On the Threshold Between Page and Wall. Reflecting Word, Image and Space in the Artist Books by Sol LeWitt

Auteur / Author: 
Regine RAPP (Humboldt University, Berlin, Allemagne)
Mardi 23 Août 2011 - 13:30


I became interested in making books, starting about 1965, when I did the Serial Project #1, deciding that I needed a small book to show how the work could be understood and how the system worked. From that time I began to do books as works in themselves, not as catalogues. Buying books was a way anyone could acquire a work of art for very little.
- Sol LeWitt, 2003 (interview with Saul Ostrow, BOMB 85/Fall 2003)

The reasons Sol LeWitt and his colleagues in the late 1960s rediscovered the artist book as a medium are diverse. One of the stronger motivations for Conceptual Art (as well as Land Art and Post-minimalism) was to break away from the conservatism of the art market. The book was an ideal medium, far more democratic and non-hierarchical, it could be produced inexpensively and publicly distributed. In 1976 Sol LeWitt and his colleague Lucy Lippard shaped the innovative platform for this particular matter — “Printed Matter”, a non commercial institution for the sale and the promotion of artist books.

In the case of Sol LeWitt the artist book provided the ideal medium for his artistic strategy: he took advantage of the medium of the artist book to both undermine the material (haptic) work of art in favor of the pure idea and to (literally) unfold his conceptual projects and spatial experiments in the universe of bibliophile parameters — size, material, color, textuality, factura, serial principle, continuity, theme & variations.
LeWitt’s intensive artist book production was extremely versatile: for his 75 books from 1966 until 2002, he used different designs and formats as well as varied techniques from color lithography to offset printing. The phenomenon of reproducibility was part of the concept: “Also, since art is a vehicle for the transmission of ideas through form, the reproduction of the form only reinforces the concept. It is the idea that is being reproduced. Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.” (Ibid.)

There is a phenomenal correlation between his artist books (which often functioned as individual exhibition catalogues) and the spatial work he realized at the same time (wall drawings for instance). This intermedial relationship unfolds itself in various modes: On the one hand the book page extends the mere field of paper and takes over the role of the artistic surface (wall), spreading out byond its edges. On the other hand, in the case of wall drawings for example, the wall can also be taken as a (book) page which visualizes the idea.

Sol LeWitt’s artist books are like a threshold to the imaginary in so far as they reveal his diverse artistic systems: Each of his books dealt with a specific system: cubes (Three-part variations using three different kinds of cubes, 1967-68 or Cube, 1990), lines (Four basic kinds of straight lines, 1969 or The Location of Lines, 1974) or grids (Photogrids, 1977). LeWitt’s serial systems reveal a similar phenomen as the formal structure of a book: the unrolling process of page after page, continuity and seriality. Furthermore LeWitt’s artist books reflect his serial work with the help of the serial system in photography and film. Refering to his artist book Schematic Drawings for Muybridge II LeWitt commented once: “The work of Eadweard Muybridge has had a great impact on my thinking. Thies piece was done after some years of thought and experimentation and was the source of much of the serial work.” (Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972, 1973).

My paper examines Sol LeWitt’s artist books by stressing the iconic and textual qualities and its complex sign system. His artist books can be taken as a pool of concepts or script books. Both the dematerialization of art as a strategy and the phenomenon of self referentiality are important categories within his artist books, which function vis a vis his greater oeuvre as a type of navigator’s log book. Thus his books are in fact a Mobile archive of ideas, relating to his sculptures and wall drawings. Taken from another tack these books, also considered by the artist to be works of art, develop a certain sculptural quality of great power and complex textuality.