LeWitt’s Wisdom

The Grand Old Man of Conceptual Art

By Jeffrey Kastner

Published January 17, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Originally published in the Forward March 15, 1996

“Ask me any question you want and then put it in your own words,” says Sol LeWitt brightly over the phone from Manhattan, where he is spending a snowy day away from his home in rural Connecticut.

His easygoing nonchalance is a bit of a surprise — this is an artist who grants few interviews and refuses to have his photograph published in the press. “A very shy man,” warns the public relations officer, sotto voce, at the Museum of Modern Art, where a retrospective of Mr. LeWitt’s print work is on view through May 7.

What is not a surprise, however, is the level of deep contemplation that Mr. LeWitt, for three decades one of America’s most prolific and celebrated Conceptual artists, brings to even a small thing like a 45-minute talk with a journalist. “I’m not particularly fond of interviews,” he says gently. “It’s the form — when you say a word or a phrase or a sentence, and then you see the way it’s written, without the inflections and nuances that spoken language has … it’s dead on the page. Of course,” he offers, like a kindly professor attempting to guide a student through a complicated hypothesis, “written language is also valid in its own way.”

Such recognition of the possibilities and limitations of language has been at the heart of Mr. LeWitt’s work since he first gained acclaim in the art world in the mid-’60s. Although he’s worked in a variety of media, his legacy is less in the sculptures, paintings or prints he has created than in the ideas he has pursued — which is why he is considered the grand old man of American Conceptual art.

Sol LeWitt in Rome in 2000
Getty Images
Sol LeWitt in Rome in 2000

Viewers unaccustomed to Mr. LeWitt’s brand of Conceptualism might be forgiven for thinking his show would not hold aesthetic pleasures. “I don’t know if people find Conceptual art daunting or not,” he says. “People understand only what they can understand. I mean, there’s some very beautiful poetry written in Chinese, but if you don’t understand Chinese you’ll never be able to really read it. Looking at art is like learning a language — what I try to do is make the idea as beautiful as possible, to have the work make sense, have a meaning in itself that can be thought of as harmonious or beautiful.”

What is striking even for longtime fans of Mr. LeWitt’s work is how luxurious and visually compelling the prints are. Ranging from simple and elegant black-and-white geometric structures with bits of explanatory text describing the “system” used to create them — “Straight lines in four directions and all their possible combinations” — to richly colored blocks, stripes, undulating lines and dynamic starbursts, printed in deep blue, violet, warm yellow and scarlet, the works are hung salon style, covering the walls of the small print room on the museum’s second floor.

Despite their emphatic physical presence as objects, Mr. LeWitt’s prints are very much part of his overall conceptual program, according to Wendy Weitman, an associate curator of prints and illustrated books at MoMA who organized Mr. LeWitt’s show. “Here’s a man who has always worked with systems and he has taken the printmaking medium and made it another component of his ‘system,’” she says, “which tells you a lot about the kind of mind you’re dealing with.”

While extremely intellectual, Mr. LeWitt is hardly off-putting, she says. Well-known in the art world is the story of how, after his 1978 MoMA retrospective, he made an edition of prints as gifts for staff members, including art handlers, who had worked on his show — an uncharacteristic gesture for most major artists but, according to Ms. Weitman, completely in line for Mr. LeWitt. “He’s soft-spoken and generous,” she says.

Mr. LeWitt was born in 1928 to Abraham and Sophie LeWitt, Russian immigrants, and grew up in Connecticut. He attended Syracuse and then enrolled in the U.S. Army, which sent him to Japan and Korea. He used the opportunity to study Asian shrines, temples and gardens. He moved to New York in 1953 and settled into a studio at 117 Hester St. (looking out to the old Forward building on East Broadway). He currently lives in the Connecticut countryside, where he produces his prints, large gouaches and the wall drawings with which he is most often associated these days.

Mr. LeWitt’s artistic development began, appropriately enough, at MoMA, where he worked at the information and sales desks as a young artist alongside other now-major figures such as artists Dan Flavin, Robert Ryman and Robert Mangold. Mr. LeWitt credits a visit to Mr. Flavin’s studio with inspiring an artistic breakthrough. “I saw his first fluorescent pieces,” he recalls, “and my mind was sent off into a new direction, one which dealt with systems and ideas, and all kinds of worlds opened up. The idea became much more important than the actual form of the object — then you were involved with ideas as ideas, ideas as language, language as ideas, language as form, form as ideas, form as art, language as art … ” The form these explorations first took was consonant with the stripped down, minimalist qualities that characterized much of the art being made at the time, responding as it was to the gestural excesses of the by-then-faltering Abstract Expressionist style that had dominated American art since World War II. Yet if his objects shared a physical appearance with Minimalist work, Mr. LeWitt was at pains to distance himself from the absolutist, reductionistic ethos of its philosophical groundings, embodied by the Formalist critique of theorist Clement Greenberg. Formalism posited the artwork as a kind of blank slate from which all evidence of the outside world was to be emptied, leaving only the pure transcendent experience of paint on a surface.

Mr. LeWitt’s reply to this position was his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” published in Artforum in 1967. In the text, now considered seminal in the development of Conceptual art, Mr. LeWitt satirizes the art world’s fascination with Minimalist reductions:

Recently there has been much written about minimal art, but I have not discovered anyone who admits to doing this kind of thing. There are other art forms around called primary structures, reductive, rejective, cool and mini-art. No artist I know of will own up to any of these either. Therefore, I conclude that it is part of a secret language that art critics use when communicating with each other through the medium of art magazines.

Thinking back on these early writings, Mr. LeWitt feels that what he wrote (“in self-defense,” he mischievously protests) was meaningful. “The important thing about the work was that the idea became the important thing, not the form,” he says. “Most critics could only conceive of things in a formal sense. They were saying, ‘What you see is what you get.’ What I wanted to say was, ‘What you think is what you get.’ ”

Now in his late 60s, Mr. LeWitt continues to work every day and says he has no intention of slowing down. “I always just do it,” he says about making his art. “I don’t even think about it. The idea of taking a vacation is abhorrent to me. I like to read, but I do a fair amount of that anyway. The idea of going on a cruise ship would drive me crazy.”

Mr. Kastner is a writer living in Boston.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.