Survival Guide to the Art World

Philip Koch, Adirondack Charcoal #2,  vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2011

A drawing by Sol LeWitt

Navigating today's art world can be dizzying. Nobody's got a compass.

Above are two examples of contemporary drawing. The first is my own, Adirondack Charcoal #2, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2011 that I made up on location in Lake Placid, NY last fall. The second is by Sol LeWitt, American, 1928 - 2007, a prominent conceptual and minimal artist. I paired the two to show how far apart the outer boundaries have been set.

Last week I received an email from an art historian, Veronica Roberts, who's writing the catalogue raisonne on LeWitt. She's trying to track down information on a LeWitt drawing that was "made" by two students at my old school, Oberlin College in 1970.

LeWitt is labeled conceptual because he was playing around with our notions of what we expect drawing to be. I think his intent was to "do the art part" well before his drawings made it to a surface for us to see. Back in the 1960's conceptual art like this was a new idea. For many people it hit with some impact. I imagine the first time people saw International School architecture it was so far out of their expectations that it was shocking. Perhaps that was in the back of LeWitt's mind.

Veronica Roberts send me the instructions LeWitt had provided that two students were to follow in installing one of his drawings in the basement of Oberlin's art studio building. Here they are:

Instructions for the work:
Wall drawing # 35: A straight line is drawn; another straight line is drawn at a right angle to the first; lines are drawn at right angles to each preceding line until the wall is covered. The lines may cross.       
Executed by two students on different walls, not visible to each other. 
I imagine the Oberlin LeWitt drawing turned out something like the LeWitt image above.

My own drawing was about starting a work with a few lines, then stepping back and reconsidering, drawing some more, and then re-evaluating where I was going with the piece. Implicit in this was that the original conception of the drawing would be changed, often dramatically, during the course of making the piece. For example, mine began without a clear idea of whether the clouds or the mountains would dominate.

Where LeWitt seems to want to go against the traditions of drawing we know well, I go the other way. People have been drawing deep spaced landscapes for hundreds of years. I want to add my voice to that very long conversation. I do this putting my faith in the notion that every generation sees a little differently. That unconsciously we approach even the most familiar subjects, like the landscape, with a different eye than, say, the artist's of the 1930's. Ultimately it's trusting that if our experience of our idea is authentic, innovations will creep into our work without our having to consciously place them there.

Here's a pastel drawing I did on location in Edward Hopper's Truro, MA studio's kitchen. Currently I'm using this pastel as a source for an oil painting of the same subject. My original intention when I began the drawing was to focus on the different colors of the interior and the outdoor spaces. But along the way the repeated curves in the  little table, the chairs, and the rounded bowl of fruit pushed their way to the front of the stage instead. Personally I like this "I-don't-know-what- this-is-going-to-look-like-when-it's- done" approach. It's like loosening the reins on the horse to see where the animal wants to take you. Sometimes you end up in a better place than if you'd planned everything.

I teach at one of the big East Coast art schools, MICA. There are lots of faculty teaching a very wide assortment of ideas to our students. Most of us are passionate about what we believe to be most important. I've marveled that there are never any fist fights between us about dearly held aesthetic ideas. In fact the school is very friendly, something I value

Robert Henri, the founder of the Ashcan School of painting is quoted in his book The Art Spirit as saying that the inspiration for art grows up out of the earth and flows up into us artists through our feet.  I remember reading this and thinking this was nuts, but feeling curiously attracted to the idea all the same. That image has stayed with me over the years and taken on a momentum of its own.

I think there is a Tree of Art. It's really tall and it draws its nourishment from deep in the earth. And sprouting off of each of its branches are all the artists.The tree has its own system- - a branch for conceptualists, another for performance artists, the video people, on another, and even us landscape painters (we're on one of the really old branches at the bottom). We don't all know everyone on all the other branches, and we don't necessarily like whole big sections of the tree. But somehow, with a little luck and lots of sweat, we soldier on to make art another day.

I've had to explore to find my branch on the tree of art- I've done happenings (that's what we used to call performance art), color field painting, surrealist work, and all sorts of realist painting, landing eventually on the landscape painters' branch. Obviously I'm partial to where I stand today and will have to leave minimalism and conceptual art to others. I'm sure they like their branches too. Did I tell you the view from my branch is really special?

A Sol LeWitt sculpture.


  1. I studied art at Kent State from 1974-1978 and can relate to much in your post. I particularly like the paragraph about the "Tree of Art."

    All the best to you in writing for the catalogue.

  2. Hi Janice, actually the art historian just asked me for help in finding one of the two art students who were tapped by one of the art profs to "make" the LeWitt drawing on the art building's walls. So far we haven't been able to track them down.


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