In the introduction to Locating Sol LeWitt, editor David Areford advocates for a “plural LeWitt,” that is, a more expansive view of the artist and his practice, one that fully embraces the multiple mediums he pursued and the sometimes difficult and contradictory aspects of his conceptual art. In this spirit, the volume’s nine essays employ diverse methodologies and new archival sources to illuminate well-known works, as well as unfamiliar or entirely unexplored aspects of LeWitt’s life, art, and career. The famous wall drawings are a central topic but so are the artist’s structures, photographs, prints, books, works on paper, and even his rare forays into film and architecture.
In this two part series, Areford and fellow contributors Veronica Roberts and Kirsten Swenson reflect on their personal and academic connections to LeWitt and his work. In this first installment, they share their responses to the following questions: How did your scholarly relationship with LeWitt begin? What initially attracted you to his work?
Veronica Roberts: I met Sol LeWitt in 1999 when I had the good fortune of being the curatorial assistant assigned to his major retrospective at the Whitney Museum. I was familiar with his writings on conceptual art and had lived with an acrylic wall drawing at the Williams College Museum of Art, but that was really the extent of my limited knowledge and exposure. Having the opportunity to work closely with Sol was such a gift and it’s a gift that continues to shape my curatorial work and inspire exhibitions all these years later.
On a personal level, working with Sol was transformative for me because of his understated humility and anti-hierarchical attitudes. I remember that he liked buying hot dogs from the vendor outside the museum and was genuinely uncomfortable being the center of attention. He was deeply committed to his art and not distracted by trivial things. He was also exceptionally nice and generous in a very understated way—the absolute opposite of the stereotypical artist who is aloof, a snob, or narcissist. Being assigned to work on a Sol LeWitt show as my first substantial professional experience out of college was a bit like being an intern at a literary agency and somehow being assigned to Barbara Kingsolver or Toni Morrison. I still marvel at the luck that landed me in LeWittland.
That being said, I wasn’t initially a fervent fan. The Whitney exhibition corrected many misperceptions I harbored: chiefly, that conceptual art was as dry as toast. Getting to hire the drafters who helped his trained crew and seeing the wall drawings come to fruition made me realize how much community and collaboration were at the core of LeWitt’s practice. I was struck by the way he was a kind of one-man WPA of the 20th century, employing countless artists to help execute his work.
While working on the exhibition, I learned that Wall Drawing #46 (1970) had been made in Eva Hesse’s honor, combining something of hers (a not straight, organic line) with something of his (the wall drawing) so that their work would be forever united after her death. That story really stayed with me. I was in my first job and in my early twenties at the time and had no idea that I’d one day curate an exhibition, “Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt,” that explored the deep impact their friendship had on their art and lives.
Kirsten Swenson: I saw the epic retrospective that Veronica worked on at the Whitney as a graduate student. I remember thinking of LeWitt’s aspiration to create work he would not be ashamed to show Giotto. Indeed, LeWitt’s commitment to site-specificity within a gallery or museum—the Whitney was his Santa Croce!—is one of the most intriguing dimensions of his work.
A few years later I saw a spare installation of white modular structures and their shadows, “Sol LeWitt: Structures 1962–2003” at Pace Wildenstein on W. 57th St. This show generated far reaching questions about site-specificity and the urban environment. I hurried home and wrote about LeWitt for the first time. My words were never published but became a touchstone for so much to come. Here’s an excerpt:
“A block down 57th Street from the Dwan Gallery where LeWitt exhibited his white modular structures in the 1960s, Pace Wildenstein presents a show that traces this form to the present. I.M. Pei’s Four Seasons Hotel is the backdrop, framed by the gallery’s wide second story windows. LeWitt created maquettes as an employee of Pei’s architecture firm in the 1950s, and the exhibition stages a relationship between LeWitt’s structures and the urban built environment. Several towers, such as 8x8x1 and 11x11x1 (both 1989), exaggerate the armature of International Style structures, invoking the modernist cityscape. Raking light creates intense shadows, minimizing the materiality of LeWitt’s structures and establishing an imagistic relationship to the world outside. The exhibition is exquisitely site-specific, clarifying the relationship of LeWitt’s structures to Manhattan.”
Though the connection to Pei was not mentioned in Dave Hickey’s catalog essay, nor the press materials, it must have been on LeWitt’s mind. The structures had such a specific relationship to midtown architecture. Suddenly, it seemed important to understand Manhattan, in its social-historical specificity, as a frame for his work. In 2005, I saw “Sol LeWitt on the Rooftop: Splotches, Whirls, and Twirls” at the Met. These are some of LeWitt’s most “sculptural” works—organic forms that rise like stalagmites, an almost geological counterpoint to the Manhattan skyline. The opportunity in 2006 to write an essay for Nicholas Baume’s exhibition “Sol LeWitt: Structures, 1965–2006,” an installation of structures in City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan, was a chance to further think through the relationship of the structures to the city.
David Areford: My initial experience with LeWitt’s work was also in the context of a great exhibition. However, this was long after the 2000 Whitney retrospective, which was then completely off my radar as I was finishing my dissertation on late medieval woodcuts at Northwestern. In 2008, the year after LeWitt passed away and five years after I had settled in Boston, a spectacular long-term exhibition—it has now been extended until 2043—of over one hundred wall drawings opened at MASS MoCA in North Adams.
My assumptions about LeWitt’s conceptual art as exclusively deadpan and cerebral were completely blown away by the quiet brilliance and ingenuity of these works.
Since my scholarship had been primarily concerned with the dynamics of viewer reception, I was particularly impressed by the varied experience of looking at the wall drawings. From the examples consisting of thousands of faint pencil lines to those featuring brightly colored painted bands and geometric shapes, these were works that demanded a lot from viewers but also were extremely generous in return. What at first glance might appear strictly systematic or repetitive revealed itself to be intensely human, the product of problem-solving, focused mark-making, and often time-consuming physical and mental labor. I’ve visited this exhibition annually for over a decade and I still find it extremely moving and inspiring on all levels—visually, intellectually, and emotionally.
But what sealed my relationship to LeWitt was printmaking, the medium that had dominated my thinking and scholarship since grad school. At a Boston print fair, I serendipitously came across one of LeWitt’s lithographs from 1971, a work that uses the formal language that originated with Wall Drawing #46 (the same wall drawing that intrigued and inspired Veronica). I decided to write an article on this print and several others linked to the wall drawing, but the article quickly morphed into a book-length study, Strict Beauty: Sol LeWitt Prints, published last year. The book serves as the catalog for an upcoming exhibition of the same title opening in fall 2021 at the New Britain Museum of American Art and then at Williams College Museum of Art in spring 2022.
My longstanding interest in printmaking—a still marginalized art historical topic—has made me keenly aware of what gets left out of art history. Thus, as I researched LeWitt’s prints, I realized that there were many other aspects of his career and practice that had been underappreciated or yet to be explored. And that realization led to Locating Sol LeWitt and its nine essays.
Note: 192 Books and The Paula Cooper Gallery will present a discussion about Locating Sol LeWitt between David S. Areford, Anna Lovatt, Veronica Roberts, and Kirsten Swenson tomorrow, June 3rd. Learn more about the event here.
David S. Areford is associate professor of art history and department chair at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is the author of Strict Beauty: Sol LeWitt Prints (Yale University Press, 2020).
Veronica Roberts is curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the editor and co-author of Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt (Blanton Museum, 2014).
Kirsten Swenson is associate professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She is the author of Irrational Judgments: Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, and 1960s New York (Yale University Press, 2015).