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Sol LeWitt: The conceptual artist who made an app of himself

The history of conceptual art runs parallel to the history of big tech. Their peaks and valleys are the same — all you have to do is change the names and some (though not too many) of the buzzwords. Both started out as young, peripheral and idealistic as the counterculture that inspired them. Over the next two generations, both won the same dubious victory.

In the U.S., conceptual art caught the mainstream’s eye in the mid-70s, around the same time that the first personal computers hit shelves. In both cases, the key pioneers tended to be weird, eclectically learned young people who’d had some higher education but failed to thrive within the university system. Both groups were suspicious of Manhattan’s “worlds” — “the gallery world,” for the conceptualists; “the corporate world,” for the Silicon Valley types. Influential artists like Lawrence Weiner, Yoko Ono and Adrian Piper challenged the gallery-assisted commodification of art by producing “works” that seemed impossible to sell and often took the form of short, open-ended instructions for what to do or say or make. Early PCs like the Altair 880 and the Apple I were bulky, metal incarnations of the same principles: finite sets of pre-programmed instructions that anyone could combine in infinite ways. The result was that both conceptual art and Silicon Valley favored a utopian rhetoric of freedom, choice and creativity that amounted to a kind of revamped user experience.

The Sol LeWitt app

Room With a View: The Sol LeWitt app works like a barcode reader: in theory, you should be able to hold your camera up to any LeWitt drawing and identify it immediately. Image by Courtesy of Microsoft and The Sol LeWitt Estate

But conceptual art and the computer revolution were not utopian, and decidedly not challenges to commodification or authority. By the end of the 20th century, this had become so obvious it was hard to imagine anyone had ever believed otherwise. The consumer fetish object did not retreat, let alone disappear: Instead, people stood in line for hours to shell out hundreds of dollars for nifty new toys, or drove hours to pay to look at museum installations they could have made themselves for free. The public perception of the “creative innovator” changed somewhat, but this figure’s authority didn’t lessen; if anything, it grew more cultishly mysterious, since fewer people understood exactly what he did (it was still “he” by default). Steve Jobs couldn’t code or design, and — not “but” — he’s the only member of the Apple team everyone has heard of. Jeff Koons has never denied his ignorance of metallurgy, but it’s he, not his private army of consultants and interns, who gets all the credit for the glib bronze results.

Diversity-wise, things improved, but not half as much as they were supposed to — in spite of some well-touted cases, the worlds of conceptual art and digital technology were still, at heart, hetero boy’s clubs. But never mind — the nerdy, radical weirdos had won! Performance artists who’d once been laughed out of Manhattan held court at the Modern; the tail of Silicon Valley triumphantly wagged the New York Stock Exchange’s dog. Now that they’d achieved glorious victory, there was little left for these American innovators to do but collect lifetime achievement awards, keep rehashing the same material with diminishing results and defend their brands the American way (i.e., sue for copyright infringement).

To put it more simply: It makes sense that Microsoft would team up with Sol LeWitt. It’s true that LeWitt, a pioneering conceptualist and Minimalist, was the kind of person you might associate with Apple before Microsoft (he certainly thought different). But this is a minor detail: evidently, Microsoft wanted an artist app, the Sol LeWitt estate wanted to app-ify Sol LeWitt, and now they have an app together, i.e. the Sol LeWitt App, billed by its creators as “an immersive app powered by Microsoft Artificial Intelligence technology.”

The Sol LeWitt app

There’s an App for Him: The Sol LeWitt app represents the marriage of Big Tech and Conceptual Art. Image by Courtesy of Microsoft & The Sol LeWitt Estate


The app’s design is (needless to say) tastefully minimal. It begins, as so many Sol LeWitt artworks do, with a white background, divided into four equal parts by four black lines. The four parts represent the app’s four features. To wit: “scan a wall drawing”; “virtual studio tour”; “mapping LeWitt”; and “work themes.” The fonts are (also needless to say) sans-serif.

The point of the design, I’m assuming, is to allude to various of LeWitt’s most famous creations, which tended to begin with simple, sometimes comically simple, directions. One famous example, “Wall Drawing #118”: “On a wall surface, any continuous stretch of wall, using a hard pencil, place 50 points at random. The points should be evenly distributed over the area of the wall. All of the points should be connected by straight lines.” I’ve seen the finished drawing, or at least one possible version of the drawing, and it’s gorgeous — LeWitt has been compared to J.S. Bach, another artist who created an unlikely warmth out of rigid systems. He’s always given me something like the feeling of being a math-loving ten-year-old and learning about Penrose tiles and Fibonacci numbers, which I suppose is a similar kind of warmth.

App users who’ve never heard of LeWitt (it’s hard to imagine anybody downloading this thing without some knowledge of the man, but still) will find a feast of biographical scraps herein. Born Hartford, Connecticut, 1928; died New York, NY 2007; a leading figure of Minimalism; one of the founders of conceptualism in the 1960s; famously prolific; produced thousands of paintings, drawings, books, prints, etc. He was “known by many not only for his brilliant mind, but also for his friendship and generosity” — fair enough, except for that comma after “mind.” It’s a trifle odd that we’re told more about this conceptual artist’s habit of sending postcards than about what conceptual art is, but if the LeWitt Estate’s managers want to highlight Sol’s personality, that’s up to them.

The app’s two coolest features, and the only ones you couldn’t replicate in thirtyish seconds’ Googling, are the virtual studio tour and the scanner. The first is a VR display of LeWitt’s workspace in Chester, Connecticut, with annotations for his desk, his dry erase board, his tape deck (he liked Beethoven and Bach), and so on. The second works like a barcode reader: in theory, you should be able to hold your camera up to any LeWitt drawing and identify it immediately. In the interest of a writing a good consumer report, I wanted to try the scanner, but I’m currently in Colorado, which places me — according to the app — some 1,027 miles from the nearest scannable LeWitt. (I did, however, pull up a LeWitt on my laptop — the scanner got it right.)

Slide and tap your way through this app and you’ll find the following LeWitt quote: “In conceptual art, the idea or concept is the most important aspect of my work.” The syntax is straightforward, the meaning less so. The usual interpretation goes something like this: What we think of as a Sol LeWitt artwork — “Wall Drawing #118,” say — isn’t really the artwork. The pencil markings on the wall are mere illustrations of the underlying concept, and they have the same relationship to this concept that a Euclidean proof has to the printed words and little black-and-white diagrams in a geometry textbook.

As this analogy might suggest, LeWitt’s art has a strong Platonic flavor. Like a lot of conceptual art, it seems to float dreamily over the culture of capitalist commodification — how could you even think of selling a LeWitt drawing when the drawing itself, by LeWitt’s own admission, isn’t the real work of art? Well, it turns out you can, for lots and lots of money. All you need is a certificate of authenticity, signed by the artist. You’re not selling the drawing itself; you’re selling the “concept” of the drawing. In 2010, the concept for LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #91” sold for $278,000. Two years later, a collector sued a Chicago gallerist for $350,000 for losing his certificate for “Wall Drawing #448.” He could make the drawing any time he wanted, but without a certificate it’d wouldn’t be worth the cost of the colored pencils.

Curvy Wall Drawing

Almost Like Being There: A curvy wall drawing from the Sol LeWitt app. Image by Courtesy of Microsoft and the Sol LeWitt Estate


Going by the market, then, the most important part of LeWitt’s work isn’t the drawing, or even the idea of the drawing — it’s the little scrap of paper with his signature on it. The market can find a way to sell anything, conceptual art or not, and LeWitt was happy to play along. The analogy with Microsoft is too good to ignore: Bill Gates got filthy rich licensing his company’s OS to knockoff manufacturers; LeWitt’s drawings are scattered all over the world, but his estate maintains control over them — i.e., keeps them scarce and valuable — with a licensing system of its own.

All this goes some way toward explaining why Microsoft was interested in making a Sol LeWitt app. (Though, of course, there’s a much simpler reason why the company chose LeWitt, rather than Dan Flavin or Donald Judd or Robert Morris: Sol LeWitt drawings are much easier to scan.) The results are a tad banal, but banality is partly the point: anyone with a smartphone and a WiFi connection gets to enjoy “Wall Drawing # 91” or 118 or 448, no museum admission or certificate of authenticity required. This is neither world-saving nor world-ending. It’s just — if I may borrow from another terse, warm Minimalist — a small, good thing.


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