Let’s think about art: Sol Lewitt’s vision of conceptual art


Welcome readers to this incredibly momentous article that will leave you feeling a bit funky. Hopefully this intro doesn’t come off too punny. Hey, you like flamingos? If so you will love Sol Lewitt. If you like dreaming you better keep reading!


You have happened across this somber sentence blissfully unaware of what titillating talents lie ahead; welcome dear reader. In the paragraphs that follow conceptual art will be espoused, art that vows to hold concept over matter. Sol Lewitt flamboyantly and flagrantly disregards the object as he is creating work. Read on and don a new perspective as the art may make you introspective, but never fear the article’s end comes near with every syllable of dribble. 

I appreciate the curiosity that led you to these jumbled and unrefined thoughts, dear reader. Have you ever tried to make art with rules instead of by observation? It’s much more moving than any old still-life painting. Sol Lewitt believed that ideas are what enable creation—for example, even If the end result happens to be a flamingo, Lewitt was more interested in the choice that led to the color pink or the reasons behind an elongated neck than the image of a flamingo itself. Dearest reader, don’t let me lose you now, I’d like to explain if you will allow it.

So to give a smidge of context, three individuals were approached to create the opening to this article; A psych student, an art student, and an art professor, all of whom will remain anonymous. They were given the following instructions. 

Task: Write the intro to this article in 4 sentences following the guides. 

  • 1st sentence – Welcome readers to the article (must use 3 different adjectives)
  • 2nd sentence – Introduce conceptual art (Must include a pun)
  • 3rd sentence – Introduce conceptual artist Sol Lewitt (must include the word flamingo/ flamingos)
  • 4rth sentence – Tell the reader to keep reading (must include a rhyme)

And that my friends is how you get other people to write your articles for you.  

Now of course I’m having a bit of fun here, but this starts to explore the dense topic of “conceptual art” or “conceptualism.” And I want to be clear, I am not an art historian nor a professional artist, but every artist (and non artist alike) has to consider the concept of “making.” What does it mean to create something? Is it about the end result or the journey? For conceptual artists, the emphasis is front-loaded. The gist of it is that the initial plan or idea (maybe even the CONCEPT) is the focus. The ensuing physical creation of that idea matters, but it mainly serves as a giant blinking arrow that directs back to the idea. The top of this article was meant to hint at this. Here we have an idea of what an “introduction” to an arts column should be, guided by my specific instructions. The results were vastly different for each person, despite having the same prompts. Similarly, the real artworks themselves can look like almost anything. A List on a piece of paper? Check. A Cow sawed in half and placed in preservatives? Okay sure. The artist’s own excrement taken and put in tin cans? Umm…I gue….guess? Italian artist Piero Manzoni made that particular canned conundrum to comment on the commodification of creative craft  (5 times fast, I will wait). Concept, meet you slightly unsanitary new friend, the result.

 The movement first gained traction in the 1960s following the massive spikes in abstract expressionism (Ab Ex) and minimalism in the decades after the second World War. There were “conceptual artists” that came before like iconic Marcel Duchamp, but the real shift happened when Sol Lewitt entered the picture. Throughout a long career, he created a variety of works taking various forms. However, he soon developed the concept of his “operational diagrams”, a style of creation that…didn’t… actually…involve him creating the work. They were sets of instructions sent to individuals, organizations and institutions that detailed a specific result. He came up with the concept, the idea, and the actual creation was almost an afterthought in comparison. But why does it matter? Why does conceptual art matter? And why does bloody Sol Lewitt matter? Well, they matter because it explores art beyond simple emotion. In addition to making various forms of his art, Lewitt also wrote a decent bit on both the nitty gritty of process, and conceptual art en masse. He noted via a publication of Art forum in 1967 that “this kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless”. So often art is approached from a purely emotional perspective. How does it make me feel? What does it mean to me? But here we have art that, beyond engaging the mind, isn’t tied down. The idea of thinking about art is similarly not new, but conceptual art is a distillation of one entire camp. It’s open in aim, but focused in approach. And we need that. We need an entire spectrum of art.

“It doesn’t really matter if the viewer understands the concepts of the artist by seeing the art. Once it is out of his hand the artist has no control over the way a viewer will perceive the work. Different people will understand the same thing in a different way.”

  • Sol Lewitt

Tim Embertson ('21) is a Staff Writer at the Anchor.

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