Works by pioneering conceptualist Sol LeWitt
to be featured in Art Fair Philippines
By Sam L. Marcelo, Associate Editor
FINDING a Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) in Art Fair Philippines is as unexpected as finding a vegan in a steakhouse. In his biography of LeWitt — a luminary figure in conceptual art — Lary Bloom writes that the artist, through his manifestos, urged people to “steer away from what is known and what is safe (and what is commercial).” What, then, are two of his wall drawings doing at an art fair, which is, by definition, a commercial endeavor?
“The LeWitt Estate indeed avoids installing his wall drawings in art fairs as a matter of policy,” said Carina Evangelista, a New York-based curator and writer who spent two years corresponding with Sofia LeWitt, the artist’s daughter, just to get LeWitt’s wavy lines and words onto the walls of The Link car park in Makati City.
The works will be drafted by Filipino artists and writers whose names carry weight in the local scene. Assembling a stellar cast contains a dash of irony since the crux of LeWitt’s practice was “the democratic hand” — a phrase that means any of the fair’s 40,000 visitors could have executed the works. For LeWitt, what mattered was the idea: if an artist has thought things through, he wrote in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” then the “execution is a perfunctory affair.”
In this e-mail interview, Ms. Evangelista explains how she got Sol LeWitt into Art Fair Philippines, the triumph of thinking over doing, and how Shop 6 — a motley crew of artists led by Roberto Chabet — embodied LeWitt’s ideas in the Philippines.
SLM: Could you walk us through the thought process behind bringing Sol LeWitt to this year’s edition of Art Fair Philippines? Why him after Weegee, the street photographer whose work you brought in last year. It’s quite a turnaround from Weegee’s gritty photojournalism to conceptualism.
CE: Lisa Periquet, Trickie Lopa, and Dindin Araneta actually approached me about bringing LeWitt to Art Fair Philippines right after they saw my inclusion of a LeWitt work in Counterfeit Monochromes, the 10th anniversary exhibition I mounted for MO_Space in December 2017.
Weegee’s iconic photographs provided the context for a public talk to which I invited Raffy Lerma and Ezra Acayan to present their work [in 2018]. The searing images they have captured left some members of the audience at the art fair in tears, providing a barometer for the fact that even at something like an art fair, Filipinos are in fact bewildered by the toll of the drug war rhetoric that transformed policy into practice.
Although programming such as this might come across as radically different from conceptual art (which is the kind of art that is really my cup of tea), what has in fact drawn me to conceptualism is its predisposition for institutional critique and political content. It bears noting that the roots of Conceptualism can be traced not just to the US but also to Latin America, practically birthed by political upheavals there. Conceptual form and thought can thrive on social and political conditions. Although LeWitt was never overtly political, the very inception of the Wall Drawing series was for an exhibition that was clearly political in nature, the Benefit for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, an exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York in 1968.
Asked whether art should have a social or moral purpose, his response was, “No, I think artists should have a social or moral purpose.” [The exhibition thesis I had for Counterfeit Monochromes was in fact premised around the social realities in the Philippine context that underpinned the lexicon of conceptual forms.]
SLM: By accounts, Sol LeWitt is not the kind of artist one would see at an art fair. How did you get permission to mount his work? And how do LeWitt’s wall drawings function in the context of an art fair?
CE: The LeWitt Estate indeed avoids installing his wall drawings in art fairs as a matter of policy. This Special Project took two years of corresponding directly with Sofia LeWitt, Sol’s daughter, who patiently listened to my advocating for such a project at Art Fair Philippines, pointing out the astonishing volume of as many as 40,000 visitors, comprising mostly students.
In a way, Art Fair Philippines provides the annual event to which this many Filipinos are able to consider both the contemporary art that’s out in the market, works by Philippine masters, and some international art. I spoke of how interesting LeWitt’s conceptual approach to ordinary materials and bare walls allows us to consider what walls are, what walls speak, what walls accrue, what walls become.
How such conceptualism works in the context of an art fair specifically here in the Philippines is its proposition about “the democratic hand” — that such art can be made even by hands not necessarily academically trained.
While Philippine appetite for art can tend to hew close to photorealist virtuosity and whereas an extremely robust strand of Philippine contemporary art is social realism (particularly as a record of artistic response to the repression of the Martial Law years during the Marcos regime), it is important to provide a platform for the likewise consistent output of Philippine conceptualists who are not driven by the urge to paint hyperrealist work, to trade in social realist imagery, or to indulge in “pakapalan ng pahid ng oil paint” (who can apply oil paint thicker).
This is not to knock this kind of output that has always fared well in the art market because there IS room for everything. It is to suggest that an understanding of conceptualism could round out the understanding of contemporary art that Art Fair Philippines attempts to cultivate. LeWitt’s conceptualism that started out with among the most basic elements of art and design — the line — proved to be extremely generative in ideas. The examples of his wall drawings posit what incredible range of forms is within the realm of possibility and imagination even within the restrictive or prescriptive parameters of instructions for abstract forms.
Sofia LeWitt was quite patient with all my questions and helped figure out what would work given whatever logistical constraints we might have while ensuring that the project is installed in the spirit of LeWitt’s conceptualism. Anthony Sansotta, the Artistic Director of the Sol LeWitt Estate, and John Hogan, Installations Director and Archivist for Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings at Yale University Art Gallery, were both generous with their time and the “institutional memory” of which they have been custodians from decades of having worked side by side with Sol on hundreds of installations. [When I mentioned to John Hogan that I relish the thought of LeWitt’s commitment to “the democratic hand” gracing the walls in an art fair in a country currently under rule of self-proclaimed “iron fist,” he said that if LeWitt were alive, he would agree.]
SLM: From an art historical perspective, could you describe how groundbreaking LeWitt and his approach to art-making were. As I understand it, the primacy of the idea over authorship/execution when it comes to conceptual art was — and still is, in some quarters — controversial.
CE: LeWitt laid the precepts of conceptualism in his writing such as “Sentences on Conceptual Art” and “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” These articulated what artists in the 1960s were discussing and exploring as they tried to break free from the traditional notions of how to make and exhibit art.
With premium given to the idea and to process, art could now be made with anything (including the artists’ own bodies and thus yielding to performance art), made anywhere (any wall in LeWitt’s case; out in the fields or the desert in the case of land/earth art), and made any which way (as enumerated in Richard Serra’s 1967–1968 Verblist that suggested “to shave / to smear / to fold / to tear / to scatter / to hide / to discard / to weave / to erase / to spill / to knot…” are viable ways of making art.
If this remains controversial in some quarters, it is from the distaste for work that does not look like it warranted skill or talent to produce or work that looks happenstance or work that doesn’t seem invested at all in looking beautiful or work that was fabricated by someone else.
A bunch of lines drawn directly on the wall with markers or a tautological sentence written directly on the wall would easily be dismissed with “And you call this art?” And yet, the incredible range of variations that such attitude toward making art has indeed pushed the frontiers of how art can be made, how art can look, and what meanings art could mine or what questions art could trigger.
SLM: LeWitt wrote “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” a manifesto of sorts published in 1967. Which of the comments he made there, in your opinion, are the most relevant today?
CE: It would have to be this: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” It is what has made Conceptualism truly generative. And contrary to the notion that conceptual art is dry, that it can really be done with any medium has meant not just more than 1,300 permutations of what a wall drawing can be for LeWitt.
In the Philippines, this spirit was embodied by Shop 6, the loose organization of artists that actively filled the walls of an empty commercial stall in Pasay from 1974 to 1975. Joe Bautista, Ed Castrillo, Roberto Chabet, Joy Dayrit, Danny Dalena, Nap Jamir, Julie Lluch, Red Mansueto, Joe Mendoza, Fernando Modesto, Yola Perez-Johnson, Allan Rivera, and Judy Sibayan were among the artists who flouted the medium-defined disciplines of painting and sculpture at Shop 6 by exhibiting all manner of things, ignited and driven by ideas.
The conceptual output of this group at the time was perceived as an artistic indulgence when the repressive chapter of Martial Law was in fact making the ground fertile for social realist tableaux. But conceptualism allowed the artists a language that defied Imelda Marcos’s “the true, the good, and the beautiful” attempt with her cultural propaganda to perfume and mask the grotesquerie and brutality of the regime.
Shop 6 mounted exhibitions on a WEEKLY basis — perhaps with a sense of urgency, of stealthily evading the radar of censors, or with a feverish energy during a time marked by nightly curfews. The Shop 6 impetus was a direct action that was indirect: a series of shows akin to garage theater, the only injunction of which was artistic experimentation — essentially the willful exercise of freedom of expression. Instead of boycotts or sit-ins: a series of art-ins.
Although critics of Conceptualism might find the method responsible for “deskilling” in contemporary art practice — whereby academic training is no longer needed or the virtuosity of the artist’s hand no longer appreciated, it has truly given license to the “democratic hand” and it continues to place a premium on the weight of the idea.
SLM: To add some personal color — what’s favorite LeWitt work and why?
CE: With me, it’s not a matter of a much-coveted piece from an artist’s oeuvre as it is about the spirit of an artist’s attitude or output. But if I have to pick from the wall drawings that number more than 1,300, I’d pick Wall Drawing #897. It’s a simple piece painted in irregular shapes in glossy white at the top and in flat white at the bottom. Such a simple piece yet so evocative of quality that the work itself, once the paint has dried, is physically not. It makes the wall look like moisture has condensed on its surface or that the wall is somehow weeping.