Sol LeWitt
Biography of Minimalist Sculptor & Conceptual Artist.
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Open Geometric Structure 3 (1990)
Lisson Gallery London
A typical example of LeWitt's unique
postmodernist art.

Sol LeWitt (1928-2007)

One of the key 20th century sculptors of the contemporary era, the artist and writer Sol LeWitt helped to establish Minimalism and Conceptual Art as important movements of postwar American art. He rose to fame in the 1960s with his contemporary abstract sculpture, notably his three-dimensional 'structures', which were geometric cubic lattices made from various materials, notably white-coated aluminum. Highly prolific in a wide range of media including printmaking, and painting, he also created a highly unique series of 'wall drawings', each of whose geometrical patterns are derived from a set of instructions. His theoretical writings on Conceptualism - Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967), and Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969) have achieved iconic status as definitions of the form. He is one of the most popular avant-garde American sculptors and one of most highly respected postmodernist artists of his generation. Other American minimalist sculptors include Tony Smith (1912-80), Donald Judd (1928-94), Carl Andre (b.1935), Dan Flavin (1933-96), Robert Morris (b.1931) and Richard Serra (b.1939).

BEST SCULPTORS
For a list of the world's most
skilful 3-D artists, see:
Greatest Sculptors.

EVOLUTION OF SCULPTURE
See: History of Sculpture.

CONTEMPORARY SCULPTORS
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
Anthony Caro (1924-2013)
Jean Tinguely (1925-1991)
Duane Hanson (1925-96)
Claes Oldenburg (b.1929)
Edward Delaney (1930-2009)
Mark Di Suvero (b.1933)
Bruce Naumann (b.1941)
John De Andrea (b.1941)

BEST SCULPTURE
For the world's top works,
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

MODERN PLASTIC ARTISTS
For a list of sculptors like
Sol Lewitt, see: Modern Artists.

Early Years

LeWitt was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1928. He studied fine art at the University of Syracuse, and later at the University of Illinois. In 1949 he travelled to Europe where he had the opportunity to view paintings from the Renaissance through to the Impressionists and Cubists. Shortly after he returned to the US he was drafted to serve in the Korean War. While LeWitt was in Korea he visited the ancient temples and monuments and was impressed by their spiritual and ascetic qualities.

He returned to New York in the early 1950s and studied at the Cartoonists' and Illustrators' School. Between 1955 and 1956, he worked as a graphic designer at an architectural firm. He also carried out work for Seventeen Magazine, creating paste-ups, Photostats and mechanicals. During this period, LeWitt came across the works of the 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose studies of locomotion and sequencing were an early influence (along with Russian Constructivism). He also painted. In 1960 he took an entry level job at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Here, he became part of the artistic community and socialised with many artists, including American minimalist Dan Flavin, renowned for his sculptural objects and installations. He also met Eva Hesse, the German-born American sculptor, who was known for her pioneering work in materials like fiberglass, latex and plastics. He also became friends with the curator Lucy Lippard who was an early champion of conceptual and feminist art during the 1970s.

 

'Structures'

At first LeWitt focused his attention on painting, he hired models and drew from life and copied Old Masters. But he felt lost and out of touch. This changed in 1962 when he took up sculpture and began making black and white marble reliefs. He looked for a new direction in the early 1960s that would 'lead away from the pervasive but useless ideas of Abstract Expressionism'. LeWitt wrote two seminal texts which set out to define the new style of Conceptual art. These were: Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967) and Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969). By 1965 LeWitt was primarily concerned with his 'structures'. Using abstract elements, he simplified his works into box- or table-like structures. These works range from gallery-sized installations to monumental outdoor pieces. Initially these sculptures were in black and white monochrome leading him to remark that what art looks like 'isn't too important'. However, from the 1970s onwards, he started painting his structures in primary colours.

Conceptual Message

LeWitt reduced his plastic art to a few basic shapes (triangles, quadrilaterals and sphere), and used a limited colour palette (black, white, yellow, blue and black). This applied to his structures, paintings and drawings. The viewer was invited to contemplate the various patterns, to see a line that can be straight, or curved - if their eyes and mind were open, their visual flexibility would be tested. The mind could wander, extend a drawing - or not. The action was at the viewer's discretion, which was the key message of LeWitt's art. Humour was also an underlying element of LeWitt's work. Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance but Little Value (1968) - was a cube that he buried in a collector's garden. It was a deadpan joke about waving goodbye to Minimalism. He documented the sculpture in photographs, in the first one he stands next to the cube; the next shows a shovel; and the third shows him digging a hole.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate contemporary conceptualist sculptors like Sol LeWitt, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

LeWitt's Definition of Conceptual Art

Conceptual art is art which refers to ideas or concepts. The traditional physical artwork is second to the actual idea behind it. Many conceptual pieces in fact come under the term installation art. LeWitt described Conceptual Art as arising '(when) the idea or 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'.

Wall Drawings

LeWitt created over 1200 wall drawings, some of which took teams of people weeks to execute. He typically gave his team an instruction to draw a line in a certain way, but characteristically gave them 'wiggle room', believing that their input - their boredom, joy, frustrations, should become part of the art. The wall drawings were typically gigantic in scale, and could take up a whole gallery, reflecting colourful geometric shapes. His description for wall drawing No. 766, sounds dry: Twenty-one isometric cubes of varying sizes each with color ink washes superimposed: but when you see it, the dusky colours appear like a Renaissance fresco painting. His Loopy Doopy, Red and Purple was a 49 foot abstraction which looked like a psychedelic Matisse cutout, but on the scale of a drive-in movie. Other drawings on the other hand, were so faint they looked like subtle glass etchings.

Exhibitions

LeWitt has been the subject of hundreds of solo and group exhibitions around the world since 1965. His first major retrospective exhibition took place in 1978 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). The exhibition travelled to various venues. In 1992 the Gemeentemuseum, Hague, held a major exhibition entitled Sol LeWitt Drawings 1958-1992. In 1996 the Museum of Modern Art held another exhibition Sol LeWitt Prints. A major LeWitt retrospective was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2000 - it travelled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Legacy

LeWitt opposed any publicity or celebrity status. He constantly turned down awards and avoided the camera, avoiding interviews where possible. He died in 2007. His works are held by some of the best art museums worldwide, including: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Institute of Chicago; Guggenheim Museum, New York City; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain, and many others.

 

• For more about the history and styles of plastic art, see: Homepage.
• For more about contemporary sculpture, see: Contemporary Art.


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