Artist LeWitt Dies at Age 78
Visual artist Sol LeWitt died last Sunday, April 8 in New York due to complications from cancer at the age of 78. Over Winter Term, LeWitt was already in critical condition while his two artists, Takeshi Arita and Sachi Cho, came to campus to instruct Oberlin students in producing two recently-designed wall drawings. Those works are currently on display in the show, Sol LeWitt at the AMAM, in the Ellen Johnson Gallery at the Allen Memorial Art Museum.
As a major figure in modern American art, LeWitt’s work was heavily linked to the art movements of Conceptualism and Minimalism. Conceptual art liberates the artist as the concept of a work becomes more important than the traditional aesthetic and material concerns, whereas Minimalism involves erasing extra elements and stripping a work so that it exists only in its most fundamental form, allowing absolute self-expression.
LeWitt penned specific instructions for a number of pieces, from wall paintings to structures, but left the physical production process for others to complete. As such, he is known for his art ideas rather than their actual creation.
“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 the machine that makes the art,” LeWitt wrote in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” for Artforum in June 1967.
The artist’s 49 Three-Part Variations on Three Different Kinds of Cubes (1967 – 1971), which is in the Allen’s permanent collection, is an excellent example of an original, artistic idea being realized through the use of a machine. The enamel on steel piece explores three modes of the cube: solid cube, cube with opposite sides removed and cube with one side removed.
LeWitt frequently used the cube, creating open, modular structures, a term he preferred to the word “sculpture.” Other notable structures included four “Incomplete Open Cubes” from the 1970s; white paint on wood pieces like “Hexagon,” “Form Derived from a Cube” and “Structure with Three Towers;” and “Four-Sided Pyramid” which stands in Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art sculpture garden. His structures explore shapes themselves, as well as the spaces they inhabit; they are studies of the relationship between the structures and the areas they occupy.
In addition to “49 Three-Part Variations,” the two innovative wall drawings in the Allen are equally unique in initial idea and artistic process. Both are results of a Winter Term project in which students created a graphite wall drawing of bold, thick gray lines that band across the vast wall, and a second wall painting that echoed the former work’s stripes, but this time infused with bright, eye-catching colors, cut through by an inescapable black X.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s former Curator of Drawing Bernice Rose wrote in the museum catalog for LeWitt’s 1978 retrospective that the artist’s wall paintings were “as important for drawing as Pollock’s use of the drip technique had been for painting in the 1950s.”
A few early drawings LeWitt completed as a student are also exhibited from his personal collection and allow gallery goers to view an earlier aesthetic that later reached fuller, mature expression. Some more recent gouache paintings also hang on the walls, furthering the museum’s representation of LeWitt’s progression throughout his career.
LeWitt used simple colors and shapes. His pieces were geometric and angular, unpredictable and flexible. He experimented with the use of the line and shape, breaking down previous conventions and presenting new perspectives to viewers.
“Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach,” LeWitt said in 1969.
LeWitt was born September 9, 1928 in Hartford, Connecticut to Russian immigrant parents. He studied at Syracuse University and the School of Visual Arts, later serving in the Korean War, during which he was stationed in California, Japan and Korea. His training and travels, as well as work experience at Seventeen magazine and as a graphic designer in the office of architect I.M. Pei, all influenced his perceptions.
LeWitt’s first major retrospective was exhibited in 1978 at the Museum of Modern Art. Since that time, his work has also been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hague, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
The Allen’s current show of LeWitt’s work runs until June 17.