Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing
John Kaldor Art Project 6
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
March – July 1977

A Reminiscence

In March 1977 I was a twenty year old art student at Alexander Mackie College. I heard about Sol LeWitt’s proposed wall drawing from my friend Michael Rolfe who was one of the volunteer installation crew sourced from art school and he encouraged me to come to the Art Gallery and get involved. I did not know then who LeWitt was, but the prospect of drawing on an Art Gallery of NSW wall piqued my curiousity so I took him up on the invitation. I was aware of Christo’s Wrapped Coast project of 1969, and soon learnt that Christo’s project and LeWitt’s drawing were both initiatives of the collector and philanthropist John Kaldor showcasing contemporary art as John Kaldor Art Projects.

The wall chosen for the drawing measured approximately 30 metres long and 10 metres high and is located in the main foyer, separating the first contemporary building extension from the original C19th galleries. It is punctuated at intervals by three tall archways as well as including, for purposes of the drawing, a 3 metre return section at the northern end. Although there have been further additions and extensions to the gallery complex, this wall remains as it was then, possibly the largest in the building.

The crew comprised Richard Maude, Michael Pursche, Michael Rolfe, Lesley Reid, Graham Hallett and myself and was overseen by AGNSW staffer Jackie Menzies, now Head Curator of Asian Art. Apart from an initial briefing, in true Conceptual Art modus Sol LeWitt was generally not present and only appeared occasionally to check progress. He kept his distance, much like former Bauhaus artist and proto-minimalist Lazlo Moholy Nagy did in the 1930s, when Moholy Nagy ordered the fabrication of enamel artworks from a factory, providing specifications by telephone. In a similar way, removing himself from the execution of the artwork whilst retaining authorship was a critical aspect of LeWitt’s practice as an artist, foregrounding the idea over its material form and execution. This would refashion the 'auteur' as an intellectual rather than as someone with unique tactile skills.

LeWitt’s  Drawing comprised a predetermined sequence of different types of lines overlaying one another within a grid structure. The crew worked from a master plan which comprised three sections: firstly a tabulated diagram of the individual infill lines, each numbered. These were: arcs from four corners, arcs from four sides, straight, not-straight & broken lines in four directions – 20 line types in total; secondly an elevation drawing of the wall showing the grid with the numbered lines indicated; and thirdly a schematic of how the finished drawing should look. The grid itself was set at 1 metre x 1 metre intervals.

The 20 lines were overlayed in pairs ‘two-part combinations’ determined by a closed numerical system devised by LeWitt. The system ran as follows: working from the top down and then left to right, the combinations commenced using line #1 overlaying line #2 (described as: 1/2), then 1/3, 1/4, 1/5…1/20 followed by 2/3, 2/4…2/20 etc, always starting with the following number until the sequence ran its course finishing at 19/20. This generated a total of 148 unique combinations. Counterpointing the rigid order of the system, the finished ‘look’ was to a certain extent determined by the size and shape of the installation space, the idiosyncracies of the installation team and other external factors. The latitude allowed by the free-form ‘not-straight’ lines were also tangible ways the element of chance was introduced.

We used graphite pencils directly on to the plasterboard wall and worked from anywhere there was space to do so. Whilst the grid itself, and the various straight lines were ruled, the other infill lines were all drawn freehand. Only complete grid spaces were infilled and so the drawing was set off from around the archways. There were two grid spaces that remained empty at the lower northern return that the system could not fill – another random effect.

To reach the top of the wall the crew worked from a moveable scaffold, however for some reason this could not access the top of the northern end return and a number of grid spaces of the drawing remained empty until a solution could be found. This materialised in what I recall was an aluminium ladder mounted perpendicularly on a base with a cage fixed to the top. No one wanted to use it – it had a pronounced sway which was rather unsettling. In the end I put caution aside and scrambled aloft.

The final result was like reading a set of hieroglyphs which made easy (or common) sense when you had the key but would be otherwise inscrutable. One of the wonderful effects of the drawing was that you had to walk through it via the arches to the traditional gallery spaces beyond. It was like a kind of filter which set up certain criteria for interpreting the older work. You became more attuned to ideas and meanings than technical proficiency.

The whole process felt like a guerilla action in the hallowed halls of the state gallery and in the context of what was happening more broadly in 1970s contemporary art and culture. In popular culture Punk music was emerging which foregrounded the social over the technical.  Minimalist, Conceptual, performance, community, feminist, Non-objective, environmental, political and of course installation artforms all challenged the establishment aesthetic and economics of art as a commodity and as gallery-based. There was lots of pressure for values to change and lots of resistance. It is a tribute to John Kaldor and the Gallery staff that Wall Drawing was undertaken.

At the same time the AGNSW drawing was being executed, LeWitt was also producing a series of four wall drawings in Melbourne at the NGV. In a sense the Sydney drawing was more interventionist, more direct, in the way it was applied to perhaps the largest wall in the Gallery, and there were no bright coloured backgrounds as was the case with the NGV drawings (beautiful as they were), it wasn’t pretty and it could be read as having been applied to the whole institution, such was its scale and presence – it was less conventional, more difficult to commodify.

I recall a conversation I had with Sol LeWitt where he commented half jokingly and with some irony about how hard it was to make a living out of conceptual art, adding that John Kaldor’s commissions were exceptional. In an international context, this was an important gig for the artist.

When the drawing was finished Sol LeWitt called us all together to thank us and as a token of his appreciation he presented each of us with a version of the drawing in pencil and ink done on the reverse of Sebel Townhouse letterhead where he had been accommodated in nearby Kings Cross during his stay in Sydney. This was obviously how he had been spending a good part of his time. Each was dedicated, signed and dated and when he gave me mine I saw that he had misspelt my name adding an ‘e’ to Thorn which was not an uncommon occurrence. Out of habit I responded immediately and with some alarm, saying ‘That’s not how you spell my name!’ He held out his hand and I gave it back to him, naively expecting him to fix it! (I don’t know what I was expecting.) Eyeballing me he reached in to his shirt pocket, took out his ball point pen, scrubbed out the ‘e’ and handed it back to me, without uttering a word. I laugh every time I recall that moment since that day 17 March 1977, and I cherish my drawing.

Wall Drawing received good coverage in the media and I noticed in my several visits to it smudging and finger marks at the lower levels indicating that another fine art taboo (about touching) had been contravened. Within what seemed like a short period of time the drawing was gone, erased or buried by several coats of gallery white. It was hard not to feel a sense of loss at that time as you wrestled with competing appreciations of the artwork, knowing that it should not be treated as a precious object, but knowing that with it gone, the unique experience would now dissolve into memory, leaving only the instructions enabling its potential recreation.

Wall Drawing had a profound impact on my own art making and my appreciation of visual art in general. Here was an art form which was driven by ideas and which evacuated the artistic ego from the process, if not the reception, of image making. Whilst I had begun to react against the priority of ego and manual skill during my time at art school, this deepened my resolve to scrutinise the creation and expression of content – that you need a good idea to make a (good) artwork, that form is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Three decades later I believe these principles are still worth applying.

© Peter Thorn
May 2011

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