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Tom Sachs hosts an art history lesson on Sol Lewitt session from his basement workshop.



“This is like the The Brain Trust from Europe came to America and the United States had achieved its ultimate success in industrial might.”
“And then you're in Los Angeles, CA, where artists like Bruce Nauman and John Baldassarri struggling with. How do you make art at the end of western civilization? You have to jump into the ocean so they started making rules under which they were going to make art”
“There's a great book about this. I encourage you to get it. It's called the dematerialization six years, the dematerialization of art by Lucy Lippard.”
“And it's also true that banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution.”
“The whole point is that it's it's human, but. At the end of the week or month or however long it took you to do this wall drawing, you have an expression of your work and it's and that information you know whether you call beautiful or not is it's information and you can't like deny that it's art. It's art is art, good, bad, or indifferent. You can't stop reality from being real. That was Marcel Duchamp and Flavor Flav in one sentence.”


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00:00:20 Tom Sachs: Thanks for tuning in.

00:01:50 Tom Sachs: So today we’re going to talk about Sol Lewitt and conceptual art. Just going to set up my IPad magic keyboard. Look at that action, whoa. It’s kind of like a laptop now. Kanye’s password. So. OK, let’s go.

00:02:29 Tom Sachs: To understand what conceptual art is, I think we have to. Go back to 1917. And. Marcel Duchamp’s fountain, and this is a. A urinal that was displayed as a work of Art. And, um. He just took a urinal from the hardware store and put it on a pedestal and called it art, and this is sort of the first example of ready made work of Art. We can spend a whole other session on Marcel Duchamp and we will, but I think the important thing to say because this is a priceless work of art. Worth countless millions of dollars and in a museum, and if and even in his time, it was considered valuable and someone that once asked him. What’s preventing me from buying a urinal and putting it on a pedestal and he said nothing. Go for it. I take no authorship of this, so a lot of the ideas that I have that you have it Sol Lewitt have are in the ether and there for everyone. So let’s just talk about Sol Lewitt a little bit.

00:03:42 Tom Sachs: There is a picture of Marcel Duchamp Alright, so conceptual art? Let’s go back maybe, or jump a little forward to 1968. This is a time of. Um, incredible conflict. And if you think about the time it was when the students all over the world in particular in Paris, had a revolution and were trying to take over the government, that was oppressive and maybe another example was the Prague Spring, and these were people collectively fighting for many, many ideas against the totalitarian states. Like, you know, sexism and control and freedom of speech, and you know. Fair labor practices. So many things, and really it was a time of conflict where everything was being questioned about civilization.

00:04:47 Tom Sachs: I’m just going to bring up a couple of things, just bear with me for a second. Um? Yeah. The.

00:05:02 Tom Sachs: If you think about the time this was happening was kind of the apotheosis of the Enlightenment. This is like the The Brain Trust from Europe came to America and the United States had achieved its ultimate success in industrial might. the United States had beat Nazi Germany by out producing them and it created the most powerful industrial force of all time and this continued with with unbelievable success, probably till around 1974 when the gross national product of the United States shifted from being an exporting company two and two and importing. Exporting country to an importing country. Some people say in the maker world in 1974 marks the end of that.

00:05:50 Tom Sachs: In the middle of it there was this time where artists like Saul were traveling to the edge of western civilization that come from the Renaissance in Europe. You know, through through. You know? Flemish painting to the invention of democracy in France to the Industrial Revolution in England and then it’s fully realized success in the United States and had gone all the way across the East Coast where industrial power was really manifest to the West, where the ideas of reality were being challenged. Where you have things like Hollywood creating fantasy like never before, or things like Northrup Grumman creating airplanes that were actually invisible. The laws of physics are being challenged and the idea of God itself was being challenged and destroyed through our conquest of space.

00:06:52 Tom Sachs: And then you’re in Los Angeles, CA, where artists like Bruce Nauman and John Baldassarri struggling with. How do you make art at the end of western civilization? You have to jump into the ocean so they started making rules under which they were going to make art. And there’s a great book about this. I encourage you to get it. It’s called the dematerialization six years, the dematerialization of art by Lucy Lippard. It’s from 1968 to 1966 to 1974 or 68 to. 1968 to 1972 OK. Same rough period of time and this is a time where artists created artificially rules under which they could make art. Rules under which they could sort of deal with the existential abyss. How do I make art when everything is done before Everything has been done before. How do I make art when I don’t know what to do so? Like sort of like our time now. One of the great things about this is we have all this extra time but we don’t know what to do with it. And one of the terrible things about this time is we have all this. Extra time we don’t know what to do with it. Rules and guidelines help us come to terms with what we. Gives us some some parameters in which to work, and some other artists like this time, this time that we’re are good to look at and give you a very short list. Adrian Piper, John Baldessari, Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman, Douglas Hubler. These are some of my favourites. There are countless others.

00:08:34 Tom Sachs: So let me just check one thing and I’ll be right back. Um? I go to calendar and then I go to. Today is the 23rd. Going live? But I can’t. My Blue Jeans isn’t in the calendar. OK. So Blue Jeans isn’t in the Calendar so I can’t call your Erum, sorry.

00:09:21 Tom Sachs: So let’s just let’s get into. What conceptual art is or what a wall drawing by Sol Lewitt is? Let’s talk about that. So this is wall drawing #51 all architectural points connected by straight lines. So here are some rules. The each corner of this of this wall is drawn. A blue line is connected with them, so you can see there’s a floor plan of the space and each corner is. Is is connected so? Um. This is an installation at MASS MoCA, which you can go check out. And this is from 1970 where these rules were set up. Now there’s a diagram here or certificate, and that’s the kind of thing that’s in a museum. Or if a museum would buy this certificate, but there’s nothing preventing you from taking these guidelines and making your own wall drawing. This is one of my favorite ones.

00:10:37 Tom Sachs: And. Here this is. This is another one. This is wall drawing 123A and the and the and the rules or the the instructions. I should say they’re called instructions, is the first drafter draws, not a straight vertical line. But as long as possible, the second drafter draws a line next to it, the first one trying to copy it. The third drafter does the same. As do many drafters as possible, then the first drafter followed by the others copies the last line and took both ends of the wall are reached. So this is kind of what it looks like up close. You can see the first draft or draws a line and there’s some error in there. That error is magnified and extended across the wall. And here’s the diagram. And the certificate.

00:11:32 Tom Sachs: Let’s just do it. Let’s just do a third wall drawing. This is a really cool one, and this is scribbles. Those are the only instructions on this on this wall drawing, but if you look more carefully, in the certificate, there’s a little diagram. Here and it shows the? The. Um gradiated tonal progression so zero in the middle is the lightest and six is darkest on the edges, so this curve. Is a representation of the curve of light, so you can do this one in your home too.

00:12:16 Tom Sachs: And if you want to learn more about this. There’s a Zine called the world. I should say there is a catalogue raisonné that Um, that Sophia LeWitt produced and I made a little Zine about it, called Sol LeWitt Catalogue raisonné, and these are the instructions here. That’s the cover of the Zine that I made, but just to go back. Um? Here are some instructions that I printed out for you to access the catalog raisonné online and it’s free and will post that information after.

00:13:05 Tom Sachs: So I’m just seeing is there a way? Right now for Erum to be on the call, because I screwed up the timing, so let’s just see. If I can. Can she call me on my phone? Is there a way to do that Or do you want to shoot me a question Erum? Where does anyone have any questions about?

00:13:39 Sarah: So I’ll just open the Blue Jeans app.

00:13:42 Tom Sachs: OK.

00:13:43 Sarah: Just open blue jeans and she’s there.

00:13:49 Tom Sachs: Trying to get there, join a meeting or event. No, it’s not open. Babe, can you. Sarah can you just call her on your phone for me ‘cause? It’s it’s not working. I didn’t. I didn’t do this. Do you have any questions for me out there?

00:14:11 Sarah: Can you start the meeting?

00:14:13 Tom Sachs: No I can’t. I can’t start it. Yeah. I just have to type in the code and it’s not. For some reason it’s not there. I didn’t really prep it.

00:14:23 Sarah: You want me to face time her?

00:14:24: Tom Sachs: Yeah.

00:14:28 Sarah: Here. Tom.

00:14:35 Tom Sachs: Thank you sorry, OK. I got Erum Shaw from the studio joining here say hi.

00:14:40 Erum: Hi everyone.

00:14:43 Tom Sachs: Hey so alright any other thoughts or questions? I think those I didn’t want to speak too long, I just want to get a couple of points about Sol and what this is about.

00:14:56 Erum: On how Sol LeWitt influence what we do at the studio and how we have a line drawing that you’ve developed.

00:15:05 Tom Sachs: Well, are we gonna talk about that? ‘cause I think if you tune it on Friday will see the line drawing that I developed and some of you may have seen it from space camp or some of you may have even participated in it in Governors Island. Should I illustrate the lines or just talk about the point of this?

00:15:22 Erum: Talk about how it influenced you. Rules and rituals.

00:15:26 Tom Sachs: Right OK so. Right, so rules have really helped me a lot. If you look at the kind of art that. That the studio produces. It’s it’s pretty diverse, but one of the problems that I had coming out of school was I had done a lot of research and spent a lot of time in library. In fact, one of the things I did was I didn’t even go to Class. I would just. A little overwhelmed and daunted, I didn’t know really where to begin like what kind of art was I gonna make? I’d go to art museums. I’d see all these other great artists. I I would be kind of like intimidated because there are so many great people who had done so many wonderful things, including Alive people, that I would even I could even meet because they were in the community or dead. People who had done great careers over thousands of years. How are you going to make art with all that? So just setting up a few rules for you? And by the way, just I want to make it really, really clear that conceptual art isn’t for everyone, and I even by the way we downloaded today for you Paragraphs on conceptual art and. This is from 1967 and Sol wrote beautifully.

00:16:51 Tom Sachs: And I say this as if it’s coming from me too. I do not advocate a conceptual form of art for all artists. I found that this has worked well for me, while other ways of working have not worked. This is one way of making art. Other ways suit other artists. Nor do I think all conceptual art merits the viewers attention. Conceptual art, like all art, is only good when the idea is good. You know, and and and it’s difficult to Bungle a good idea and concept. And it’s also true that banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution. So. Um, in this time in situation. Um, with our resources more limited than normal, we have to really focus on what’s around us. That’s why we give ourselves some rules, you know, a wall drawing for me is a great thing because it’s repetitious and the repetition weeds out Caprice. So let me give you another really wonderful quote from Sol LeWitt from paragraphs on conceptual art and. This is also going to help you ‘cause I know with answering the question why what is creativity is the enemy mean? Alright? So again this is from paragraphs on conceptual art from art form June 1967. To work with the and I’m going to be interrupting and throwing stuff in there. So if you want to look at the exact text.

00:18:31 Tom Sachs: You can look it up online, but if you want to, I’m just going to add my language into this so it’s going to mix to work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity. Because Subjectivity is this is this dirty word and we want to make objective art we want to eliminate as much interpretation as possible. It obviates the necessity of designing. Each work in turn, the plan would design the work. Some plans would require millions of variations, some a limited number, but both are finite. Other plans imply Infinity. In either case, however, the artist would select the few basic forms and rules that would govern the solution to the problem. After that, the fewer decisions made in course of completing the work the better. This Emily eliminates arbitrary, capricious and subjective as much as possible, so. You know, if you know. It’s it’s. It’s if the artist wishes to explore his ideas thoroughly, then arbitrary or chance decision would be kept to a minimum, while Caprice taste another whimsies would be illuminated from the making of the art. You know it’s it’s sort of like saying. And this is going back to the issues we had the other day about taste. You cannot. You have to decide for yourself what’s important, but when in doubt, do less. Please do less. Um?

00:20:07 Erum: Tom he also said you know, break all the rules that you make for yourself. Can you speak to that a little?

00:20:13 Tom Sachs: Did he say that?

00:20:15 Erum: Well, that there are rules, but then you can also break the rules.

00:20:19 Tom Sachs: Well, yeah, I’m not sure if he said that, but I think that’s that’s a really good point. Is that rules are meant to be broken, so use these rules for how they serve you. And I guess the rules are really there when you just don’t know what to do. I think that’s that’s the best thing about this. Time is. Rules can help you get up in the morning and do that line drawing. Now imagine those line drawings that I showed you the and I’m going to go back to it, the one where. Look at this look at this incredible. Come on Napoleon. OK. Look at this wall drawing. Look at this insanity. All right, that’s a detail. But look at. It’s a whole room. This is a whole room this took. And that’s white marker on black wall. So you had to paint the wall black and then do this white marker with this incredible detail that that took. It took more than a day. You know it wasn’t like that was that would take you a week to do that with that degree of precision an and look at this line, that’s as high as the as the as the artist could reach. And you can see these variations. That was always what was cool about the wall drawings is that you have these kind of strict lines, but there’s all this art and expression of the individual that human being made this. If you gave this wall drawing to a robot, there’d be there’d be no point. The whole point is that it’s it’s human, but. At the end of the week or month or however long it took you to do this wall drawing, you have an expression of your work and it’s and that information you know whether you call beautiful or not is it’s information and you can’t like deny that it’s art. It’s art is art, good, bad, or indifferent. You can’t stop reality from being real. That was Marcel Duchamp and Flavor Flav in one sentence.

00:22:23 Tom Sachs: Uh. So the importance of this cannot be underscored. And and on Friday you’ll see the wall drawing that we did, and some of you already know it. It just kind of helps you get through the day and then. By the way, it doesn’t. There are no rules that like you don’t have to finish it. You don’t have to. You can do something else while you’re doing that. You can still make food in between and. In this meta, much like a meditation or any athletic practice builds physical and emotional strength so that you can have the courage to make just the right wrong decision on some other other aspect of your life. And that’s why before you if you want to be successful, the first step is get yourself into physical good physical condition. Sol swam every day. And that swimming for him was a meditation, and for me, keeping my body in good physical shape is essential to making these decisions, ‘cause it’s very to making my art and the decisions around it because it’s very easy to get kind of bogged down and fall apart and crumble under the in the existential abyss of all the possibilities we have incredible opportunity. Even if we think that. Our lives are were imprisoned by our circumstances, even within the most. Difficult circumstances. There is always choice. And, um. You know, some of us are very lucky and privileged to have great choice, greater choices, and we must not squander that. And our greatest privilege is our lives and our health. So we must do everything possible to sharpen and maintain that for a very, very brief time together on this planet. So.

00:24:16 Erum: That was good Tom.

00:24:17 Tom Sachs: OK, so this is a document that we posted after this is called. Sentence’s on conceptual art and there are this is from 1969 and there are 35 of them. And, um. But it was published in art and language in England and 09 in New York and I’m going to read you a couple of ‘em Before I start. I just want to make it really clear that an artist’s best work lies just beyond his ability to understand it.

00:24:52 Tom Sachs: So number one. Conceptual artists are Mystics rather than rationalists. They lead to conclusions that logic cannot reach. This is a world of rigid rule making art and the first sentence on conceptual art is that artists are Mystics. And this is straight out of the Marcel Duchamp rule book artist is a medium, a medium to bring ideas into the world. A lot of us have the same ideas. Let’s all let’s we can bring it together. Uh Artists leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.

00:25:34 Tom Sachs: Number two rational judgements repeat rational judgements. To do the same thing, you’re going to get the same thing. #3 irrational judgments lead to a new experience. This is kind of like where we say hail Satan in the studio. It’s not that we’re advocating for, you know. You know the Evil presidency or or eating babies or whatever. We’re just saying embrace the irrational side of your mind. The dionysian. There was a time when, um, like the Greeks, sort of had it right. Where you had a duality you had not God versus the devil that was later with Christianity, but you had the rational and irrational mind you had gods that represented that the Pagan gods you had Apollo representing rational thought and Dionysus representing irrational thought, and they both loved music. So you know you have that with people like Bach. Rational thought you start to later, you know, through Mozart. Eventually Beethoven you start to have more irrational, less more expressionistic stuff. And that’s why at the end of Beethoven, it kind of turns into classical music, turns into the Romantic period with all that expressive stuff so. But the essential idea that to embrace the irrational is what we mean when we say Hell, Satan, the studio in the school. We learned 1 + 1 = 2 in the studio. We learned 1 + 1 = 1,000,000. Just finding those wrong 2 ones put together in just the right way. So that’s again repeating. Irrational judgments lead to a new experience.

00:27:17 Tom Sachs: #5 irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically, so that is when you get those rules down, just follow him all the way through to the end of the activity so that you don’t stray because #6. If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece, he compromises the results and repeats past results. So #6 to me is my favorite one. If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece, he compromises the result and repeats past results.

00:27:52 Tom Sachs: OK #29, which is kind of another way of saying the same thing. So if he didn’t get that last line and say it in a different way, or he’ll say it in a different way, the process is mechanical and should not be tampered with it should run its course. Um? Then then I said a couple of the other ones before, but uh, and on #34 is when an artist learns his craft too well. He makes slick art. So that’s always what I mean when I’m talking to you slicky conlin, just. It’s good to be a master of something and always work on your mastery, but maybe push those limits so that it doesn’t rest on. Um? Slick execution, you know. In paragraphs of fun. On Conceptual art. Um? He talks about the shame of new materials and in a way this is about craft. New materials are one of the Great Afflictions of contemporary art, so you could apply this to photo shop or Instagram. Some artists confuse new materials with new ideas. There’s nothing worse than seeing art that wallows in gaudy bobbles. By and large, most artists who are attracted to these materials are the ones who lacked astringency of mind that would enable them to use materials well. It takes a good artist to use new materials and to make them into a work of Art. The danger is, I think, in making the physicality of the material so important that it becomes the idea of the work which is another form of expressionism, which this. Is striving to. Um? Uh, avoid and we are always trying to avoid expressionism. It will leak out. The expression will come out in the Little Squiggly of the line drawing. You will find a human being within. You will come out. So.

00:30:04 Erum: And all of this is gonna be on our story later, so people can follow along.

00:30:10 Tom Sachs: Our story.

00:30:11 Erum: We’re gonna have all of the sentences on the story.

00:30:14 Tom Sachs: Yeah, so you’ll be able to see this story posted in the next hour and you’ll be able to read these. These sentences and then on Friday will. Kind of wrap it up and have a little movie about it an an assignment for all of you so stay tuned. Keep your stick on the ice.

00:30:36 Erum: And add it.