Sol LeWitt’s Conceptual Book Art

Installation view of Book as System: The Artists’ Books of Sol LeWitt at Printed Matter, New York (all images courtesy of Printed Matter)

Sol LeWitt was one of the founders of Printed Matter in 1976. By this time, the conceptual artist had already been producing works of art in book form for a decade. It seems inevitable that LeWitt, whose practice is founded on seriality and instruction, would be drawn to the book format. Book as System: The Artists’ Books of Sol LeWitt, an exhibition curated by publisher Emanuele De Donno at Printed Matter, surveys LeWitt’s bookmaking practice. Vitrines, alongside ephemera such as magazine spreads, announcement cards, and posters, house more than 75 of LeWitt’s often floppy, fragile, and soft-cover books. The show is organized into 11 connected themes: pages, cubes, forms, colors, photogrids, structures and figures, wall drawings, serial drawings, lines and circles and grids, lines and locations, and lines and structures. It approaches his practice formally rather than chronologically, highlighting the different structures LeWitt explored as a book artist.

However, a useful timeline for LeWitt’s bookmaking to keep in mind while viewing the show includes his contribution to the famed 1968 Xerox Book, published by Seth Siegelaub; his co-founding of Printed Matter in 1976; his 1978 MoMA retrospective that contained a number of his books; and a 2009 posthumous book exhibition in Italy co-curated by De Donno and Giorgio Maffei, from whose catalogue the Printed Matter show draws heavily. LeWitt was both a maker and theorist of book arts.

Installation view of Book as System: The Artists’ Books of Sol LeWitt at Printed Matter, New York

“Art shows come and go but books stay around for years. They are works themselves, not reproductions of works,” he wrote in Art-Rite in 1976. This issue of Art-Rite, dedicated to artists’ commentary on bookmaking, is included in the first vitrine, with the text partially excerpted on the wall. This tactic is used throughout, allowing his words to jump out of the books and making a text-heavy show slightly more digestible. Viewers overwhelmed by all the printed materials can look at spreads and drafts hung on the walls and absorb some of LeWitt’s writing quoted in brief above the vitrines.

This first case also includes the Xerox Book and LeWitt’s first book, Serial Project #1 (1966), published by Aspen Magazine, which took the form of a custom box housing each contribution as a separate booklet, in 1967. It ushers in one of LeWitt’s most recognizable forms: the square. In his essay for the 2009 show, Maffei writes more specifically about LeWitt’s formal use of the square, calling the square, as LeWitt uses it, “the basic shape from which everything can be developed.”

Installation view of Book as System: The Artists’ Books of Sol LeWitt at Printed Matter, New York

LeWitt’s work with the square extended to his contribution to serial publications like Flash Art, Art & Project Bulletin, and the famously square Artforum. In his 1981 project for Artforum, bold black lines delineate diagonal, horizontal, and vertical lines within four distinct squares that make up one larger square centered on the cover of the magazine. Inside, the spread further breaks down these four iterations by printing the inner lines in color within the larger black outline.

This nuanced breakdown is characteristic of LeWitt’s drawings: one square becomes four distinct visual spaces for other explorations of line and color. His spreads for Art & Project Bulletin, mounted on the wall, show various diagrams and instructions for creating cubes, arched lines within squares, or packs of dense scribbles. As Clive Phillpot notes, “One of the pleasures of his books is due to his presentation, not just of an idea, but images that coexist in an obvious relationship with each other and which rest harmoniously on their platform, the book.”

Installation view of Book as System: The Artists’ Books of Sol LeWitt at Printed Matter, New York

To coincide with the exhibition, Printed Matter and Primary Information republished Four Basic Kinds of Lines & Colour (1977), which combines two distinct publications: the black-and-white Four Basic Kinds of Straight Lines (1969, Studio International) and Four Basic Colours and their Combinations (1971, Lisson Gallery); the latter reproduces the same patterns as the former, but in a range of colors. LeWitt’s works often include lengthy instructions requiring attention to detail and concentration, in addition to his conceptual texts. Four Basic Kinds of Lines & Colour starts with the 1969 outline of four types of lines: vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines “l. to r.” and “r. to l.” Each row that follows shows the combinations of these four lines. On the facing page is the 1971 explanation of the color breakdown — yellow vertical lines, black horizontal, red left to right, and blue right to left — followed by grids of color combinations. Each square page is an examples of these.

Printed on the wall near the photogrid section is a LeWitt quote from his 1978 MoMA catalogue: “No matter where one looks in an urban setting there are grids to be seen. Whether decorative or functional, grids provide a kind of order.” His later bookmaking practice differs significantly from his earlier ordered grids. Turning to photography, these books likely look strikingly contemporary to today’s viewers, who are well-versed in reading and finding connections between randomly sourced images. This is certainly the case with PhotoGrids, published in 1977, the same year as the combined lines and colors book. This 52-page book collects square street photographs that show grids in rows of three by three, making more grids on the square book pages. While some photographs are obvious, as in gridded manhole covers or glass-panned doors, others are more subtle and only make sense when seen in a group (for example, a person’s torso wearing a checkered shirt or pies with latticed tops). While Phillpot’s 2010 essay on LeWitt’s books characterizes the content of his “open series” photobooks as seemingly “arbitrary,” I suspect these titles look very different to 2019 readers, driven by LeWitt’s same search for systematic order and patterns that internet readers are attuned to find.

Installation view of Book as System: The Artists’ Books of Sol LeWitt at Printed Matter, New York

LeWitt’s voice — at times authoritarian, exposing his deeply conceptual thinking — echoes throughout the exhibition, in his books and ephemera and quotations printed on the walls. The word that comes to mind in this packed show is gesamtkunstwerk. LeWitt’s bookmaking fits squarely within his commitment to order and seriality, revealing his overall practice as a total work of art. LeWitt’s interest was not in the material but in the concept, and these books and writings show that much can still be learned from his multitudes of ideas.

Book as System: The Artists’ Books of Sol LeWitt continues at Printed Matter (231 11th Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through September 29.

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