Sol LeWitt

The American artist Sol LeWitt (born 1928) created drawings and sculptures in the Minimalist and Conceptualist categories.

Sol LeWitt was born on September 9, 1928, in Hartford, Connecticut. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Syracuse University in 1949. During the 1950s and 1960s he taught art in New York City, also working for a time as a receptionist at the Museum of Modern Art, and was employed in the graphics department of the I. M. Pei architectural firm. In 1963 he began to exhibit his work in New York, and he had his first one-man show at the Daniels Gallery in 1965. During the latter part of the 1960s he was involved in group exhibitions of Minimal art in New York and the Netherlands. Around 1969 his work became more conceptual, and during the 1970s he participated in major exhibitions in the United States, Switzerland, Italy, and West Germany. Beginning in 1980 he lived in Spoleto, Italy.

As an active artist, LeWitt has been identified with two late 20th-century movements, Minimalism and Conceptualism. In a sense, both movements are so simple that they require complex definitions. Minimalist artists emphasize basic materials and shapes and make deliberate efforts to avoid both subject matter and the "hand of the artist." Conceptualism moves a step further by stressing the idea or concept of the work, not the object.

Early in LeWitt's career his repetition of serial shapes and emphasis on basic lines and planes made his sculpture fit into the Minimalist category, along with that of sculptors such as Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Robert Morris. From that foundation he moved into work that relied less on the formal qualities and more on the ideas of repetition, sequence, and system, and thus became more of a Conceptualist.


Conceptualist Controversy

His indentification as a Conceptualist led to an interesting situation with one of LeWitt's works, Standing Open Structure, Black, 1964. It is an open rectangle made of wood and painted black. The museum where the piece is on long-term loan received a loan request from an exhibition with several European venues. Concerns about shipping and the absence of such an important work from a permanent installation prompted the museum to inquire as to whether LeWitt would consider having the work recreated overseas at the first venue. The author of influential writings on conceptual art, LeWitt had articulated the significance of the idea in the work of art. LeWitt's wall drawings, for instance, are much like musical scores: it is LeWitt's intention that they be originated by him, but be carried out by others, and that they are impermanent and repeatable. However, this was not true of all of his works. Thoughts of practicality led to an overgeneralization of LeWitt's conceptual stance and the idea that any of his works may be reproduced and still be authentic. Because LeWitt was alive (and still owns Standing Open Structure, Black), a telephone call resolved the question. Upon learning of the dilemma, LeWitt was amused but nonetheless did not agree to the recreation of his work, asking, "Would you repaint a Mondrian?"

Other early LeWitt structures, especially those painted white, have become dirty or discolored. Though some would make a case for them to be left as is, citing the historical value of their original appearance, LeWitt disagrees and has them repainted. As LeWitt asserts, "There is no reason why a piece shouldn't look as it was when it was made. I would like to have my work to always be as it was when it was made."


Early Works

Serial Project No. 1 (ABCD; 1966) is an example of LeWitt's Minimalist and serialist approach and was an early work to gain critical notice. The steel work is about six and one half feet square and the height varies from about one inch to twenty inches. It looks a bit like a symmetrical model of a city consisting only of square and rectangular buildings. There are four groups (ABCD) of nine-part grids, for a total of thirty-six. The viewer can easily see that the appearance of the work is based on logical patterns and arrangement of parts, although clearly describing every pattern used may be difficult since so many patterns are presented simultaneously. A work like this is somewhat like a musical score that might incorporate a theme that is repeated backward or as a mirror image of itself. The actual structure may not be easily described on first encountering the work, but the perceiver is aware that it is there.

Sculptural works made up of cubes and grids were important productions of LeWitt in the 1960s and into the 1970s. He also made some important drawings, again using the grid theme, such as Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes (1974). In this work the artist worked out all the possible variations from a diagram of a cube in perspective. He also made a number of drawings based on simple lines and variations on them. For example, Four Basic Kinds of Straight Lines and All Their Combinations in Fifteen Parts (1969) is a series of 15 pen and ink drawings of parallel lines, each part measuring eight inches square. The four basic kinds of straight lines are vertical (1), horizontal (2), diagonal left to right (3), and diagonal right to left (4). In this work the fifteen squares are labelled as follows, indicating which types of lines are used in each: 1, 2, 3, 4, 12, 13, 14, 23, 24, 34, 123, 124, 134, 234, and 1234. Later, LeWitt made similar works with different kinds of arcs, and with different kinds of geometric forms.

In his work of the 1960s, which emphasized lines, grids, and systems, LeWitt was inspired by the sequential photographs of the late 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose images of horses and human figures were studies in motion. His photographs pointed out to LeWitt the formal value of repetition, sequence, and a system.


Later Work

In his later work LeWitt put more emphasis on the monumentality of the idea and its manifestation, even as he continued to use lines, grids, and systems. Works of the 1970s and later were presented on a monumental scale, often designed for specific rooms for exhibition. These works often have extremely lengthy titles that also serve as instructions for putting the work up. For example, the following is the title of a piece first installed at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978:

Three-part drawing: A six-inch (15 cm) grid covering the walls. 1st wall: On a red wall, blue lines from each corner to points on the grid, yellow lines from the center to points on the grid; 2nd wall: On a yellow wall, blue lines from each corner to points on the grid, red lines from the midpoint of each side to points on the grid; 3rd wall: On a blue wall, red lines from the midpoint of each side to points on the grid, yellow lines from the center to points on the grid. (The number of lines and their length are determined by the draftsmen, but each wall has an equal number of lines.)

This title describes the work well enough that the draftsman who installs it will know what to do. As in many other conceptual pieces, the artist's interest was in the concept and idea, not the execution of the work. This work also shows LeWitt's interest in simplicity—using primary colors, grids, and lines.

In keeping with his simple conceptual style, he provided squares on the walls for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Wrenching simple is what some called Lewitt's Black Form, a cube of black stones, which was erected in the middle of a plaza in Munster, Germany. Later, after officials had removed it, he built another, which was put up in front of the Town Hall in Hamburg-Altona as a monument to Jews who suffered and died in the Holocaust.

In 1993 Lewitt created a sixty-two-foot-high, site-specific drawing expressly for the atrium of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. On certain days, when the sun comes through the skylight, shadows are cast across Irregular Bands of Color, animating the work, changing it and making it enormously complex. The drawing—which was done in ink washes directly on the wall, like a kind of fresco—has the configuration, basically, of stars within stars. But the star at the center is not visible because an architectural element conceals it. Bands is thus also about our will to make order out of chaos until ultimately we realize that chaos is ready the natural order.

LeWitt received a commission in 1996 to add to the new National Airport terminal in Washington. His charge was to design an 18-foot medallion to be set in the floor of the main concourse. The first viewing of his new wall paintings was shown for the first time in the U.S. in December of 1996 and combined both modernist and conceuptual elements. The work comprises simple and common seven 12-foot squares of oil, painted directly onto the wall, one each in red, yellow and blue; one in dark gray, one in light gray; and two in black. The work reflects the essence of the Modernist art movement: monochrome painting, geometric form, heroic scale and modulated repetition. However, this installation is in principle conceptual. LeWitt created a set of written instructions that, when carried out by artisans, realizes the work of art.

For LeWitt the idea was always the primary key. In his published statements it is clear that he believed his work and similar conceptual work need not be boring, as is sometimes perceived, but should be cool and unemotional, allowing the viewer to re-think and enjoy the thoughts and mental considerations behind the work. With many works of art it is easy for the viewer to respond primarily emotionally; with LeWitt's work, there must be a thinking response.


Further Reading on Sol LeWitt

An excellent monograph is A. Legg, editor, Sol LeWitt (1978), which includes writings by the artist. More limited selections by LeWitt are found in D. Ashton, editor, Twentieth-Century Artists on Art (1985), and Ursula Meyer, editor, Conceptual Art (1972). Useful studies are G. Battcock, Minimal Art (1968), and R. Pincus-Witten, Postminimalism (1977). For a broader discussion of various art movements, including Minimalism and Conceptualism, see C. Robins, The Pluralist Era (1984). Other more general studies of this period are B. Rose, American Art Since 1900 (1975); S. Hunter and J. Jacobus, Modern Art (1985); E. Lucie-Smith, Art in the Seventies (1980); and E. Lucie-Smith, Movements in Art Since 1945 (1985).