Reconsidering Sol Lewitt: Spring 2018

Portrait of American artist Sol LeWitt (1928 - 2007), New York, New York, August 1969. (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Portrait of American artist Sol LeWitt, New York, August 1969. (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This short note is inspired by the fact that Sol Lewitt died in April 2007, and since then exhibits of work created after his death continue to occasionally pop-up.

“The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product.” Lewitt wrote this in 1967 and it remains, perhaps, the most insightful expression of what his conceptual artwork was about; the idea, not the object. Further, Lewitt was widely known for his (even now!) use of other artists to actually create his “finished product” so it is not unreasonable that people assume Lewitt was above the dirty work of putting pen-to-paper or brush-to-wall. This notion, of the artwork itself not being the point, dogged Lewitt throughout his career. Yet his later work is so colorful and lyrical that the label of conceptual no longer seems appropriate. His comment from 1982, “I would like to produce something I would not be ashamed to show Giotto,” may better speak to Lewitt’s true sensibilities as an artist.

Sol LeWitt’s Notable Works

The catalog produced in conjunction with a retrospective of Lewitt’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 2000 wanders across a lifetime of output starting with early figurative work, some truly oddball sculptures, then moves on to the geometric work with which he remains closely associated and finishes with the later paintings of irregular brushstrokes and lines. Lewitt produced a staggering number of drawings and paintings. In between, he oversaw the creation of large numbers of constructions, sculptures, and around two\\\ thousand wall drawings. It certainly appears that the man enjoyed making things. And, that Lewitt enjoyed painting and drawing and sculpting.

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The notion of playfulness seems to escape many discussions about Lewitt and his work. Even such exhausting projects as the “Incomplete Open Cubes” series – with all its manifestations – has, at its core, a jocular sensibility. The cubes as drawings, as photographs, as small sculptures, as big sculptures, in black, in white, all obsessively depict the 122 variations. The doodles evolve into isometric renderings that become little models that become big sculptures that are in turn photographed, all of which are printed in little books and pamphlets. It is not unlike a great shaggy-dog joke. Avoid getting caught-up in intellectual analysis and the juxtaposition of a Lewitt incomplete cube in a gallery filled with baroque and mannerist paintings has its lighter side.

The Sol LeWitt Process

Lewitt’s process of seeking every combination of a series served among other things, to ensure that he had plenty of material to work with. Seemingly endless variations of bands in four directions were turned out in seemingly endless varieties of mediums. The consistency of the form allowed for an opportunity to fully explore the interaction of colors, or in the case of sculpture, the interaction of light and shadow. Lewitt repeatedly set strict limits that allowed for infinite variety. Or, to use a phrase attributed to many but best expressed by Jorge Luis Borges, Lewitt created “an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The art of Lewitt should not be defined by hard logic and cool detachment. Lewitt’s work is better appreciated for the humor, color, and inventiveness that Giotto would have certainly enjoyed.

Original NY Times Obituary: Sol LeWitt (1928-2007)

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