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Sol LeWitt: Affinities and Resonances

The American artist Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) remains one of the most recognised minimalists in the world. It is strangely fitting then that LeWitt is kept to a minimum in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s exhibition, Sol LeWitt: Affinities and Resonances, with so few works posthumously on display.

The exhibition takes its name from a quote from LeWitt, where he professed “a great affinity” for the works of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, while the “resonances” part of the show refers to live musical performances. Chuck Johnson and JWPATON, a Yuin musician, performed at the John Kaldor Family Hall on Wednesday 31 August  at 8:00 p.m., while Steve Gunn and amby downs, the pseudonym of Tahlia Palmer, of Murri and European heritage, performed on Wednesday 19 October 2022, 8:00 p.m. The Budawang-based artist E Fishpool performs with Claire Rousay at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday 7 December, 2022.  

The website boasts that these three “new musical works bring 2D-artworks to new life through the experience of durational listening” – but is listening ever not durational? Unable to attend these performances, my focus is on the “affinities.”

While the exhibition may disappoint LeWitt novices and LeWitt enthusiasts alike, the show nevertheless displays stunning works by Anmatyerr artists Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Gloria Tamerre Petyarre. 

Across from the display walls, the massive re-presentation of Wall drawing #955, Loopy Doopy (red and purple), 2000, transposed onto the wall potentially provides a connection, as the work may call to mind Kngwarreye’s justly celebrated Big Yam Dreaming, 1995. Originally drawn and displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2000, the gallery’s website description of Loopy Doopy (red and purple) purports that the work “reveals the influence Australian Central Desert painters had on [LeWitt’s] practice.” 

Loopy Doopy (red and purple) is presented in the John Kaldor Family Hall on the ground entrance level, and the exhibition itself is a collaboration with Kaldor Public Art Projects. The attempt to draw out a possible influence from Utopia artists on LeWitt is an intriguing one. It certainly warrants investigation and research, and one can’t help but wish more works could (in)form the exhibition. 

Indigenous painters have often transcribed across mediums – a point intimated with the inclusion of Petyarre’s Awely for the mountain devil lizard (Twenty-one women), 1996. The word “Awely,” associated with women’s business, in part denotes ceremonial women’s body painting. As such, the work entails a sort of transmedial transcription, as the multiple patterned panels depict twenty-one women in a way that evokes rhythmic movement and the Arnkerrth (the devil mountain lizard). Petyarre and Kngwarreye both transcribed sacred imagery to batik practices before embracing canvas cosmologies. Their works are often positioned as hybrid works, existing between traditions. 

When paired with LeWitt’s works, could these works be reconsidered as conceptual works, given that the artists transposed body-painting practices? Indigenous practices, Dreaming and songlines convey ideas, information, and knowledge. And LeWitt, after all, was interested in how transcriptions, transpositions, and reproductions transformed the meaning as his works can, as the archway demonstrates, be re-presented in different locations.

Although the blurbs about the show underscore resemblances and influences on LeWitt, one may wonder about whether the works would then constitute cultural appropriation. An affinity does not necessarily imply appropriation. But if not hinting at appropriation, then surely his earlier works warrant inclusion? After all, one of his earlier works hangs on the next level of the gallery. 

Exhibitions often seek to boost star quality by presenting the artist as an enigmatic figure. Perhaps there is an attempt to reproduce the past real estate of a big-name artist through staging a sort of encounter between LeWitt and Kngwarreye’s works. LeWitt never met Kngwarreye though, who had passed away the year before LeWitt saw her work at the Venice Biennale in 1997. 

LeWitt by himself may not have a mystery to his work beyond the glamour of name recognition. It is difficult to say, since he wrote openly about his objectives and his ideas throughout his career, whereby he affirmed the concept behind drawing and advocated an emulation of machinic repetition. Nevertheless, LeWitt claimed that conceptual artists “are mystics rather than rationalists [who] leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” 

Instead of creating a conversation as the website purports, the placement of Loopy Doopy (red and purple) over a kind of colonial archway, which leads to a space filled with European art, feels like an eighties postmodern pastiche without the ironic self-awareness. The cultural critic and theorist Fredric Jameson once excoriated postmodern pastiche as a kind of “blank parody.” But parody is either absent here or the Gallery isn’t aware of it. Could the juxtaposition of LeWitt’s work against a colonial archway be some sort of attempt to decolonise the institution through LeWitt’s not-quite homage to Anmatyerre artists? 

The exhibition remains interesting in part for the questions it does not articulate. However, without developing the idea of affinity further, the exhibition may fail mechanically because, as LeWitt once said, “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” 

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 61, 2022. 
Images courtesy estate of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, estate of Sol LeWitt, Gloria Tamerre Petyarre, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and Kaldor Public Art Projects, Sydney.

EXHIBITION
Sol LeWitt: Affinities and Resonances
27 August 2022 – 12 February 2023
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

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