Review: Sol LeWitt, ‘Arcs and Lines’ at Paula Cooper

Pac Pobric

Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings have a tendency to be redundant. Once the perimeters of a particular work have been established as a plan for action, the execution of the piece is almost an afterthought, an exercise in scaled repetition. This separation of design and its realization explains why so many of these works are lacking in aesthetic force. With the idea and its manifestation at odds with one another, aesthetic specificity is lost in somewhere in between.

The achievement of Sol LeWitt’s recent exhibit at Paula Cooper is that it largely circumnavigates this trap. True, what we see are illustrations of plans which are already calculated and therefore already familiar. Wall Drawing #122, for example, is very simply what it declares to be: “all combinations of two lines crossing, placed at random using arcs from corners and sides, straight, not straight, and broken lines.” There are twenty different kinds of lines, all blue, making for 190 different possible combinations, each mentally conceivable given an image of every possible line.[1]

Wall Drawing #122 (1972). Black pencil grid, blue crayon arcs and lines. Image © Estate of Sol LeWitt / ARS, New York. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Yet conceiving of these various combinations as a larger whole is simply unimaginable. Drawn on the walls of Paula Cooper’s sizable main space, the experience becomes one of discovery. Like all good artwork, seeing this piece is a process of learning something that is not already known. This work achieves what LeWitt otherwise largely fails to attain through his rationalizing strategy: a continuously generating set of perimeters which make possible a piece in which a web of relations can be perpetually uncovered. This is why, like most successful artworks, Wall Drawing #122 is difficult to retain in the mind’s eye. If recalling the piece after viewing it means identifying everything you cannot recollect, this is because there is a desire to learn more. But this is possible only through visiting the gallery again. This fading afterthought marks the work’s success.

The other two drawings exhibited, Wall Drawing #392 and Wall Drawing #393, partake of a different strategy and are less successful. Smaller and therefore more intimate than their physically more imposing cousin, these works attempt to introduce complexity through another means: each kind of line (of which there are four) is bound to a specific color. This decision is perhaps even more deeply considered than using only the color blue. But these works repeat juxtapositions whereas Wall Drawing #122 is barred from doing so. The mosaic these latter works make is therefore ultimately less specific, even if the drawings in total are almost more mesmerizing because of their color.

Despite these accomplishments, LeWitt’s work places no great demands on the history of drawing. His medium is the “idea” and the works that result are almost an accident. It is probably because LeWitt was so uninterested in drawing that his wall works ask no new questions. Even so, there is still something of significance here, especially when viewed in the context of his oeuvre.

Wall Drawing #393 (1983). Red, yellow, blue, and black crayon with black pencil grid on white wall. Image © Estate of Sol LeWitt / ARS, New York. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

(Cover image: Wall Drawing #392 [1972]. Red, yellow, blue, and black crayon with black pencil line on white wall. Image © Estate of Sol LeWitt / ARS, New York. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.)

[1] The gallery press release claims 150 different combinations but, unless my calculations are wrong, 190 should be the actual number.



  1. mgg

    you’re calculation is wrong! read the instructions.

  2. I think it is a really worthwhile and somewhat ambitious project to sort out the particularities of aesthetic and practical function among a few individual LeWitt wall drawings, all of which are usually lumped together as different manifestations of essentially the same idea (as is the work of most artists who find a niche in a particular “body” of work).

    Not as present as it could be in this review, however, is an acknowledgement that these works were made 30-40 years ago. Their exhibition today may not pose new questions, but reveal the lingering presence of old ones, specifically, the (potentially degrading) reduction of drawing to simple, calculably reproducible line and color on surface, and the most readily available surface at that: the wall. The end product becomes “designs” which are very explicitly not designed in the traditional sense. In this regard, the significance of these works remains the demands they do in fact place on the history of drawing: to continue to justify itself beyond its bare essential material and conceptual elements.

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