Book review: Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas by Lary Bloom

     Prophets often lead lopsided lives. Their pronouncements, whether predictive or admonitory, are pored over endlessly, but the person behind the words is often in shadow or reduced to a caricature over time. What did Isaiah have for breakfast, and who (if any) did he sleep with? And what does it mean when that prophet turns out to be an ordinary person?

     Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) was the foremost prophet of conceptual art (he preferred the small “c”), which provided an intellectual, often cooly detached riposte to Abstract Expressionism’s grandly emotional gestures. LeWitt transformed the idea of the mural with his multitudinous wall drawings, his best-known and most multitudinous works. “I think the cavemen came first, (p. xiv)” was his response when he was given too much credit for drawing on a wall instead of paper or canvas. That diffidence, and wry accuracy, was typical of him. His “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) and “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1969) are holy writ to many artists. He stands as one of the artist-prophets of the second half of the twentieth century, a designation that rightly would have made him uncomfortable. To his mind, if I may paraphrase Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Sol’s just this guy, you know?” 

     (Full disclosure: I was part of the crew who executed Wall Drawing #1131: Whirls & Twirls at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford CT during the Summer of 2004. I met Sol on less than a handful of occasions, and always too briefly. My account of executing the wall drawing can be found in Art in America magazine or October 2005.)

     Since his death, questions of legacy arise. Instead taking the vanity route and endowing a LeWitt museum (I’m looking at you, Clyfford Still) he chose to house a huge selection of wall drawings at Mass MoCA, giving that youthful institution a boost in attendance and a signature installation that will last, at least, until 2033. His career is dotted with other such generous instances. His rivalries and jealousies he kept to himself.

       Lary Bloom (yes, Lary with one R), author, playwright, and longtime newspaper columnist/editor for The Hartford Courant, not to mention a friend of Sol LeWitt and his second wife, Carol, undertook to raise the curtain on LeWitt’s life in toto, a counterbalance to the many college theses and art books on LeWitt’s professional life. Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas is the result, and one I have returned to several times in my (admittedly biased) artistic studies. In my journal I wrote that LeWitt was “…as his reputation describes, soft-spoken, self-effacing, unassuming – what in less famous people is called shy.” That, now that I have read Bloom’s book, was not quite accurate. LeWitt did not seek or have any interest in the machinations of fame, or the hoops that must be jumped through to reach them. His closest analogue might be former New Yorker editor William Shawn, whose reticence and broad influence are similar. (Not everyone can be Anna Wintour or Jeff Koons – or wants to be.) Like Shawn, LeWitt was generous but firm in his convictions, and both men found the glare of publicity to be distasteful. Shawn’s private life was commemorated by New Yorker stalwart (and Shawn’s longtime lover) Lillian Ross in Here But Not Here (1998); Bloom’s approach is as repertorial as Ross’s, but covers more territory, and from a less intimate viewpoint.

      Like a teenager flipping through a novel to see if there are any sex scenes, readers might want to seek out the seamy underbelly associated with the bohemian lifestyle. Everyone has a dark side, but LeWitt’s was as thin as an ink wash, and will disappoint the prurient sensation-seeker. Bloom makes a conscientious effort to avoid hagiography, but it’s an uphill struggle; fortunately, his personal relationship with the artist keeps idolatry at bay. LeWitt was no saint, but he was far saintlier than any of his contemporaries, lacking any addictions, bigotries, or dark events in his life. Perhaps he was a little too serious (“Sol doesn’t do fun,” Carol said. (p.xii)) but he never strayed into pedantry or art-babble, and his vices were minimal almost to the point of being uninteresting. If he had one flaw, it was his tendency to date women in their 20s after he had left his 20s behind; age difference was a recurring bugbear in his love life. I have not counted, but the low-key, visually un-spectacular LeWitt seems to have been quite the ladies man, which comes as the biggest surprise of the book. None of the women he dated left with hard feelings; the closest was a comment from a woman named Karen Gunderson, whom LeWitt left for someone else: “How could you be critical? It was the ‘70s, after all.” (p.190)

     LeWitt the writer is almost as admired as LeWitt the artist, and quotes are scattered throughout the book. I have long savored one of LeWitt’s comments in response to accusations that he had stolen his best ideas from European artists: “Those who understand art only by what it looks like often do not understand very much at all. (p. 280)” Bloom wisely avoids the internecine questions around Conceptualism – is it an outgrowth of Minimalism, a companion movement, or its own thing? – which can be better debated by theorists and critics.

     LeWitt’s relationship with artist Eva Hesse, immortalized by the letter he wrote her in 1965 and the many reprinting and readings of it, was more complex than some of his amours. Her reputation as an artist has risen slowly but steadily since she died of cancer in 1970 at age 34. Her relationship to him was much in the mentor-student mold, almost a father figure; his feelings for her ran deeper, though the difference in their ages worked against him yet again. His letter, urging to her “…just DO” has been enshrined among the best motivational letters of its era. You can find readings of it online (such as Benedict Cumberbatch reading it here), plus essays and even hear it set to music. Bloom made the admirable decision to include the entirety of LeWitt’s famous letter, not just the first, eminently quotable, half. 

    The scene moves from growing up in Connecticut (including an adolescent bit of proto-punk poetry damning his hometown of New Britain) to New York City, to Italy, and back to Connecticut. Weep for the accounts of living in New York in those days ($45 a month for his apartment in Hester Street in1961, equivalent to $387 today). Bloom’s newspaper experience allows him to move briskly through elements that must be noted but bear little to no impact on the story, such as LeWitt’s very brief first marriage. He does not delve deeply into the art historical/philosophical roots of Conceptualism, as that has been covered in depth many other places by more knowledgeable hands. Carl Andre’s reference to LeWitt as “our Spinoza” captures LeWitt’s philosophical impact, though LeWitt, unlike Spinoza, was spared the censure of his peers. Andre’s own scandal – he was accused and acquitted of murdering his wife, artist Ana Mendieta, a case that still divides the art world – is dealt with efficiently, without judgement or dilation. Bloom keeps his focus on LeWitt, bringing the book in at a readable 303 pages, plus notes and bibliography.

     Conceptual art was born out of wedlock, a free child of the 1960s, parented by various artists across Europe and the United States. “In conceptual art 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 (Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Artforum magazine)” neatly sums up some conceptual practices, and LeWitt’s specifically. 

     One episode did leave me wanting more. In 1970, LeWitt was assembling a show and catalogue at the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague, a show that carried special poignancy, as he was working on it when Eva Hesse died. His instructions to curator Enno Develing “I know a lot of people dislike my work and they should have some say in the catalogue. If there are any other unfavorable reviews you know about and want to use it’s okay with me.” (p. 156). Without having seen the book, I cannot say whether or to what extent Develing obliged LeWitt; Bloom does not inform us. Who includes negative opinions in an exhibition catalog? Certainly Mass MoCA, in their companion book to the LeWitt retrospective. Sol LeWitt: 100 Views (2009), did not, despite including notes, tributes, and anecdotes from a wide variety of artists, curators, and critics. 

     The book’s chief frustration is visual rather than verbal. The necessary and obligatory center section of illustrations show mature works, but none of the rarities and juvenilia that might have expanded on the text. You can buy any number of books that cover his works: his structures (he preferred that term over “sculptures”) and his wall drawings, from the black-and-white ones that began and ended his career, to the explosively bold color of his mature years. (Here I question myself: the wall drawings seemed to burst forth in full ripeness, with none of the tentative qualities many other artists have when exploring a new idea. The early wall drawings are understated, but not immature.) Bloom refers many times to small works made as gifts, sketches made off-the-cuff and the like, but we do not get to see them. LeWitt’s art holds such joy and engages the mind so completely that I crave more, especially the rarities, but I understand the need for concision.

    LeWitt’s ideas have a life of their own, and continue to be passed on to successive generations.  Should you wish to learn about the man, this is the book to start with, and will likely stand as definitive for some time. Bloom has found a near-perfect subject: nothing to repel, no feet of clay to ruin the admirer’s notions, and access to friends and family sufficient to be comprehensive. While the prose does not enthrall, as Rebecca Solnit’s “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West” (2003) or delve as deep into artistic philosophy as Lawrence Weschler’s book on Robert Irwin, “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees” (1982), Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas stands on its own as a worthy biography and a worthwhile read. 

Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas (2019) by Lary Bloom, is published by Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT

You can read bout it on Goodreads here.

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