This is the latest in a series of blog posts in which Artifex Press staff members delve deeper into the artworks they are researching, sharing insights and discoveries gleaned during the intensive process of assembling a catalogue raisonné. This post is by Christopher Vacchio, Director of Research, Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings Catalogue Raisonné. Read the full series of posts at www.artifexpress.com/blog.
When Sol LeWitt created his first wall drawing at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1968 for the Benefit For The Student Mobilization Committee To End The War in Vietnam (which was also the gallery’s first exhibition), his work was the only one not to carry a specific price—the price list noted the work was sold “by hour,” meaning it would be based on the cost of LeWitt installing the work on the buyer’s wall. Although the work didn’t sell during the exhibition, it was the beginning of LeWitt’s long history of highlighting the physical and financial cost of labor in his artworks, a focus directly tied to the leftist politics of the Vietnam War era in which artists and others in the art world began to align themselves as "art workers" within a capitalist system.
Perhaps the best-known of these works is "Wall Drawing #48," first installed for the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark Information exhibition, curated by Kynaston McShine. The title of the work, doubling as its instructions, was “Within four adjacent squares, each 4’ x 4’, four draftsmen will be employed at $4.00/hour, for four hours a day and for four days to draw straight lines 4 inches long using four different colored pencils; 9H black, red, yellow and blue. Each draftsman will use the same color throughout the four day period, working on a different square each day.”
The federal minimum wage in June 1970 was $1.45 an hour (equivalent to approximately $10 today), while the New York State minimum wage was about to be raised from $1.60 to $1.85 an hour (nearly $13 today). The disparity between the pay LeWitt afforded his drafters and the minimum wage is a reflection of the value LeWitt placed on his drafters and their work. As he became increasingly successful and the pace of his exhibiting quickened, he depended more and more on drafters to install wall drawings and considered their work integral to the realization of his vision. (LeWitt has been the subject of more than 700 solo exhibitions since the 1960s.)
In "Wall Drawing #43," first installed in April 1970, LeWitt made the tension between employee and employer intrinsic to the work. The instructions for the work as installed at Protetch-Rivkin Gallery, Washington, D.C., were “On the wall measuring 136" x 95" in the gallery, four draftsmen, each using a different color pencil (9H Black, Red, Yellow and Blue) will draw lines for as long as the gallery owners will pay them, but for a minimum of eight hours each. The placement of the lines will remain at the discretion of the draftsmen.” By setting a minimum time for the drafters to work, LeWitt ensured a level of visual completion to the work, as well as a minimum windfall for the drafters. But by leaving the amount of time beyond that up to the gallery owners, LeWitt created a tension between their desire to have a “finished” work to sell and their desire to minimize production costs.
In "Wall Drawing #25," first installed in 1969, the labor of the drafters is explicitly the subject of the work, because it can only be viewed while the drafters are at work, as their final act is to destroy it. The title of the work is “Four drafters each superimpose a band of parallel lines 36 inches (90 cm) wide in a different direction on a different wall on each of four days. On the fifth day they paint out the drawing.” LeWitt did not view the installation of his wall drawings as a performance or theater, and so the fact that this work can be viewed only while being installed implies a desire to make visible the labor and the laborers who physically create his works. LeWitt later cemented this idea by creating a cataloguing system whereby the first drafters of each wall drawing were recorded in the work’s caption and wall label, and the drafters of each individual installation are also listed. By doing so, LeWitt asserted that crediting the drafters by name was as integral to the work as other cataloguing details like title, medium, and date.
LeWitt entrusted many decisions in the execution of his work to the drafters. While the artist always took complete authorship of his works, in a meaningful number of cases he delegated significant decision-making responsibility to the drafter. The most significant examples are a subset of LeWitt’s location drawings, in which the language of the instructions defines the precise locations of points, lines, and geometric figures on the wall. For these works, rather than indicating the exact locations of the figures, LeWitt's instructions say, “The specific locations are determined by the drafter.” Thus, every installation of these works is completely different, the visual result of decisions by the drafter, as anticipated by LeWitt. Although LeWitt once commented, “what the work of art looks like isn’t too important,” it takes a great deal of trust to allow someone else to make such important decisions affecting the outcome of the work.
For decades now, the LeWitt Studio, which comprises his drafters and the several chief assistants who oversee them, has functioned as a sort of mini jobs program for working artists. Working as a LeWitt drafter has allowed many younger artists to have flexible work and steady income, so that they could focus on their own studio practices fully at other times. (This is in contrast to LeWitt’s own experience—and that of several contemporaries such as Robert Mangold and Dan Flavin—working the night shift at the Museum of Modern Art so that he could dedicate himself to artmaking during the day.) A number of artists who would go on to widespread acclaim have worked on wall drawings, among them Glenn Lewis, Christian Marclay, Kazuko Miyamoto, Matt Mullican, Adrian Piper, Cindy Sherman, and James Welling. LeWitt was known to give works as gifts to thank the drafters of important exhibitions, to anonymously buy the work of artist friends he wanted to support, and to trade works with artists without regard for the relative financial value of the works. Many of these artists have long commented on LeWitt’s influence on their work. Perhaps more importantly, they have also spoken of his quiet mentorship and generosity in giving them the means to advance their own careers, and his support in helping them navigate the art world on their own terms.