 possible combinations, in a limited edition of 10 with seven artist’s proofs, each signed and numbered by the artist. The second book, Color grids 1977, in contrast, is mass produced, with the introduction of black increasing the number of combinations from 45 to 78. More significantly though, the use of blue, red, yellow and black in Color grids 1977 is an explicit acknowledgment of the four-colour printing process underlying commercial offset litho-graphy. As the titles suggest, there is a schematic affinity between both Color grids, yet in material form they represent very different genres of the book.

image: 'Blue background with yellow outer lines and blue inner lines 1988 photo-lithography Collection of the National Gallery
  'Blue background with yellow outer lines and blue inner lines' 1988 photo-lithography Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th-century photographic studies of human and animal locomotion were a catalyst for LeWitt’s investigation of serial systems. The debt is made explicit in Schematic drawing for Muybridge II, 1964 1969, and evident in LeWitt’s photographic books from the late 1970s. Brick wall 1977, for example, contains 30 black and white photographs of, as the title suggests, a brick wall. The assumption made by the viewer is that it has been photographed at regular intervals during the day from dawn to dusk, although, the gradual light changes seem artificial and more reminiscent of the predetermined tonal progression in Four basic kinds of straight lines.

Autobiography 1980 is LeWitt’s most widely discussed artist’s book.4 It is an album of black and white photographs taken by the artist of his New York city loft, arranged in a familiar grid-like format of nine images to a page. There are snapshots of the floor, windows, ceiling, doors, light fittings, plants, the artist’s library, a visual chronology of his work. Autobiography is an exhaustive record of the artist’s material possessions, yet the mundane nature of so many of the items seems to strip the artist’s studio of its sanctity and mystery. If the reader is not familiar with LeWitt’s biography, the ephemeral fragments and often subtle references to the artist’s life and career are ironically meaningless.

LeWitt has utilised the book as a vehicle for his ideas and as an alternative space in which to exhibit his work to a wider audience. They encapsulate the artist’s creative process, as well as address the broader issues crucial to the evolution of the artist’s book since the mid-1960s. Sol LeWitt’s artist’s books are exemplary books as art.

Steven Tonkin

notes 1 See Clive Phillpot, ‘Books by artists and books as art’, in Cornelia Lauf and Clive Phillpot, Artist/author: contemporary artists’ books, New York: Distributed Art Publishers Inc., 1999, pp 31–33, for a discussion of the artist’s book as idea and form; see Joanna Drucker, The century of artists’ books, New York: Granary Books, 1995, pp 1–19 2 Lucy Lippard, ‘The structures, the structures and the wall drawings, the structures and the wall drawings and the books’, in Sol LeWitt, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978, pp 27-28 3 Considered one of the artist’s most important works, Incomplete open cubes has been the subject of a recent exhibition and catalogue; Nicholaus Baume (ed), with essays by Nicholas Baume, Jonathan Flatley and Pamela M. Lee, Sol LeWitt: Incomplete open cubes, Hartford, Connecticut: The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 2001 4 See most recently, Adam D. Weinberg, ‘LeWitt’s Autobiography: Inventory to the present’, in, Gary Garrels (ed), with essays by Martin Friedman et al., Sol LeWitt, San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2000, pp 100-108

Further information will be added to this site as the National Gallery proceeds with its research and documentation.

Last updated January 2017