Sol LeWitt, the internationally renowned conceptual and minimalist artist, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, but lived and was educated in New Britain. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Syracuse University in 1949. Before settling in New York, LeWitt served in the Korean War. He attended the School of Visual Arts and worked as a graphic designer at the firm of architect I.M. Pei (b. 1917). His artistic inspiration was also enhanced by the entry-level job that he held at the Museum of Modern Art. Over his lifetime, he was given three exhibitions at the New Britain Museum of American Art to which he donated 1,800 examples of his work.
LeWitt is best known for his colorful wall paintings and cubed sculptures, although he has also worked extensively in drawing and printmaking. His work spans many movements including Minimalism and Conceptual Art. It is his combination of intellectual insight and visual delight that entrances viewers of his works. LeWitt’s work utilizes simple and impersonal forms, exploring repetition and variations from a basic form or line. In the 1980s, LeWitt moved away from the austere nature of his earlier work and began to incorporate vibrant and sensual colors as well as undulating forms while still staying true to his basic approach of simplicity and repetition.
Horizontal Brushstrokes, currently on view in the Great American Watercolor exhibition through July 3, exemplifies LeWitt’s deceptively simple form. The variations of lines, some more straight than others, expose the underlying color. This gives the lines a flowing quality, as if they were about to run off the page. The colors clash visually, creating the illusion of movement as the eye alternates between red, green, and blue.
Wall Drawing #1196, Scribbles, on permanent view in the lobby of the NBMAA, represents another masterpiece by LeWitt. His wall drawings have best been described as minimalist maximalism because they are simple in form but monumental in scale. Six assistants worked for over two weeks to complete the painstaking process of using no. 2 pencils to scribble directly on to the wall. They enlarged LeWitt’s original concept so that it is now 13 ft. 7 in. high by 27 ft. 7 in. long. Each column looks like a light and dark funnel of dust or the vortex of a tornado. One critic likened each to the residue from a giant exhaust pipe. Light on the outside and dark at the center, each column stands next to another forming a ceremonial gate. LeWitt indicated, when he examined the completed drawing in December, 2005, that he had been inspired to undertake the series by studying a vintage photograph of a spiral staircase by Clarence Laughlin (1905-1985) in his collection. Because of the drawing’s size and complexity, the cumulative effect on the viewer is sublime.
Have you seen both of these artworks at the NBMAA? What did you think of them? Have you seen any other works by LeWitt on view here at the Museum? Do you have a favorite? Did you know that the staircase going up to the second floor galleries is named after LeWitt? What do you think of conceptual art and artists? Does the focus on design and conception detract from the visual result? How is it changed?
See examples from the NBMAA’s vast collection of LeWitt artwork on view at our Gallery of American Art at City Arts on Pearl in Hartford in conjunction with TheaterWorks‘ production of High. Also, if you love LeWitt’s work, be sure to check out the major retrospective (on view through 2033) at Mass MOCA.