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 Sol LeWitt  (1928 - 2007)

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Lived/Active: New York/Connecticut      Known for: conceptual sculpture, geometric design wall painting

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Sol  LeWitt
from Auction House Records.
CORNER PIECE NO. 2
© 2001 Sol LeWitt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Known for his modular white cube sculpture, geometric drawings and abstract design paintings including many wall paintings that took teams of people to execute, Sol LeWitt was a major promoter of dominant post World War II Conceptualism and Minimalism.  He used geometric shapes and lines to challenge his viewers, and sometimes they seemed logical and other times they seemed to have no basis in either reason or reality.

Although he was highly active in New York City, he shied away from any semblance of art celebrity life style and spent much of his later life working from his home and studio in Chester, Connecticut.  At the beginning of his career when he was gaining notoriety, conservative critics panned him fiercely.  Seeking to get away from the frenetic activity of the New York art scene, he went to Spoleto, Italy in the 1980s and remained there for many years.  The influence of Italian culture seemed to lend a new opulent quality to his work, and also the launching of his wall paintings, which he called drawings even though they were done with acrylic paint.  "He began making colored flagstone patterns, spiky sculptural blobs and ribbons of color, like streamers on New Year's Eve, often as enormous decorations for buildings around the world. It was if he had devised a latter-day kind of Abstract Expressionism . . ." (Kimmelman)

Of his personal modesty it was written:  "He tried to suppress all interest in him as opposed to his work; he turned down awards and was camera-shy and reluctant to grant interviews.  He particularly disliked the prospect of having his photograph in the newspaper." (Kimmelman)

Sol LeWitt was born in Hartford, Connecticut to Russian immigrant parents.  His father, a doctor, died when Sol was age six, and he and his mother then went to live with an aunt in New Britain, Connecticut.  His mother encouraged his art talent, and enrolled him in classes at the Wadsworth Atheneum.  LeWitt's subsequent residence in Chester, after he was a well-known artist, was near the Atheneum, and he became a strong supporter of that institution including the securing of a long time loan to it of a highly prestigious private collection of modern art.

LeWitt earned a B.F.A. degree from Syracuse University in 1949, and then was drafted in the Korean War.  His special assignment was making posters for the Special Services.  From 1955 to 1956, he worked as a graphic designer for architect I.M. Pei, who was beginning his career.  He also did pasteups for Seventeen magazine.  In 1962, he did his first relief sculpture, and from 1964, executed the cubed works for which he is most known.  However, he felt adrift as an artist because Abstract Expressionism was waning, and he was unconfident about what he had to offer that was unique.

However, a change came about because of his taking a job at the book counter of the Museum of Modern Art where he associated with other young artists who were also working there including future 'big names' such as Dan Flavin, Robert Ryman and Robert Mangold.  LeWitt became intrigued by Minimalism and by the engineering aspects of Russian Constructivism and of Eadweard Muybridge's experiments with motion photography.  From these exposures, "he decided to reduce art to its essentials, 'to recreate art, to start from square one' beginning literally with squares and cubes." (Kimmelman)  In the next years, he became fascinated with the impermanence of Conceptualism, which seemed to suit his apparent lack of being impressed with whether or not his own reputation was sustained in the public mind.

His goal with conceptual sculpture was to explore in an impersonal way formulas with which structures are created, and to focus on abstract philosophical theories, disassociated from religion and personal emotions.  He painted many of his sculptures white to direct the viewer to these underlying thought processes rather than to the piece itself or to himself.  In other words the "concept" was the most important part of the work, and planning it was more important than execution.  He was a great believer in simplicity.  In 1967, he said: "Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple.  Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable."

Sol LeWitt was also known for his generosity with lesser-known artists.  He often gave them credit as 'collaborators' so that their names appeared with his, and he would go out of his way to be helpful including showing with them in small galleries and supporting publications about their work.

He died April 8, 2007 in Chester, Connecticut from cancer.  His wife, Carol, and two daughters survived him.

Sources:
Michael Kimmelman, "Sol LeWitt, Postwar Artistic Innovator and Master of Conceptualism, Dies at 78", The New York Times Obituaries, April 9, 2007, A15
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Sol LeWitt was born in Hartford, Connecticut on September 9, 1928. He attended Syracuse University where he studied traditional painting and sculpture.  He graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, then served in the Korean War and in 1953, moved to New York City where he attended the Cartoonists and Illustrators School.  From 1955 to 1956, he worked for architect I.M.Pei as a graphic designer.  He is married to Carol and they have two daughters.

Sol LeWitt was among the minimalist and conceptual artists who came to prominence in the late 1960s.  His work has been extremely influential. Pared down to the core, his work moved art in the direction of the mind. In 1962, he did his first relief sculpture and from 1964, executed the cubed works for which he is most known. His goal in the conceptual sculpture has been to explore in an impersonal way formulas with which structures are created and to focus on abstract philosophical theories, disassociated from religion and personal emotions.

Since the late 1960s, LeWitt has made original drawings on paper that are then used as a set of instructions for others to execute on a wall, in a process meant to undermine the notion of the work of art as the unique product of the artist's own hand. If this preparation seems at odds with the usual method of an artist at work, LeWitt also paints every day in the studio of his Connecticut home.

LeWitt has a house in Umbria, Italy. He loves wine and when an Italian winemaking family offered him bottles of their best vintage in exchange for painting a chapel on the property of one of their Piedmont vineyards, he accepted. When he completed the project, he took his pick from the family cellars.


Written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.

Sources include:
Mark Stevens in Newsweek magazine, date unknown
From the internet, AskART.com and art net.
Conceptualism by Proxy, an article by Hunter Drohojowska-Philip in LA Times Calendar section, September 26, 2001

Biography from GallArt.com:
Sol LeWitt (1928 – 2007)

Sol LeWitt was born on September 9th, 1928 in Hartford, Connecticut to Eastern European immigrants. His father, a doctor and inventor, died when he was 6. Soon after, he moved with his mother, a nurse, to live with an aunt in New Britain, Connecticut. His mother took him to art classes at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, and he would draw on wrapping paper from his aunt’s grocery store.

LeWitt received a BFA from Syracuse University in 1949 (where he made his first prints) and then was drafted in the Korean War in 1951. During his service, he made posters for the Special Services and spent time in Japan, where he bought the first works that became the basis of a large personal art collection.

In 1953, he moved to New York City, where he studied at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (now the School of Visual Arts) and worked for Seventeen Magazine, making paste-ups, mechanicals and Photostats. He was then hired as a graphic designer in I.M. Pei’s architecture firm.

In 1960, he took an entry-level job at the Museum of Modern Art, where he met Dan Flavin, Robert Ryman, Lucy Lippard and Robert Mangold. Together, through the “Sixteen Americans” exhibition, they were introduced to the work of Jasper Johns and Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg.

LeWitt was also interested in Russian Constructivism, with its engineering aesthetic and the idea of making utilitarian art in an industrialized age. However, the work that influenced him the most was Eadweard Muybridge’s serial photography, sequential studies of people and animals in motion, which he came across in a book that somebody had left in his apartment.

LeWitt’s work from the early 1960s, works on canvas coated with thick gestural oil paint, each featured one of Muybridge’s figures in motion. LeWitt’s three dimensional structural works from the mid to late 1960s – such as Serial Project, Three Part Variations on Three Different Cubes, and hundreds of sculptures made of open white cubes - grew out of this interest in the serial. He applied the same system of permutations and variations in his prints, drawings on paper and drawings on the wall.

Sol LeWitt executed his first wall drawing in 1968 at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. Like many of the wall drawings after this, Wall Drawing #1 consisted of a system of parallel lines drawn with black pencil on a white wall in four directions (vertical, horizontal, diagonal left, and diagonal right.) By drawing directly on the wall, the work’s duration was limited and ultimately the wall drawings are painted over. It also allowed him to achieve his objective of reinforcing flatness and making a work as two-dimensional as possible.

Wall Drawing #1 also emphasized the premise of the artwork over the final product. In a 1969 article for Studio International, LeWitt wrote, “Two-dimensional works are not seen as objects. The work is a manifestation of an idea. It is an idea and not an object.” Without the traditional support of canvas or paper, wall drawings exist as a set of instructions and can be installed again and again.

This radical shift to drawing on the wall, followed the publication of Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, where he wrote, “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.”

Although LeWitt drew Wall Drawing #1 on Paula Cooper’s gallery wall himself, he soon found that a team of assistants could oftentimes install his work better. He believed that the idea of his work superseded the art itself, as curator Andrea Miller-Keller said, "The essence of LeWitt's work is the original idea as formulated in the artist's mind." He soon took this and applied it to the print medium through numerous projects with numerous techniques.

In the late ‘70s, shortly after his first retrospective the at Museum of Modern Art and after numerous years of exhibiting in Italy, LeWitt moved to Spoleto, Italy. There he saw frescos by Fillippo Lippi, Massaccio, Fra Angelico and Giotto’s in local churches, museums and convents. In 1983, LeWitt’s art underwent a major transformation and he began to experiment with India ink and color ink washes, a nod to the local Trecento and Quattrocento works. He acknowledged the influence of these masterpieces on his own drawings, and went so far to say, that in his work he strove “to produce something [he] would not be ashamed to show Giotto.”

In the exhibition catalogue for Think with Senses – Feel with Mind, Art in the Present, part of the 2007 Venice Biennale, Robert Storr wrote that LeWitt “proved over and over again that the strict, systematic realization of a singular working premise is bound to produce results that will surprise both the maker and the viewer by exceeding expectation and giving eye-and-mind expanding physical dimensions to mental abstractions.”

Until 2033, LeWitt’s wall drawings are the subject of a solo exhibition titled Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Sol LeWitt died in 2007 in New York City.

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, E-O):
Sol LeWitt is considered one of the most important artists to have emerged from the Minimal and Conceptual art movements. Since 1960, LeWitt has worked in a variety of media including sculpture, drawing (both on paper and walls), prints, and photography.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1928, as a child LeWitt enjoyed making art and took classes at the Wadsworth Atheneum to develop this interest. He studied art more formally at Syracuse University, from where he would graduate in 1949. In the summer of 1950, LeWitt traveled throughout Europe to study firsthand the art of the old masters. Afterwards, he was drafted for the Korean War, where one of his duties included producing posters. Following his service, LeWitt moved to New York City to study at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (now the School of Visual Arts). After working in the design department at "Seventeen" magazine, LeWitt worked for the architect I. M. Pei as an architectural draftsman, a job that would profoundly influence his ideas about art. Working with architects not only affected LeWitt’s ideas concerning geometric precision and the viewer’s relationship to the work, it also taught him that as an artist he could work with others, as architects do, to realize his vision.

LeWitt was originally associated with the Minimalist art movement due to his extensive use of reductive, geometric forms, namely the identical cubes, employed since 1965 in serial configurations, that would become a signature form. LeWitt later became so closely associated with the Conceptual art movement that he is often called “the father of Conceptual art.” In 1967, LeWitt wrote “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” in which he argued that the idea, or concept, that informs the work is more important than the final physical form that the artist employs to transmit his ideas. As LeWitt wrote, “I will refer to the kind of art in which I am involved as conceptual art. In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work.”(1) It is because of this pivotal work and his “Sentences on Conceptual Art” of 1969 that LeWitt is often credited with being the first to use the term “Conceptual” to describe the practices of several artists, himself included, in the late 1960s.

In 1978, The Museum of Modern Art in New York held an important retrospective of fifteen years of LeWitt’s work. This led to a critical reevaluation of LeWitt’s work by many who were aware of the rigorous intellectual basis of the work, yet were nonetheless struck by its powerful beauty. LeWitt himself seems to have been affected by the retrospective as his work made after it changes, both in form and aesthetic, to incorporate new concerns and influences. While the square was central to LeWitt’s early work, beginning in 1980 LeWitt expanded his geometric vocabulary to include the circle and the triangle. Using isometric projection, the forms took on the illusion of three-dimensionality, a reference perhaps to LeWitt’s celebrated open cubic form sculptures. The subtle palette of burnished tones and the illusion of spatial depth in LeWitt’s later works recalls both ancient Roman and Italian Renaissance frescoes, which LeWitt, who established a study in Spoleto, Italy in 1980, would have had opportunity to study firsthand.

LeWitt continues to be an important and influential artist. In 2000, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art staged a retrospective of his work that traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

1. Sol LeWitt “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” Originally published in "Artforum," 5:10 (Summer 1997), pp. 79-84. Cited in "Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology" edited by Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), p. 12.

© Copyright 2008 Hollis Taggart Galleries

Biography from Art Cellar Exchange:

The works of Sol LeWitt strike the viewer with their straightforward design.  In LeWitt’s famous cube drawings and geometric sculptural forms, the artist demonstrates his desire to remove extemporaneous elements and pare his artwork down to its fundamental structure.

In the 1960s, LeWitt participated in the Minimalist art movement that defied the popular painting style of the time, Abstract Expressionism.  Abstract Expressionist artists created vivid, abstract compositions that were full of emotion.  Minimalists rejected this demonstrative way of creating art and focused primarily on the basic compositional elements of design.  They directed their audience to find purpose through intellectual contemplation.

The genius of LeWitt’s artwork is in the effortless appearance of a complex idea.  In this artist’s work we understand the subtle but important decisions that each artist must make before a final work is complete.  In his creations we see the naked architectural framework of art that is beautiful in and of itself.


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