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An Artist Of Concepts

April 9, 2007
By DEBORAH HORNBLOW, Courant Staff Writer

Sol LeWitt would not want much fuss made over his passing. The famously modest Hartford-born artist, who died Sunday morning in New York City at 78, eschewed fame and celebrity.

"He never felt that art has to do with the personality of the person who made it," said Andrea Miller-Keller, former curator of contemporary art at Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum and a longtime friend and collaborator who is regarded as a foremost interpreter of his work. "It's not about the star power, but about the art."

Throughout his life, the Chester-based LeWitt preferred to let his work and his actions speak for themselves, and he was happier when he could shift the limelight to other artists or to the organizations and charities that he and his wife, Carol, supported.

But the problem, as ever with LeWitt, is that he gave the world too much to write and think about, too much to see and celebrate.

LeWitt's death, after a long battle with cancer, brings an end to one of the legendary artistic careers of our time. To all who knew him, he was an extraordinary and principled man; an artistic maverick, a native son who never forgot his local connections; a genius whose talent and drive were equaled only by his enormous generosity; and a husband and father whose love of his wife and their two daughters, Sofia and Eva, was a wellspring of color in his life and work.

"Sol LeWitt, one of the most important American artists, is also one of the most beloved and influential," said Chrissie Iles, a curator at New York's Whitney Museum, which produced a LeWitt retrospective in 2000. "His early work established the new languages of both minimalism and conceptual art, and his `Sentences on Conceptual Art' [a list of 35 statements he published in 1969], became one of the iconic artists' texts of the 20th century. His wall drawings re-defined the parameters of both drawing and painting, whilst his structures epitomize the abstract serial form that came to define art of the '70s. ... His work continues to exert a powerful influence on the younger generation in its deceptive simplicity and power."

LeWitt was born in Hartford in 1928 to a doctor and a nurse, both Jewish immigrants from Russia. He spent his early years in the city and, as a child, was taken to art classes at the Wadsworth Atheneum. LeWitt's father died when he was 6, and his mother moved with him to New Britain, where her parents operated a grocery store. An only child, LeWitt attended New Britain High School and went on to Syracuse University, studying art because he "didn't know what else to do," he told a reporter years later. "It was something I knew I liked."

LeWitt was in the U.S. Army for two years during the Korean War, serving in non-combat positions in California, Japan and Korea.

After his discharge, he moved to New York City where he set up a studio on Hester Street in the Bowery, a place that would be his home for the next 20 years. He became part of a community of young artists that included painter Robert Mangold; sculptors Tom Doyle, Eva Hesse and Dan Flavin; and future art critic Lucy Lippard, who dubbed LeWitt and his contemporaries "the Bowery boys." LeWitt initially worked as a graphic designer, taking jobs at Seventeen magazine, in the offices of the architect I.M. Pei and at Lassie Coat, a clothing manufacturer. But he was not satisfied by working for someone else and executing ideas not his own. "I had many false roads and bad beginnings," he told Northeast magazine writer Joel Lang in 1996. "I felt unless I devoted myself completely to this, I wasn't going to do anything."

LeWitt quit Lassie Coat and took a position as night clerk at the Museum of Modern Art, a minimally taxing job that mostly involved answering the telephone. He used his daytime hours to paint.

Tom Doyle of Roxbury remembers his old friend's schedule. "He went to work at 5 p.m.," Doyle said. "He'd go home, sleep, get up at 5 a.m. and work. Around noon, he'd show up at my studio," a block or two away from LeWitt's. "He was always stopping and talking to people." At the time, LeWitt was making sketches of Old Master paintings, searching for something original to create.

"I had reached a low point of my art life," he told an interviewer years later. "I had no idea what to do."

The art world seemed to be waiting for its next big shift, away from the prevailing style of Abstract Expressionism to something new, but what was it?

"Abstract Expressionism had become, by the early 1960s, an entrenched style that offered few new creative possibilities for young artists," according to the website of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which hosted a retrospective of LeWitt's work in 2000. "In contrast to the psychologically loaded brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, LeWitt began to create works that utilized simple and impersonal forms, exploring repetition and variations of a basic form or line."

LeWitt had been inspired early on by the work of Piero della Francesca, whose 15th-century murals emphasized geometric shapes in the religious figures he painted. He also admired Eadweard Muybridge, the 19th-century photographer known for his sequential, stop-motion photographs of people and animals.

LeWitt began making pictures of squares arranged in simple, serial patterns. He also began making what he called "structures" based on the elemental shape of a cube. "For LeWitt, ... Muybridge's approach offered a way of creating art that did not rely on the whim of the moment but on a consistently thought out process that gave results that were interesting and exciting," wrote Miller-Keller in "Of Sun and Stars: Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings," her catalog for the 1996 Sao Paulo Bienal, in which she and LeWitt participated as representatives of the United States. "Seriality also meant that all of the parts were only the result of the basic idea that each individual part was equally important, and that all parts were equal - nothing hierarchical."

By the mid-1960s, LeWitt had begun to experiment with wall drawings, an idea that was radical for a number of reasons. For starters, LeWitt was drawing directly on the wall - not on canvas, not on paper. Wall drawings were, by their nature, impermanent, their evanescence challenging the question of art, collection and value. LeWitt's drawings were designed to be painted over. When, in 1968, the New York gallery owner Paula Cooper was faced with painting out LeWitt's first-ever wall drawing, she couldn't do it. She was unable "to destroy something of such beauty," she said. She insisted LeWitt come and do it himself, which he did without flinching.

Inherent in the idea of LeWitt's wall drawings was the notion that the idea behind the work supersedes the work itself.

"The essence of LeWitt's work is the original idea as formulated in the artist's mind," Miller-Keller explained.

The importance of the concept also meant LeWitt's works could be recreated elsewhere.

"Ideas," said LeWitt, "cannot be owned. They belong to whomever understands them."

"It is always LeWitt's hope that a wall drawing, though painted out, might be presented again in other locations," Miller-Keller writes. "LeWitt's instructions have come to function somewhat as do musical scores, and the artist welcomes all subsequent `performances.'"

Asked once if he was an "originator" of wall drawings, LeWitt said, "I think the cave men came first."

"Despite this diffident reply," writes Miller-Keller, "LeWitt was aware from the beginning that wall drawings represented a new genre."

In the catalog for LeWitt's 1978 retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, then-curator of drawings Bernice Rose wrote that "LeWitt's move was catalytic, as important for drawing as Pollock's use of the drip technique had been for painting in the 1950s." LeWitt's innovations "have contributed significantly to the birth of other new genres," writes Miller-Keller, "most notably installation art and performance art."

LeWitt was criticized in some circles - including his hometown - for allowing others to execute his works. When the city of Hartford sought to commission murals for its new Civic Center, LeWitt was signed on to do wall drawings but his work was later rejected, a move blamed partly on the lingering aftermath of the flap over Carl Andre's Main Street installation, "The Rocks," and on Courant editorials suggesting that the art of schoolchildren would be preferable (the implication being that at least children did their own drawings).

But LeWitt always "stuck to his guns," said Doyle.

"An architect doesn't go off with a shovel and dig his foundation and lay every brick," LeWitt once said. "He's still an artist."

LeWitt borrowed another idea from the realm of the architect, gradually adapting his wall drawings to suit particular spaces. "While it is common in music for several interpretations of the same composition to be discussed and appreciated for their differences, in the visual arts there is absolutely no precedent for a major work of art that is variable in its physical presence," wrote Miller-Keller. But LeWitt created the precedent, adapting his works to take into account existing architectural contexts.

For a man sometimes reluctant to use words, LeWitt deployed them to great effect when moved to do it.

In 1967, in Artforum magazine, LeWitt wrote: "I will refer to the kind of art in which I am involved as conceptual art. In conceptual art the idea or the concept is the most important aspect of the work. 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 a machine that makes the art."

Two years later, LeWitt wrote 35 "Sentences on Conceptual Art," which appeared in the journal Art-Language. The first sentence is: "Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach." No. 2 is: "Rational judgments repeat rational judgments." No. 3 is: "Irrational judgments lead to new experience." No. 33 is: "It is difficult to bungle a good idea."

If LeWitt's work began to attract the attention of gallery owners by the mid-1960s, commercial success was longer in coming.

In 1974, when Miller-Keller first met LeWitt, "his life was pared down," she told Northeast's Lang in 1996. "Part of it was economic for sure. But part of it was his lifestyle. He had two spoons, two forks, two cups, one pair of shoes."

By the time LeWitt first exhibited at the Atheneum in 1975, he was verging on 50 years of age with only a handful of one-person shows to his credit, most at smaller museums in Europe. "Outside his tight circle, he was unknown," Lang wrote. "The Atheneum, in fact, was only the second U.S. museum to show LeWitt solo. Yet he had been making art, or trying to make it, for 30 years."

When commercial success came, it did not change LeWitt's attitude toward his work or his responsibility to it and the community at large.

When the artist was asked by the Guggenheim Museum to be part of a show on the history of abstraction in the 20th century, he declined, refusing to participate in anything sponsored by the tobacco company Philip Morris. LeWitt once told the CEO of Honeywell that he was turning down a large commission because the company made munitions. "When the CEO asked the artist to reconsider," wrote Northeast's Lary Bloom, a friend of LeWitt's and fellow Chester resident, "Sol asked the CEO if he would reconsider the idea of producing what he produces."

Celebrity never fazed or interested LeWitt. Interviewed by Lang, "[LeWitt] showed discomfort only when the questions implied his work was especially profound," the reporter wrote. "Willing to grant greatness to other artists, he refused to consider it for himself. He couldn't guess how many pieces he's done; looked pained when asked what work he might consider a masterpiece.

"`I don't think the term is in common usage any more,' LeWitt said. `I think it sort of sank with the 19th century. I do things at different times. I don't even want to think about it. It's not productive. It doesn't mean anything.'"

What did mean something to LeWitt were the fundamental principle of being a decent human being. No one fails to mention his generosity.

LeWitt and his wife were known to quietly help fellow artists pay their rent or kids' tuition. As Bloom noted in a column on LeWitt's 70th birthday in 1999, the artist "often complained to museum officials that they shouldn't waste money on openings of exhibits, feeding and wining people who don't need to be fed and wined. Instead, museums should be buying the work of starving artists."

As generous as LeWitt was with his money, it was his generosity of spirit that had as great an impact on those who knew him.

When Chet Kempczynski's Hartford studio burned down in 1997, it was a phone call from LeWitt that kept him going. "I was ready to quit," Kempczynski said. "It's hard enough to start with. ... And then Sol calls. He read about it in the paper. I don't think I'll ever forget that. It definitely kept me going."

LeWitt was particularly supportive of the sculptor Eva Hesse, a dear friend until her death in 1970. LeWitt "has spoken about how, in the 1960s, there seemed to be an implicit rule that a woman `could not be the dominant practitioner of a style or idea,'" writes a reporter for the web's Guardian Unlimited. "It was LeWitt who wrote Hesse one of the best-known letters from one artist to another in the second half of the 20th century. He cajoled her, in 1965, to be herself. `Try to do some bad work. The worst you can think of and see what happens, but mainly relax and let everything go to hell. You are not responsible for the world - you are only responsible for your work, so do it.'"

LeWitt's support and philanthropy was not confined to the art world. Chester's Congregation Beth Shalom synagogue, dedicated in 2001, "probably wouldn't exist without the LeWitts," said Bloom. The structure, resembling an Eastern European synagogue, was designed by architect Steven Lloyd from sketches created by LeWitt. Over the years, Sol and Carol LeWitt together amassed a major private art collection, much of it the result of their purchases and of LeWitt's habit of trading with fellow artists.

Doyle has done so many swaps with LeWitt since the early 1960s that, he said, "my place is like a Sol LeWitt museum, practically."

Among the thousands of pieces in the LeWitts' collection are works by Gerhard Richter, Thomas Ruff and Pat Stier, as well as some by Connecticut artists Peter Waite, Ellen Carey and Richard Ziemann. Throughout LeWitt's life, he kept ties with local museums - in particular the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and the New Britain Museum of American Art - both of which figured in his childhood.

Miller-Keller said that even when LeWitt was feeling poorly in his last years, he made the effort to attend lectures and openings and events at both museums.

LeWitt was, finally, a family man. After a brief first marriage, he wed Carol Androccio in 1982. The pair lived for several years in Spoleto, Italy, but returned to the United States in the late 1980s, settling in Chester where they raised their daughters, the younger of whom is named for Eva Hesse. There were jokes about LeWitt's move from Hester to Chester, and LeWitt himself never learned to drive a car. The LeWitts still maintain a home in Spoleto. Carol LeWitt is the founder and owner of Ceramica, which sells signature handmade Italian pottery and has stores in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island.

Miller-Keller wrote movingly of Carol Lewitt's impact on her husband's work, "the burst of color" that marked her arrival in his life. Carol was in her early 20s when she met LeWitt, who was nearing 50.

Walking into the Atheneum's Helen and Harry Gray Court (site of LeWitt's "Wall Drawing Number 793 C"), visiting the New Britain Museum of American Art's Chase Family Building (the entrance to which contains LeWitt's "Wall Drawing #1196, Scribbles")or flipping through the pages of publications about the artist and his work, one is struck by LeWitt's invention, his intellectual rigor, and his joy.

More than 50 LeWitt wall drawings are scheduled to be on display by fall 2008 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a 27,000-square-foot facility being renovated in North Adams, Mass.

LeWitt donated the collection to the Yale University Art Gallery, which expects to keep the collection on display until 2033.

"Sol has been the greatest example of an artist able to keep moving while staying 100 percent true to himself," his good friend the artist/photographer Chuck Close once said. Conceptual artist Adrian Piper said in 1999: "Sol is to art what Bach was to music."

Services for LeWitt will be private.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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