Linocut #5 from Linocuts (2006). Printed by Jo Watanabe, New York. QUT Art Collection. Purchased 2007. On display until July 28 in Heavy Weights: International Works on Paper from the Collection at QUT Art Museum, Gardens Point campus, Brisbane.
THE humble linocut printing process, introduced in Germany in the early 20th century, was often disparaged by artists who felt the technique lacked subtlety and complexity and was suitable only for schoolchildren and amateurs.
There were some dissenters, however. Erich Heckel and the Die Brucke group as well as British artist Claude Flight used linocut regularly, revelling in the ease of gouging and carving lines into the soft surface of the linoleum. But it wasn’t until major artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso started using the technique and achieved gratifying results that the prejudice against the lino print diminished.
The surprising potential of the technique can also be seen in Sol LeWitt’s Linocuts, a series of nine coloured lino prints. Produced in 2006, it is one of the last works he created before he died in 2007.
Linocuts is on show at Brisbane’s Queensland University of Technology Art Museum in an exhibition titled Heavy Weights, which showcases some of the university’s significant collection of international works on paper. Hanging alongside the LeWitt, are prints by key artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miro, Alexander Calder, David Hockney, Auguste Rodin, Chuck Close and Joe Tilson.
LeWitt’s nine prints dominate one wall of the gallery. It is such a commanding grouping because the same colours — yellow, red, blue, purple and green — are repeated throughout the prints in different configurations of geometric shapes. With the repetition of shapes and hard-edged colour, LeWitt has eliminated any personal narrative and the effect is to give a different visual experience in each print.
According to the museum’s senior curator Vanessa Van Ooyen, LeWitt has elevated the status of the linocut. ‘‘ He has really pushed the boundaries of printmaking, and in particular, the standing of the linocut, to show the extraordinary complexity that you can actually achieve with such a simple technique,’’ she says.
‘‘ I think the whole thing about LeWitt was that he was trying to debunk the idea of the fine-art object that has this high-art status. He really wanted art that was accessible, and he has achieved that in these linocuts.’’
Van Ooyen says Linocuts is like a visual puzzle or a Rubik’s cube, or even a musical score. ‘‘ The sign of a great work is that it resonates with you, and I think this simple patterning and this selection of the colours is so strong. He plays with the shapes and he places the viewer in a visual conundrum. For me, these linocuts are also like musical notes, or a musical score in some language we haven’t deciphered yet.’’
LeWitt, who was born in 1928 in Connecticut, was a luminary of modern American art, helping establish conceptual art and minimalism. These important movements, which were a rejection of abstract expressionism and its personal, emotional angst, resulted in a new approach to thinking about art.
In the 1960s, LeWitt was renowned for his wall drawings and sculptural ‘‘ structures’’ using basic geometric shapes, such as the triangle and sphere, but printmaking was an important part of his oeuvre. He was particularly interested in serialisation, influenced by music and by Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential photographs of people and animals in motion.
Despite his celebrity status in the art world, Le Witt was notoriously reclusive. He was, as The New York Times once described him, ‘‘ the opposite of the artist as celebrity’’; he wanted people to be interested in the work. For LeWitt, the aim of art was to reduce it to essentials, to start from square one and to focus on the primacy of the original idea because, as he once said, ‘‘ Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution.’’
Edition of 26; materials: Fabriano Classico, 350g; dimensions:
45.1cm x 45.1cm