In Focus

Sol Lewitt's Wall Drawings

Stars with three-, four-, five-, six-, seven, eight-, and nine-point stars, drawing with a four and one-half-inch band of yellow ink wash. The area inside the band is red color ink wash and the area outside the band is blue color ink wash. The stars are separated by areas of gray wash.

Drawn by: Anthony Sansotta, Jo Watanabe, David Higginbotham and Mark Snedegar, April, 1985.

Sol LeWitt is internationally recognized as one of the most important contemporary American artists. He rose to prominence during the 1960s with sculpture incorporating highly formal grid elements and multiple corridors of receding perspective. LeWitt's art was the logical endpoint of the trend away from the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s. Highly ordered by completely abstract systems—the foundation for his geometric three-dimensional structures—it constituted a new style which he called Conceptual Art. As the artist explained in his seminal treatise Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, "The idea becomes the machine that makes art." However, despite their constancy of format—geometry and grids—LeWitt's ideas are incarnated as art in many contexts and variations.

In 1968 LeWitt began to conceive of direct wall drawings in a format combining the unique structural and architectural elements of a given space with his own precise geometric sensibility and, later, romantic use of color. In describing his ideas about his art, LeWitt stated, "When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair." "The wall drawing is a permanent installation, until destroyed. Once something is done it cannot be undone." In this fashion the conceptual artist resembles a composer, who creates a language of symbols which must be interpreted by others, rather than simply creating the material art object in and of itself.

The wall drawings, through their physical presence, literalize the notion of the picture plane as a wall and at the same time call into question the surface by transforming it into a work of art. This idea of bringing together two distinct things and then holding them apart was at the heart of LeWitt's artistic approach. The almost obsessive rationality of the concept is countered by the sensuous accumulation of color and line. This method was furthered by the artist's use of surrogates to produce the final version of the wall drawings. The concept and individual instructions are a personal product of the artist's intuitive imagination, whereas the execution involves impersonal, non-signature application. Thus, the wall drawings consist of two distinct features: the drawing itself and the title of the drawing—which is, in fact, the artist's instructions as to how the work is to be carried out.

LeWitt's wall drawing technique in Wall Drawing #398 utilizes a special type of ink colored with pigment rubbed on in layers and then rinsed clear with water. For each color application the design is carefully masked in order to achieve a crisp edge. In the finished work, the clean lines and strict symmetry of the composition are balanced against a subtle variation in coloring, the "hand-worked" look within each colored area. This work, and Lewitt's contemporaneous wall drawings, recall early fresco paintings, especially those of the Roman and Byzantine periods, in their utilization of a room or gallery's features and their concern with surface texture.

The Dallas Museum of Art's wall drawing occupies the eastern end wall of the 44-foot-high barrel vault [1985.3]. Consisting of a series of star-shaped elements ranging in complexity from a three-pointed to a nine-pointed one, each placed within a four-sided shape or colored field, the configuration of all seven forms subtly echoes the semi-circular arch of this particular architectural space. The very pronounced color choice of red, yellow, blue, and gray results in a tension between individual forms that allows each shape to independently coexist without competing with one another, each one sovereign in itself. Additionally, in this work is an homage to Italy, LeWitt's home at the time of its commission and execution.

Adapted from

DMA unpublished material, 1985.

Web Resources

  • RISD Museum
    Read more about Sol Lewitt's process of creating wall drawings.