The artist Sol LeWitt died last week at the age of 78, just two months after the death of Jules Olitski, another artist who achieved fame in the 1960’s. Each took as his point of departure the “action painting” of the 1950’s, reacting against its convulsive gestures and swagger—although they did so in sharply different ways.
Olitski stained his canvases with frail veils of color, creating mists or fields without any bounding lines. LeWitt, by contrast, made hard-edged sculptures and paintings. Cool and cerebral in character, they were invariably bounded by firm lines and planes. He preferred working with “deliberately uninteresting”—to use his phrase—forms and geometric modules, which he assembled into sprawling additive compositions. These laconic assemblages mark the beginning of Conceptual Art, a term LeWitt coined in 1967.
In that year LeWitt published his landmark essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in Artforum. “Paragraphs” contains a celebrated definition: “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.” So perfunctory, indeed, that the execution of LeWitt’s wall paintings was invariably left to assistants or student volunteers working from his written instructions.
LeWitt’s own artistic training was spotty. Born in Hartford, Connecticut to a family of Russian immigrants, he studied at Syracuse University, designed posters while serving in the army in Korea, and worked for a time in the bookshop of the Museum of Modern Art. He even served a term in the mid-1950’s as a designer for the architect I.M. Pei. This varied background helps account for his versatility—sculpture, print-making, graphic art—but it also suggests why his artistic language remained a schematic affair of simple geometric units and shapes. He was never a fluid draftsman and never sought to achieve painterly effects.
Strangely, after he had brought art to this conceptual pass, LeWitt retreated from the disembodied logic of his 1960’s work. His late wall paintings, like the one I pass each morning in the Williams College Museum of Art, are distinguished by a vibrant and sumptuous sense of color, worlds away from his bleached lattices of the 1960’s. Might it be that he was closer as an artist to Olitski than one might have thought?