Friday, August 7, 2015

Sol LeWitt | Autobiography

Sol LeWitt
New York City, USA: Multiples, Inc., 1980
[130] pp., 26 x 26 cm.,  softcover
Edition size unknown

"I became interested in making books in 1965," Lewitt told curator Saul Ostrow in 2003, "when I did the Serial Project #1, deciding that I needed a small book to show how the work could be understood and how the system worked. From that time I began to do books as works in themselves, not as catalogues. I used photography in most of these pieces.[...] Buying books was a way anyone could acquire a work of art for very little."

Clive Philpot attributes Lewitt's dedication to the form of the artists' book to Serial Project #1 (which was produced in 1965 and distributed two years later as part of Aspen Magazine's issue #5/6) and to his involvement in Seth Siegelaub's seminal Xerox Book1, a year later. Lewitt's 25-page contribution led directly to two other autonomous bookworks and a wall drawing. The first of these, Set IIA-24, established the format for more than half the volumes that followed - a square book with pages subdivided into a grid.

Autobiography takes this form, and (like the bulk of the photo-based books) employs a grid of nine square black & white images per page. Over a thousand photographs document the artists' studio on Hester Street in Manhattan, where he had lived and worked for twenty years.

In the same 2003  interview with Ostow above, Lewitt cites the importance of Ed Ruscha's work to his own bookmaking practice. This is nowhere more evident than in Autobiography, which presents an almost banal look at the artists' home, and attempts to be a comprehensive cataloguing of every object in the space.2 However, by framing the collection of images as biography, the work is actually more closely aligned Christian Boltanski's Objects Belonging To An Inhabitant of Oxford, from 1973 (here) and Hans-Peter Feldmann's All The Clothes of a Woman (1970, though not published as a bookwork until almost thirty year later), here.

The notion of possessions-as-self-portrait feels entirely contemporary, but these selections (with the notable exception of the artist's library) do not celebrate consumer choice as identity. Alongside his books, records, artworks, clocks and keepsakes, are kitchen utensils, balls of twine, tools, empty jam jars, plumbing fixtures, electrical outlets and light switches. Presented uniformly, and without textual exposition, this detailed personal inventory reveals very little about the artist. The mystery and aura of the artist's studio is removed, usurped by mundane images of towels and houseplants. With the photographs all a uniform size, "no object in his space more important than another."

It's tempting to read the book as Lewitt taking stock of his life before relocating to Spoleto, Italy, later in the same year. The title was also produced only four years after Lewitt co-founded (with Lucy Lippard and others) the Printed Matter bookstore, the peak of his dedication to the format.  "Art shows come and go," he wrote, "but books stay around for years." The below image perfectly illustrates his stance. An exhibition's worth of images could be taken home for a few dollars. At the time. Available copies now range in price from one to three thousand dollars - still cheap for an entire exhibition.

1. The adopted name for the book (it's actually eponymously titled  Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner) is a misnomer - it ended up being cheaper to produce the project with standard offset printing.

2. The 'every' in Every Building On The Sunset Strip is often over-shadowed by the discourse surrounding the dispassionate nature of the photography, but the exhaustive approach remains key to my appreciation of Ruscha's classic.

3. from the dust jacket blurb of Autobiography

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