From the Studio

thoughts on art and process in action from a contemporary artist

The Roles of the Artist

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Another thing that struck me at the Fisher Collection Opening was seeing brand new hand-drawn wall drawings by Sol DeWitt, who died in 2007.  “Exhibition Copy” said the little blurb.

This is the sort of thing that sends me into a small frenzy and feeds into my growing exploration of the artist’s roles in creating work- and as always where the lines are drawn.

Right now I have three categories going:  Artist as Maker (the touch of the artist), Artist as Director (conceptualizing and orchestrating the piece start to finish), and Artist as Composer (creating the concept and outline of the piece but not necessarily present for the execution).

Let’s start with artist as Maker.  There are apparently numerous copies of the Mona Lisa around the world that are difficult for experts with microscopes and chemical tests to distinguish, and yet there is only one “real” one.  What makes it real?  The artist’s touch.  It is as if the artist is a saint and there touch makes the piece holy (or in this case Art).  That Leonardo used his brush, that his hands worked on it is the important distinction between the real Mona Lisa and the “fakes”.  The fact that they are so close that there is nothing of his vision or composition of the piece lost is not enough to make it Art.

Then we have the Artist as Director.  There is a long tradition of artists having apprentices (or more recently Chinese factories) making parts of pieces or even entire pieces under the artist’s supervision.  They don’t get the credit, the artist does.  In these cases the artist functions as the Director.  They conceive the piece, lay it out as a design, and approve or reject each stage until the final piece is approved.  This means the important part isn’t the Touch, it’s that the result is what the artist intended it to be- the people doing it are the artist’s tools as much as a brush would be.

Here I would like to draw attention to an aspect of the Artist as Director:  the act and process of selection. When Duchamp picks out a urinal, signs it and puts in in an art show his process has been a conceptual one, not a creative one from the perspective of making (or even ordering the making) of an object.  He has found an object and put it in a context.  He has used it in a way that creates a new meaning.  Even Warhol, ordering a squashed cube of cars from the New York Dump and having it delivered to the museum is going through a process of selection.  That he has not seen the cars is as much a part of the piece as the cars themselves.  The question I ask here is- if a contemporary curator with rights to the car piece called up the dump and ordered a cube of cars would it still be a Warhol?

Now what about that Sol Le Witt drawing?  He wasn’t there to approve it, and the hand drawn lines certainly weren’t done with his personal touch. This brings us to Artist as Composer.  I was standing next to a composer while looking at the LeWit drawings and it occurred to me that this art was being treated like a composition.  The artist had laid out the score and other people were following it.  Which begged the question- does that curator’s assistant who draws those thousand lines get credited the way a violin soloist does?  No.  They are invisible.  In a way we just pretend the artist did it- which for me in the case of the more expressive lines is harder to swallow.

It’s not like a Felix Gonzales Torres installation where the artist had already given directions to curators (this is the type of candy I want and this is how I want it arranged) on installing very specific items that had a very manufactured quality (ink jet prints, hard candies).  He was consciously acting as a composer while he was alive.  Torres didn’t necessarily need to oversee the installation process.  The work was conceptual and could be installed rather than created in the same sense.  He created images that he wanted stacked a certain way, printed on certain paper, etc. and the instructions just needed to be followed- no mark, no creation.  After he died, his pieces could be installed without him because they could already be installed without him- the important part was the concept.

But the other thing we have is that not just anyone can install a Torres (even if it is done perfectly according to his instructions) and have it be considered a Torres.  There are copyrights to the work.  This presents a whole other can of worms, especially in the digital age when copying and distribution is so easy for everyone.

So why does one set of standards apply for the Mona Lisa and another for the LeWitt?  Is there logic there or just tradition and gut feeling?  I would be interested to know if LeWitt approved having his drawings copied for exhibits before he died (if he accepted the role of composer rather than creator/maker here).

This is one of many puzzles I probe at with regularity.   Right now I’m tempted to do a triptych addressing it.

Written by marycoreymarch

June 28, 2010 at 5:23 am

Posted in art, Essays

2 Responses

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  1. Sol LeWitt intended the drawings to be executed by others. Some years ago I was contacted by a collector who had purchased a few Sol LeWitt wall drawings. What he had actually acquired was the rights to have them executed. He had the instructions and the permissions. This was while LeWitt was still alive.

    Jim Richard Wilson

    August 19, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    • That is very good to know. It seemed like it must be, but it’s an interesting case. Absolutely a case of artist-as-composer then.


      August 19, 2010 at 10:28 pm

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