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Sol LeWitt
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Wikipedia About Sol LeWitt

Solomon “Sol” LeWitt (September 9, 1928 – April 8, 2007) was an American artist linked to various movements, including Conceptual art and Minimalism. 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. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Sol Lewitt, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Sol LeWitt’s influential work bridges the Minimalist and Conceptual Art movements of the early 1960s. For more than forty years, he has remained extraordinarily prolific in a range of media that includes structural installations, wall drawings, photography, works on paper, prints, and artist’s books. In 1967, he responded to an invitation from the editor of Artforum to contribute a statement on his work to the magazine. In “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” LeWitt did more than simply outline the parameters of his artistic practice—he coined the term for a movement that would tip the scales from an orientation toward objects to an idea-based art. He radically proposed that “when an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” He went on to explain that “what the work of art looks like isn’t too important. It has to look like something if it has physical form. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the artist is concerned.” Neither manifesto nor dogmatic treatise, LeWitt’s third-person proposition defined how this radical new mind-set and rational procedural framework could ultimately undermine the art world’s obsession with authorship and render the formal necessities of design unnecessary, in order to eliminate “the arbitrary, the capricious, and subjective.”1

In 1965, he showed several large wooden slab constructions painted with multiple layers of lacquer to achieve an uninflected, industrial-looking finish in his first New York solo exhibition at artist Dan Graham’s short-lived John Daniels Gallery. LeWitt has recounted how he made the transition in 1964 from these early planar geometric formations to his first three-dimensional, open, modular structures: “Disturbed by the inconsistency of the grain of the wood in the Daniels Gallery pieces, and by the emphasis on surface (not only in appearance, but in the long hours of work needed to achieve the correct luster), I decided to remove the skin altogether and reveal the structure. Then it became necessary to plan the skeleton so that the parts had some consistency. Equal, square modules were used to build the structures. In order to emphasize the linear and skeletal structure, they were painted black.”2 One of the first vertically oriented open structures, Standing Open Structure Black (1964), corresponded to a human scale, which was in keeping with the discourse on phenomenology circulating among fellow Minimalist artists such as Donald Judd. The field of perception concerned LeWitt briefly, but ultimately he moved beyond the body as a frame of reference toward a purely formal analysis stemming from basic arithmetic and numerical systems, permutations, and progressions.

By the end of 1965, LeWitt began painting the modular structures white, due to his concern that his use of black might be interpreted as harboring hidden content. He also believed that white allowed for greater integration of the object in space, specifically that of the white cube of the gallery. It was at this time that he also randomly established a ratio of 1:8.5 to dictate the correlation between line (matter) and space (interval) in his cubic structures.

By 1966, the cube would become the basic element in LeWitt’s lexicon: “The most interesting character-istic of the cube is that it is relatively uninteresting. Compared to any other three-dimensional form, the cube lacks any aggressive force, implies no motion, and is least emotive. Therefore, it is the best form to use as a basic unit for any more elaborate function, the grammatical device from which the work may proceed.”3

This was an important year for LeWitt as his white cubic structures were featured in a solo show at the Dwan Gallery and included in several seminal New York exhibitions, including the Jewish Museum’s Primary Structures, which rather belatedly brought Minimalism to a broader public and endorsed LeWitt and other participating artists—Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, and Anne Truitt—as serious practitioners of the new art. Cubic Modular Piece No. 2 (L-Shaped Modular Piece) (1966) is made up of five columns of six stacked cubes serially aligned in the shape of the letter L. The grid became a flexible medium through which a defined shape could take visible form in whatever scale he determined. Though the arrangements of his towerlike structures are conceptually simple, depending on the vantage point of the viewer, the cubes overlap, challenging depth perception and concentrating the overall intensity of the works.

In 1968, LeWitt enacted a significant breakthrough in the history of Conceptual Art: he drew a combination of vertical, horizontal, and forty-five-degree diagonal lines (left to right and right to left) directly onto one of Paula Cooper’s gallery walls and called it Wall Drawing #1. Reasoning that it seemed “more natural to work directly on walls than to make a construction … and then put the construction on the wall,”4 LeWitt, from that point onward, followed a carefully articulated system he later published as “Doing Wall Drawings.”5 In this text he states that the artist’s responsibility for a drawing ends with the conception of the idea and providing a plan in the form of instructions (written, spoken, and/or drawn). After that point, an assistant or any other individual executes the work in any location, any number of times. By abdicating his claim to originality, forcing himself to deal with the architecture of a given space and walls in varying states of disrepair, allowing for different skill levels on the part of his proxies, and accepting the work’s inevitable destruction (painting over), LeWitt rendered his wall drawings contingent and provisional. Never in the history of art had drawings occupied such an ambiguous position.6

In 1980, the formula for the wall drawings changed to include more variety of shapes and media, including ink washes, inspired by his love of the Italian countryside surrounding his farmhouse near Spoleto. Warm earth tones reminiscent of frescoes and the Umbrian hills infiltrated his palette, resulting in increasingly sensual wall drawings.7 The installation of Four Geometric Figures in a Room was commissioned by the Walker Art Center in 1984 for the entrance hall to two newly constructed galleries.8 To create the piece, a special drawing ink saturated with pigment was rubbed on the slightly absorbent wall in layers—at least three for each color—then rinsed with clear water. Each area was carefully marked to produce a sharp, clear edge.

The 1980s also brought with it a new material for LeWitt’s outdoor structures—concrete blocks, which he has openly acknowledged as having “an inherent ugliness.”9 He first considered using brick, but thought it was too steeped in architectural history, aesthetically loaded, and small in scale: “It suddenly dawned on me that I could also have the concrete block as a module. Concrete blocks were even more ubiquitous than brick, and an even more basic building material. Everything is built of concrete blocks. I preferred the larger module.”10 He has created walls, steps, triangles, towers, pyramids, and corner structures; the Walker’s sculpture X with Columns (1996) is a variant of the latter. These structures continue to evoke LeWitt’s early works through seriality and the use of the grid. And like his wall drawings, this monumental piece was conceived but not built by the artist—it was left to skilled construction workers to achieve its perfect alignment. To paraphrase LeWitt, Conceptual Art is good when the idea is good. And the idea was good.

  1. Quotations in this paragraph are from Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (Summer 1967): 80.

  2. Quoted in Alicia Legg, Sol LeWitt, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978), 57.

  3. LeWitt, “The Cube,” in Legg, Sol Lewitt, 172.

  4. Quoted in Gregory Battcock, “Documentation in Conceptual Art,” Arts Magazine 44, no. 6 (April 1970): 45. Reprinted in Legg, Sol LeWitt, 169.

  5. LeWitt, “Doing Wall Drawings,” Art Now: New York 3, no. 2 (June 1971), unpaginated. Reprinted in Gary Garrels, ed., Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2000), 376.

  6. When acquiring a piece, a collector receives a diagram and a signed certificate of authenticity with a brief instructional description, designated media, date, and location of first installation, and draughtsmen’s names if available. The Walker’s certificate for Wall Drawing #9A (1969/1996) notes the fact that it was first executed by LeWitt and several assistants in black pencil at L’Attico Gallery in Rome in May 1969. The description reads: “Two-part serial drawing. The wall or rectangle is divided vertically or horizontally into two parts. One part with vertical and horizontal lines superimposed, the other part with diagonal left and diagonal right lines superimposed.” The Walker also owns the companion piece, Wall Drawing #9B (1969/1996). It is identical to Wall Drawing #9A except that it is executed in colored pencil. #9B was first installed at the Walker in January 1996, and was executed by Kristin Hanson, Jeanne McGee, and Anthony Sansota.

  7. This point was made by Michael Brenson, “Monuments in Time,“ in Susanna Singer, ed., Sol LeWitt Concrete Block Sculptures (Milan: Alberico Cetti Serbelloni Editore, 2002), 9.

  8. LeWitt’s certificate instructions for this drawing are: “Four geometric figures (circle, square, trapezoid, parallelogram) drawn with four-inch (10 cm) wide band of yellow color ink wash. The areas inside the figures are blue color ink wash, and the areas outside the figures are red color ink wash. On each side of the walls are bands of India ink wash.” Four Geometric Figures in a Room was first executed in 1984 under the supervision of Sol LeWitt by Jo Watanabe, Kate Hunt, and Owen Osten. With the construction of the Herzog & de Meuron expansion to the Barnes building in 2004–2005, the hall was altered to such an extent that the piece by necessity was destroyed and will be resited.

  9. Quoted in Brenson, “Monuments of Time,” 15.

  10. Ibid., 15.

Carpenter, Elizabeth. “Sol Lewitt.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center


artist’s quote artist’s quote LeWitt, Sol, 1967

Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable. In terms of idea the artist is free to even surprise himself. Ideas are discoverd by intuition. Sol Lewitt, 1967

artworks — Sol LeWitt — Collections — Walker Art Center