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Sol LeWitt

sol-lewitt

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Sol LeWitt came to fame in the late 1960s with his wall drawings and “structures” (a term he preferred instead of “sculptures”) but was prolific in a wide range of media including drawing, printmaking, photography, and painting. He has been the subject of hundreds of solo exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world since 1965.

Sol LeWitt was born in Hartford, on Sept. 9 1928, the son of immigrants from Russia. His father, a doctor, died when he was 6, after which he moved with his mother, a nurse, to live with an aunt in New Britain, Conn. His mother took him to art classes at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. He would draw on wrapping paper from his aunt’s supply store.

At Syracuse University, he studied art before he was drafted for the Korean War in 1951, during which he made posters for the Special Services. After his service he moved to New York to study illustration and cartooning. For a while he did paste-ups, mechanicals and photostats for Seventeen magazine. He spent a year as a graphic designer in the office of a young architect named I. M. Pei.

Meanwhile, he painted, or tried to. For a while, he hired a model to draw from life and copied old masters. He felt lost. An aspiring artist in New York during the waning days of Abstract Expressionism, an art squarely about individual touch, he thought he had no particular touch of his own and therefore nothing to add.

But then he took a job at the book counter at the Museum of Modern Art, where he met other young artists with odd jobs there, including Dan Flavin, Robert Ryman and Robert Mangold. He noticed the nascent works of Flavin and also absorbed early art by Jasper Johns and Frank Stella. Minimalism, a yet-unnamed movement, seemed like a fresh start. Mr. LeWitt was meanwhile intrigued by Russian Constructivism, with its engineering aesthetic, and by Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs, sequential pictures of people and animals in motion, which he came across one day in a book that somebody had left in his apartment. From all this he saw a way forward. It was to go backward.

He decided to reduce art to its essentials, “to recreate art, to start from square one,” he said, beginning literally with squares and cubes. But unlike some strict Minimalists, Mr. LeWitt was not interested in industrial materials. He was focused on systems and concepts — volume, transparency, sequences, variations, stasis, irregularity and so on — which he expressed in words that might or might not be translated into actual sculptures or photographs or drawings. To him, ideas were what counted.

At the time, linguistic theorists were talking about words and mental concepts as signs and signifiers. Mr. LeWitt was devising what you might call his own grammar and syntax of cubes and spheres, a personal theory of visual signs. It was theoretical, but not strictly mathematical. Partly it was poetic. He began with propositions for images, which became something else if they were translated into physical form by him or other people.

He also liked the inherent impermanence of Conceptual art, maybe because it dovetailed with his lack of pretense: having started to make wall drawings for exhibitions in the 1960s, he embraced the fact that these could be painted over after the shows. (Walls, unlike canvases or pieces of paper, kept the drawings two-dimensional, he also thought.) He wasn’t making precious one-of-a-kind objects for posterity, he said. Objects are perishable. But ideas need not be.

“Conceptual art is not necessarily logical,” he wrote in an article in Artforum magazine in 1967. “The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable.”

He reduced art to a few of the most basic shapes (quadrilaterals, spheres, triangles), colors (red, yellow, blue, black) and types of lines, and organized them by guidelines he felt in the end free to bend. Much of what he devised came down to specific ideas or instructions: a thought you were meant to contemplate, or plans for drawings or actions that could be carried out by you, or not.

Sometimes these plans derived from a logical system, like a game; sometimes they defied logic so that the results could not be foreseen, with instructions intentionally vague to allow for interpretation. Characteristically, he would then credit assistants or others with the results. With his wall drawing, mural-sized works that sometimes took teams of people weeks to execute, he might decide whether a line for which he had given the instruction “not straight” was sufficiently irregular without becoming wavy (and like many more traditional artists, he became more concerned in later years that his works look just the way he wished). But he always gave his team wiggle room, believing that the input of others — their joy, boredom, frustration or whatever — remained part of the art.

In so doing, Mr. LeWitt gently reminded everybody that architects are called artists — good architects, anyway — even though they don’t lay their own bricks, just as composers write music that other people play but are still musical artists. Mr. LeWitt, by his methods, permitted other people to participate in the creative process, to become artists themselves.

To grasp his work could require a little effort. His early sculptures were chaste white cubes and gray cement blocks. For years people associated him with them, and they seemed to encapsulate a remark he once made: that what art looks like “isn’t too important.” This was never exactly his point. But his early drawings on paper could resemble mathematical diagrams or chemical charts. What passed for humor in his art tended to be dry. “Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance but Little Value” (1968), an object he buried in the garden of Dutch collectors, was his deadpan gag about waving goodbye to Minimalism. He documented it in photographs, in one of which he stands at attention beside the cube. A second picture shows the shovel; a third, him digging the hole.

He took an idea as far as he thought it could go, then tried to find a way to proceed, so that he was never satisfied with a particular result but saw each work as a proposition opening onto a fresh question. Asked about the switch he made in the 1980’s — adding ink washes, which permitted him new colors, along with curves and free forms — Mr. LeWitt responded, “Why not?”

He added, “A life in art is an unimaginable and unpredictable experience.”

Via NY Times

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