Language as Code

Sol LeWitt is a conceptual artist whose notable work stems from the post war era. LeWitt’s work is from a period in the late sixties where the growth of minimalism was burgeoning. The desire to break art down its basics can be seen as contrary to the prior periodic art styles. This new phase of minimalistic art was promising for artists and began to gain an appreciation from the public and art world. It’s newly appreciated growth can be see through art critic Hilton Kramer, who commented on the new style, stating that “a new aesthetic era is upon us” (Meyer 2001, p. 13). The influx of minimalistic work, in structural, procedural and conceptual forms cooperated with LeWitt’s style and art making process. This is evident through LeWitt’s instructional artwork of a qaudrangle, the focal piece in this post.

LeWitt’s strategy of turning language to code is seemingly simple yet potentially challengingly. LeWitt uses procedural instructions in the form of text that direct from one step from one to another. This process is called a generative process. Following and decoding each of the instructions execute his iconic works of art. The decoding of language is open to ones own interpretation. This is what makes many of his works so challenging, is that there is no precise directions about what tools to use, scale and dimensions. One is invited to utilise their own perception of these elements resulting in varied interpretations. Despite the clarity in the steps to be followed in his works, they can also be vague and difficult to interpret.

Before delving into producing one of LeWitt’s works, as a class we branched off into groups and explored the notion of procedural action by creating flow charts. This exercise prepared us in how to follow a set of instructions, commands and options. The following is a sample flowchart we produced as a group:


This exercise expanded our understanding about the workings of a procedural paradigm, a function prevalent in LeWitt’s works.

Limitations and possibilities of this coding technique:
In several of LeWitt’s works are contradictions which to one may be a limitation, whereas to another a possibility. The largest potential limitation that may also be a possibility of his coding technique (in the work focal in this post – the instructional drawings) is the lack of no specific directions. There are no direct measurements about how far to draw lines, what angles to incorporate and what materials to use. These limited instructions may be overwhelming when it comes to deciding what course of action to take. However in contrast, this may be a possibility of freedom to other decoding his instructions. In LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969) he states the importance of intervals and measurements in an artwork, but yet that they will be obvious in the piece it self. He is implying that though space may be important, it is only as important as it is made to be by the decoder, and thus not an integral component in his instructions.

Furthermore, another contradiction in regards to limitations and possibilities of his coding techniques is the procedural and particular course of instructions, yet the ambiguity, spontaneity and freedom that also comes with them. This is evident when LeWitt states “Ideas do not necessarily proceed in logical order. They may set one off in unexpected directions but an idea must necessarily be completed in the mind before the next one is formed” (1969).

This raises the next point of why this type of coding process? LeWitt justifies the use of language to create his works by saying “Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use any form, from an expression of words (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally” (1969). This suggests that the use of text, along with any other forms of expression can be utilised in producing a work. The process of procedural programming which is prominent in his works focuses more on the concepts and structure rather than materials, an ideal element for a minimalist artist. Although his instructions and coding techniques are straightforward, yet vague, this encourages the decoder to undergo an art making experience. Having no specific instructions invites the interpreter to make irrational judgements that lead to new experiences (LeWitt 1969).

This is exactly what occurred when as a group we attempted one of his works – we underwent an experience of deciphering these seemingly straightforward steps. Upon first reading the set tasks we were shocked. We tackled the paragraph by breaking it down into smaller achievable steps.

Certain markings indicate where one set of instructions were begun and completed in different phases.

The work took an hour or so produce and the results were intriguing. Deciphering his coding and producing the work made us realize LeWitt’s rationale in creating these works – to reduce art to the basics. This concluded to the idea that LeWitt’s main intention with his works is the importance on the process of creating, rather than a focus on meaning or visual appeal.

The quadrangle complete.

Despite how straightforward the instructions were for creating this piece, there could be ways to easily understand his coding without confusion. A main suggestion would be having more grammatically correct steps. Although LeWitt could have adjusted the steps in such a way but it would have defeated his intention. He is a firm believer of conceptual art not being necessarily logical (1969) and that “the logic of a piece or series is a device that is used at times, only to be ruined. Logic may be used to camouflage the real intent of the artist, to lull the viewer into the belief that he understands the work, or to infer a paradoxical situation (such as logic vs illogical) (LeWitt 1969).

As a whole LeWitt’s adopted style of generative art is one that is iconic to his name and the conceptual and minimalistic art world.


LeWitt, S 1969, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, Art Language, vol. 1, no. 1, viewed 17 August 2015, <>

LeWitt, S 1969, ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’, Art Language, vol. 1, no. 1, viewed 17 August 2015, <>

Meyer, J 2004, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, Yale University Press.


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