Conceptualizing Sol LeWitt’s ‘Wall Drawings’.“

Although Sol LeWitt died last year at 78, one of his biggest installations, “Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective” will open to the public soon, at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts and be on view for 25 years. LeWitt hired a number of artists to execute his ideas over the past several years, including the time after his death.

LeWitt was one of the pioneers and masters of the “conceptual art” movement. For him:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. 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.

Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum, June 1967.

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From Conception to Execution

On my drive home yesterday, I was listening to NPR, as I am usually apt to do. I was struck by some thoughts presented in a report by Andrea Shea, “Conceptualizing Sol LeWitt’s ‘Wall Drawings’.

Although Sol LeWitt died last year at 78, one of his biggest installations, “Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective” will open to the public soon, at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts and be on view for 25 years. LeWitt hired a number of artists to execute his ideas over the past several years, including the time after his death.

LeWitt was one of the pioneers and masters of the “conceptual art” movement. For him:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. 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.

-Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum, June 1967.

This much I am on board with. As a composer, I find there is usually a point about a third into each piece or movement that I write where I notice that the conceptualization is complete and it is just a matter of executing the remaining notes on the page. In a sense, once the ideas are there, they can—in a sense—take care of themselves.

Where I took issue with the report was when one of the artists began to compare the roles of conceptualizer/executer (my terms) across disciplines. For example, LeWitt (conceptualizer)/hired artists (executers). Also architect (conceptualizer)/construction worker (executer). Then came: composer (conceptualizer)/performer (executer). With this I can simply not agree.

Composition and performance, to me, are two separate arts. Both require conceptualization and execution. A composer must come up with original ideas (conceptualize) and work them into notes on a page (execute). Performers must determine an interpretation (conceptualize) and then practice long hours in order to be able to perform successfully (execute).

I’m not sure where the disconnect is, but I suspect it may be related to the public not being quite sure what a composer actually does (see “Classical Music’s Marketing Problem“). Perhaps, if the public could recognize the dual role of conceptualizer/executer for both composers and performers, we may move a great deal forward in our reconnection between listener and artist.

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