I started this memory series a few months back with The Rothko Seagrams Murals at The Tate. I was hoping to jog our collective memory for those defining moments we lived that made us care about art. Now I want to delve into my connection to Sol LeWitt. I have related this story many times (and in small parts here) but I thought telling it completely might spread my enthusiasm for the artist. Many people are left cold by Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings, born as a schematic that could be as simple as a set of parameters. Some wall drawings are made with preparatory drawings, but LeWitt liked that they would always be different and always be the bi-product of the individual hand and eye of their creator. This variability was his desired result and the source of my boundless curiosity about LeWitt.
In 1995, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (then my personal home base for art) put on a show called Drawn On the Museum. As a student, I was struck by how much this installation subverted my idea of what art was. I was not prepared to find studio assistants executing Sol LeWitt’s work. The team of 2 was creating an ink wash tondo that I now recognize as a wall drawing from this period. The ink washes were bright and the colors relate to the famous SFMoMA lobby and Columbus Circle wall tiles, but the shape was similar to the work created for the artists synagogue in Chester, CT (the image from that synagogue can be found on a leather yarmulke available for sale).
When I witnessed the installation as part of the docent preparation tour, I was confused. “Where is the artist?” I asked. I was incredulous when I found out what I now know so well, that his studio assistants were executing the work. “But he won’t make any of it?” I was sure it was a sham, a fraud perpetrated on the poor suckers who would come here hoping to see art by the artists whose name was on the label beside the work. The idea irked me. It stuck in my craw longer than I can remember a piece of art having done before. I was just a kid, more interested in getting to Phish shows than researching the “isms” of recent art history; and still I couldn’t let it go.
The ink wash (Pelikan brand ink, later substituted with paint) was warm and lovely. It blossomed on the wall over a few days and then was whole. The bright colors filled the warm white space all around with a field of color. LeWitt’s Wall Drawing (there are nearly 1300 of them) was a painted mural, and it took me a long time to connect it with frescos and the history of art on walls. And then suddenly, after all the questioning, I was in love with it. It made me question the manufacture of art objects, the variability of the image and the artists place. LeWitt’s wall drawing perverted my idea of painting and for that I am forever grateful.
I never got to know LeWitt personally and these days I find any way I can to connect with his practice and his history. I own LeWitt books and occasionally leap from educating myself about his work to worshiping at his altar. He would have hated this, I am certain. Still, I cannot withhold a curiosity that has gripped me for 20 years. In college, I studied Kandinsky and the Bauhaus. I wrote (poorly) about Kandinsky’s manual for abstraction Point and Line to Plane. At the dawn of abstraction, Kandinsky thought he could formalize and codify art for his students. He failed but his influence on generations of artists, designers and historians was immeasurable. LeWitt’s Wall Drawings came 40 years and a world of turmoil later, but as he worked he was rounding up the bits of the Bauhaus ideal that made the experiment worth living.