Sol LeWitt - Biography and Legacy
American Conceptual Artist and Painter
New York, New York
Biography of Sol LeWitt
Solomon "Sol" LeWitt was the only child of Russian Jewish parents. His family lived in Hartford, Connecticut until his father, a doctor, died when Sol was six years old. Thereafter, LeWitt and his mother, a nurse, lived with his aunt in New Britain, Connecticut.
Although LeWitt dismissed art-making as something that "most of us kids do like," as a young boy he displayed a real proclivity for art and, in particular, for creating "humorous" drawings. While still living in Hartford, his mother took him to art classes at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in which participants made art while listening to music. LeWitt recalled that, during one of the classes, his mother had made a spontaneous, black circle and had encouraged him to do the same.
Reluctant to fall into an industrial job like many workers in New Britain, LeWitt decided to pursue art as an act of rebellion. However, his mother wanted him to obtain a college degree; he ultimately attended Syracuse University as a compromise. Initially, LeWitt had difficulty adapting to the formal academic setting and found the curriculum to be overly rigid. During his later years of attendance, however, an infusion of new instructors gave the school a more flexible atmosphere. It was during that later period in his college career that LeWitt was introduced to printmaking. He won a $1000 award for his work in lithography from the Tiffany Foundation, which enabled him to spend time in Europe studying the work of the Old Masters.
In 1951, LeWitt was drafted for the Korean War and was assigned to the Special Services; his duties included making posters. While serving he visited shrines, temples and gardens in Korea and Japan. After being discharged, LeWitt moved to New York and balanced classes at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (now known as the School of Visual Arts) with a design internship at Seventeen magazine. He joined the architectural office of I. M. Pei in 1955 as a graphic designer. What he learned from the architectural process convinced him to consider art as much an idea or a procedural blueprint that could be executed by others as a proprietary object of one person's making. LeWitt once said, "An architect doesn't go off with a shovel and dig his foundation and lay every brick. He's still an artist."
LeWitt continued to paint, but his lack of direction became a source of frustration to him. Leaving his job to devote his time entirely to art, LeWitt moved into a loft in SoHo and enrolled in drawing classes. He experimented with a wide range of subject matter, including the human figure, still life, interiors, and sketched copies of old master paintings. Inspiration came when he took a night position at The Museum of Modern Art. He met other artists, including Dan Flavin, Robert Mangold, and Robert Ryman, who were also searching for ideas beyond the pervasive yet, in their view, increasingly stale ideology of Abstract Expressionism. These artists, each in their own way, were seeking to disengage art from outmoded sentiments relating to gesture and personal expression. Viewing the Sixteen Americans exhibition at MoMA was a turning point for LeWitt, who conceived of a way to resolve the flatness of painting in the three-dimensional techniques and vibrant coloring of the new contemporary works.
Strongly influenced by the work of Jasper Johns and Eadweard Muybridge, LeWitt began to incorporate relief elements and series of moving figures into his painting as with Run from 1961. Wall Structure, Blue (1962) marks the artist's first move toward more simplified form, relying on color, shape and texture to make a bold statement. Combining the new pared-down compositions with an interest in three-dimensionality, LeWitt's work developed over the next few years into his first "open" structures, modular structures in black or white wood, or metal that repeated according to predetermined variations or mathematical permutations. These skeletal variations of the basic square or rectangle were the literal building blocks LeWitt used throughout his career. At his first solo exhibition at John Daniels Gallery in 1965, he exhibited a series of more complex open structures, which explored the manipulation of space with angled walls and irregular shapes.
Dissatisfied with the results of such visual experiments, LeWitt eventually returned to what he considered to be the fundamentals: he began to build measured structures according to an arbitrarily chosen ratio of 1:8:5. Using an accumulation of these structures, LeWitt completed Serial Project #1 (ABCD) in 1966, a large-format combination of cubes and rectangles that resumes the serial nature of his work inspired by Muybridge's photography. 1969 signaled LeWitt's foray into art theory; he wrote "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," (1969) and "Sentences on Conceptual Art," (1969), essays that fully articulated his intentions and perspective, also firmly situating him as the forerunner of a new movement: Conceptual art. At the same time, he had begun the process of distancing himself from Minimalism.
The first wall drawings originated with LeWitt's participation in the "Xerox Book" project curated by Seth Siegelaub. With this project, the conditions of artistic production were standardized and the artists were given a series of "requirements" they were asked to follow. LeWitt's entry consisted of 24 variations of a line drawing, two of which were shown at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1968 as large-scale reproductions in pencil. LeWitt effectively freed line from its traditional roles and functions of describing contour, constructing space (as an orthogonal), and acting as the expressive signature of an artist's intention or "genius." Representing a critical development in his work, the wall pieces focused on the overall concept and the rules of execution rather than the work itself, which would inevitably be painted over. These qualities, arguably the absolute "basics," are also evident in another notorious work of the same year, Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance but Little Value, documented only in impersonal photographs. LeWitt later used photography to supplement a number of other projects including his autobiography, a collection of 124 photographs published in book form. LeWitt himself is rarely featured in these pictures; he most often refused to submit pictures of himself for publications, insisting that the focus should be on his work and not himself.
Late Period and Death
Although conservative critics tended to view LeWitt's work with derision and contempt, many underwent a conversion after viewing the 1978 retrospective held at The Museum of Modern Art. This well-curated exhibition led LeWitt himself to reconsider his work and explore new techniques. As a consequence, other shapes began to figure more prominently in his wall drawings, which also started to incorporate elements of Optical, or Op, Art. There were major changes in his personal life at this time as well, including his marriage to Carol Androgio in 1982 and their relocation to Italy.
In response to the heightened demand for public sculpture in the 1980s, LeWitt produced commissioned works using cinder blocks. These structures revisited the basic form of the cube subjected to different arrangements. The designs of his wall drawings became freer and more playful as LeWitt experimented with curving lines and blobs, as in the Squiggly Brushstrokes and Wavy Lines series. At the time of his death from complications of cancer in 2007, LeWitt was still at the height of his career.
The Legacy of Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt earned a place in the history of art for his leading role in the Conceptual movement. His belief in the artist as a generator of ideas was instrumental in the transition from the modern to the postmodern era. Conceptual art, expounded by LeWitt as an intellectual, pragmatic act, added a new dimension to the artist's role that was distinctly separate from the romantic nature of Abstract Expressionism. His Minimalist approach, which emphasized simplicity and clarity, was embraced by artists like Eva Hesse and Frank Stella. Even Hesse's own work, with its emphasis on intimacy and the human touch, pays its regards to LeWitt's work, which, in its small imperfections, eschews mechanical precision for handicraft.
LeWitt was an ardent champion of the artistic community. His willingness to exchange his own work with nearly anyone, whether amateur or well-established artist, encouraged a kind of support network in the visual arts. It also enabled him to amass a large collection from local and international artists. He was a founder of Printed Matter, a nonprofit organization that promotes the book arts and now maintains an exhibition space in Chelsea. The establishment of the Sol LeWitt Fund for Artists Work, made possible by a generous donation from the artist, continues to support the creation and exhibition of public art in New York City. His cinder block sculptures are still exhibited in public spaces across the United States, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art will have a comprehensive retrospective of his work on display until 2033.