The relation between LeWitt and his draftsperson is often compared to the relation between a composer and performer , but I think it’s also valid to look at the comparison between a programmer and the entity of execution.1

In an article about his 2004 {Software} Structures exhibition, Casey Reas positions Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings as a model for aspects of contemporary software art.2 Creative programming is likened to the conceptual field of LeWitt’s written wall drawing instructions, while the field of program execution (of computational process) is likened to the manual labour of actually realising the instructions on any specific wall. At the same time, however, Reas acknowledges a key point of difference. LeWitt’s instructions lack the precision of programming code. They are conveyed in natural language and directed towards human readers. Rather than entirely restricting the space of execution, they work to suggest a focused field of creative possibility. Reas is keen to regard software art in similar terms, aiming to identify a form of conceptual software practice that precedes actual software programming and that provides a generative conceptual basis for all manner of actual algorithmic drawings.

The work develops in the vague domain of image and then matures in the more defined structures of natural language before any thought is given to a specific machine implementation.3

He employs the term “software structure” to designate this pre-computational, creative-conceptual field and associates it with a potential for intuition and expressive freedom.

I want programming to be as immediate and fluid as drawing and I work with software in a way that minimizes the technical aspects. I often spend a few days creating a core piece of technical code and then months working with it intuitively, modifying it without considering the core algorithms. I use the same code base to create myriad variations as I operate on the fundamental code structure as if it were a drawing – erasing, redrawing, reshaping lines, molding the surface through instinctual actions.4

No doubt LeWitt’s wall drawing can be interpreted in all kinds of ways. Certainly, his account of them is full of curious paradoxes in which the machinic and the intuitive intersect, but it does seem slightly odd to harness LeWitt in order to elaborate a notion of expressive, de-technologised, computational drawing. LeWitt is associated much more with a critique of the modernist concern with subjective, image-oriented and materially-based expression. As Ana Lovatt suggests, “[a]gainst 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.”5 While Reas never positions software structures as literally material, he conceives them in terms of “the vague domain of the image.”6 In this manner, the notion of software structure recalls the mute and intuitive aesthetics of formalist modernism. This works to conserve an intimate and properly human realm of creative conceptualisation, the validity of which is established in terms of its isomorphism to the self-evident character of perceptual manifestation. Whereas LeWitt disturbs the boundaries between the intuitive and the procedural, Reas maintains their conventional distinction. The domain of conceptual expression, of software programming, is positioned as a form of alienation from intuitive conceptualisation. It manifests the underlying concept in a language that is itself, despite its abstraction, properly separate from the inner-sanctum of the conceptual. Examined closely, it is evident that the overall division between the conceptual and the manifest functions throughout, with the former privileged only as long, rather peculiarly, as it takes shape as the latter. A conceptual space is delineated, but in terms that precisely correspond to the reassuring visibility of the material image.

Let’s consider more closely how LeWitt emphasises a disruptive relation to traditional notions of expressive drawing and unsettles the relation between conceptual and executable dimensions of drawing. Rather than the conceptual appearing as a subjectively grounded sphere of autonomy and dominance and the executable as an utterly derivative space of expressive material determination, their relation is articulated in profoundly paradoxical terms. Consider this classic statement from his 1967 “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”

In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.7

This would seem, very evidently, to insist on a hierarchy in which the conceptual comes to determine and render trivial the sphere of actual making. The conceptual appears to render making a simple terrain of laborious execution, involving the strict performance of precise instructions. Aside from the fact that, as Reas demonstrates, LeWitt’s conceptual instructions actually leave considerable space for creative interpretation, the key issue is that for LeWitt the perfunctoriness of execution is not simply a negative quality. The term “perfunctory” suggests a task that is mechanically performed, without any sense of subjective investment. This establishes a paradoxical affinity to the conceptual. LeWitt insists that “the idea is a machine that makes the art.”8 The sphere of the conceptual then is also interpreted in mechanical terms. Both the conceptual and the executable are stripped of subjectivity and cast in non-reflective terms. In his 1969 “Sentences on Conceptual art”, LeWitt describes the ideational blindness of the conceptual, “The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.”9. Note how far removed this is from “the vague terrain of the image” that Reas describes 10 Ultimately, the intuitive machinery of the conceptual enters into relation with the machinery of making.

28. Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist cannot imagine. These may be used as ideas for new works.
29. The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.11

The value of the “perfunctory” is clearly evident here. It is a productive dimension of mechanism that tests and inspires new concepts. Although apparently distant and distinct, the spaces of conception and execution find themselves paradoxically closely allied and linked. They share a common antagonism to the thinking of subjective expression. Together, as paired coordinates, they suggest a notion of drawing that reaches beyond the human, that struggles to find means to engage with dimensions of blind process.

It is worth noting that LeWitt’s ambivalent relation to the space of execution is evident in the story of how, within the context of Lucy Lippard’s 1968 benefit exhibition, “Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam”, he priced his wall drawings in terms of the time it took to paint them.12 His gesture indicates at once a critique of the special qualities of aesthetic production, while also clearly serving to highlight the space of perfunctory labour. It is in this sense of acknowledging the work of laborious making – stripped of its cultural pretensions and foregrounding its actual time and non-reflective, operative force – that LeWitt provides a model for highlighting the relation between software programmer and dimensions of computational process. Of course, programming introduces another level of complexity. Alongside the labour of computation there is also the labour of programming. There is no way that the complex reams of code that programmers write can possibly preserve the sense of conceptual immediacy that is evident in LeWitt’s wall drawing statements. The work of programming even more clearly demonstrates that “the idea is a machine that makes the art.”13

  1. Reas, C. (2004) “A text about Software and Art”, {Software} Structures exhibition, Whitney Airport Commissions, http://artport.whitney.org/commissions/softwarestructures/text.html (accessed 12 June 2011)
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid
  5. Lovatt, A (2010), “On Drawing, Ideas in Transmission: LeWitt’s Wall Drawings and the Question of Medium”, Tate Museum, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/10autumn/lovatt.shtm (accessed 12 June 2011)
  6. Reas, C. op.cit.
  7. LeWitt, S., “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” in Alberro, A. & Stimson, B. (1999) Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, MIT Press, p.12
  8. ibid.
  9. LeWitt, S., “Sentences on Conceptual Art” in Alberro, A. and Stimson, B. (1999) op. cit., p.107
  10. Reas, C. op.cit.
  11. LeWitt, S. (1999), “Sentences on Conceptual Art”, op.cit. p)
  12. Lovatt, A. ibid.
  13. LeWitt, S., “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, op.cit.
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