The first time I saw Sol LeWitt was in April of 1996, and he was standing toward one corner of Gray Court, the main entrance to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, looking up. That corner seemed an odd place for him, as it was not the corner with the podium and microphone, the corner that the cameras looked to. People milled around, and gazed up at the brand-new wall drawing being dedicated that day, but Sol did not draw much attention; again, odd for the guest of honor. I came to understand that Sol stood there deliberately. It was the art that was the focus of the day, as he wanted it to be. He was only there to (figuratively) break a bottle of champagne across its bow. There was champagne, too – in bottles with labels Sol designed for the Atheneum.
About 8 ½ years later I reminded him about those bottles. I was lucky enough to work on a wall drawing myself, and our group of painters was invited to dinner to celebrate the happy conclusion of the project. Sol was showing us some wine bottles, with labels personalized to him. He had been paid in wine for an artwork. That was like him, too – willing to trade art for art or whatever rather than take money. He was fortunate to have reached a level of success where this was possible, though I think he would have done it anyway, and probably had done. Greed and ego were alien to his personality. He was without a doubt the most famous person I have ever met, or expect to meet. I had an uncle who once met Grandma Moses, but I don’t think our experiences were quite the same.
His art came into its own during the cacophony of the 1960s: the macho roar of Abstract Expressionism was giving way to Pop Art’s calliope, and over everything was the sound of the civil rights movement and Vietnam, the song of our Dissonant Age. Consumer culture was accelerating, as it had been since the end of the First World War, and was creeping into galleries and museums, let in by Warhol, Lichtenstein and others. Amid all the bustle and noise, Sol’s work seemed calm, a statement of fact when much else seemed to be opinion. He was in the forefront of Minimalism, though in time he came to regard it as a dead end; Conceptualism did not begin with him, but he literally defined it, in his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967) and Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969).
Wall drawings, sculptures, sketches – art poured out of him in a joyous flood – over 1,200 wall drawings alone. Mass produced materials, techniques drawn from commercial printing, slightly altered, unconsciously following Jasper Johns’ dictum “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” A step away from the Minimalism of Carl Andre – small “m” minimal, as Sol called himself a small “c” conceptualist.
What are these figures that dominate his late Loopy Doopy and Whirls and Twirls series but gestural, Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes enlarged and refined? And the bright colors, the cornea-bending motion: aren’t they direct descendants of that Seussian art-movement duo, Pop and Op? These are not quotations, offered with a wink and a sneer; they are elements that Sol grew with as an artist, and put on a shelf until he found a way to express them and still be himself. Art allows you to stick a toe into eternity, to test the temperature – as though we would not all jump in, head first!
Everyone has some place, even if only in dreams, called home. For the fortunate, that place is real and close at hand. Though I once visited the LeWitt’s home in Connecticut I keep an unreal vision of Spoleto, Italy, in my mind, a fantasy world where his art colors everything. Sol and his wife, Carol, lived in Spoleto during the 1980s. I have never been there, which allows my imagination to run loose. I see in this make-believe-town Sol’s imagination brought to whole streets and neighborhoods. Like the resort at the Welsh town of Portmeirion, where Sir Clough Williams-Ellis worked for decades on his own architectural follies, my dream-Spoleto melds the past (all the Roman trappings: amphitheater, forum, temples) with the color and pattern of Sol’s works. It has a few recognizable pieces, and one building – the synagogue from Chester, Connecticut, which Sol designed. That sets the tone, not in the solemn stereotype of Judaism, but in bold color that embraces the celebratory side of religion. Someday, I will visit Spoleto, and my city will became a dream with another name, as though, like Sol’s wall drawings, it had been painted over to make way for another exhibition. My Spoleto will become one of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities, yet it is not gone. “Once something is done, it cannot be undone,” Sol wrote of his work. Perhaps it is the same with dreams.
All artists ask questions; the best artists learn what and how to ask. We delight in the unfinished, the meeting point where potential and realization meet halfway. Art allows the question to outlive the questioner. One of the blessings and consolations of art is that it allows shy people to be demonstrative in public – not through himself, but through his ideas. We like to watch artists wrestle with ideas and, like watching Jacob wrestling the angel, we are unsure who to root for. The unfinished, the jagged edges, catch at the imagination. We (now cheering Jacob) think we see those dangling threads in ourselves – aren’t we just like him? The polish of Sol’s work might work against this feeling, and side with the angel. But let’s not make a cult of Saint Sol – though the classic halo does have a certain Minimalist aesthetic, in this case it is unnecessary decoration.
Leafing through Sol LeWitt: 100 Views, the excellent catalog to Mass MoCA’s LeWitt retrospective, I noticed Carl Andre’s quote, “Sol is our Spinoza;” further on, I read Lawrence Weiner quoting Andre. What does it mean?
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was and remains an important figure in the history of philosophy. Prior to Spinoza, philosophy was dominated by Rene Descartes, of “I think therefore I am” fame. Cartesian philosophy held that there was a separation of the material from the spiritual, a philosophy rigidly based in logic. Spinoza, while not denying logic, asserted that there was no separation, that the spiritual and material were interconnected. His Ethics (published posthumously) dismantled medieval philosophical conventions and paved the way for the Enlightenment. His religious ideas got him banned from Jewish society, and put on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books.
So how does that relate to Sol LeWitt? It would be easy to believe that Cartesian logic is the sole basis of all conceptual art. As a conceptual artist, LeWitt worked regularly with mathematics and logical systems. LeWitt himself contributed to this perception in one of his most famous writings, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967), in which he wrote, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Had this been all there was to conceptualism, it might have died on the vine, overwhelmed by the emotional gush of Abstract Expressionism and Pop’s hipster ironies. It would have ended up like Minimalism, which, in LeWitt’s view, was a dead end (I agree, but I think it’s a cul-de-sac worth exploring). However, like Spinoza, LeWitt denied the hegemony of logic. In his Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969) he wrote something even more important than the earlier quote: “Conceptual artists are mystics. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” This understanding of the interaction of logic and spirit is what made LeWitt the Spinoza of conceptual art, with none of Spinoza’s unfortunate repercussions.
Conceptualism continues to have its ups and downs, and, in LeWitt, it has – not had – a genuine Old Master.
P.S. If you want to think more about art and Spinoza, I recommend John Berger’s book, Bento’s Sketchbook.