Sol LeWitt, an American artist whose modular sculptures and systematic murals rank among the most innovative works of the last 40 years, changing the direction of art internationally, died Sunday in New York City after a lengthy struggle with cancer. He was 78 and lived in Chester, Conn., a short distance from his birthplace in Hartford.
In 1966, LeWitt made his first modular sculpture and first masterpiece. The open framework cube, 6 feet on a side and resting on the floor, was composed from 27 two-foot cubic modules made of white-painted wood. (The original sculpture's whereabouts is unknown, although two subsequent versions were made.) The methodical structure pulled the plug on subjective taste as a criterion for making and evaluating art.
Two years later, in October 1968, LeWitt made his initial wall drawing. First in graphite, then in crayon, later in colored pencil and finally in chromatically rich washes of India ink, acrylic and other materials, the wall drawings are a unique contribution to the history of art. Like the modular sculptures, they are composed from precise sets of logical, often mathematical instructions that anyone could be trained to execute.
The instructions are somewhat like musical scores, with the artist assuming the role of composer. "The idea becomes a machine that makes the art," LeWitt once wrote.
Direct evidence of the artist's hand had been a central value in Western art for 500 years, at least since the Renaissance. LeWitt developed an intimate acquaintance with the murals of Piero della Francesca during a 1958 trip to Arezzo, Italy. He made numerous pen-and-ink drawings based on them, as well as studies of paintings by Botticelli, Velazquez, Goya, Rubens and Ingres.
Among his earliest surviving paintings is 1961's thickly painted oil "Embarkation for Cythera (After Watteau)," which simplifies the courtly figures of French aristocrats into chunky smears of brown, gray and violet paint. Each study seems an exercise in learning to see in two dimensions.
LeWitt's art values the artist's mind over the artist's hand. He referred to his wall works as drawings rather than paintings or murals, regardless of the materials that were employed, because drawing is the medium that most closely tracks the movement of artistic thought. A proposal for a wall drawing was included in "Information," an important 1971 survey of younger international artists at the Museum of Modern Art.
It was his sculptures, however, that initially brought him attention, when they were included in the pivotal 1966 exhibition "Primary Structures" at New York's Jewish Museum. The show is commonly credited with introducing Minimalist art to the public. Minimalism replaced representational imagery with geometric form. The pedestal, which had long elevated sculpture above the plane of daily human experience, was banished. Industrial fabrication eliminated individual gesture, which represented the equally elevated touch of the artist's hand.
Precedents in early 20th century Russian and Dutch Constructivist art influenced Minimalism's development. LeWitt also took a keen interest in the sequential studies of animal motion made by the English-born California photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). But Minimalism was a watershed partly because it represented something entirely new: It was the first art movement of international significance forged exclusively by American-born artists.
Perhaps the artist's own maturity explains the resilient clarity in his groundbreaking work. LeWitt was 38 when he made "Modular Cube" and, despite the MOMA survey of "younger artists," was older than 40 when he did his first wall drawing. The resonant simplicity of his art is not representative of an artist just starting out.
LeWitt was born Sept. 28, 1928, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. His father was a doctor, who died when the boy was 6. His mother, a nurse, moved the family from Hartford to her parents' home in nearby New Britain. As a child he took art classes at Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum, America's oldest public art museum and a leading center for avant-garde art in the 1930s. The same year that LeWitt's father died, the Wadsworth hosted America's first major Picasso retrospective and mounted the world premiere of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's opera "Four Saints in Three Acts."
After graduating from New Britain High School, LeWitt enrolled at Syracuse University, where he studied art. Service during the Korean War saw him stationed in noncombat duty in California, Japan and Korea. When he returned to the United States, he moved to Manhattan and set up a studio on the Lower East Side, in the old Ashkenazi Jewish settlement on Hester Street. He kept the studio for two decades. To support himself, he did production work for Seventeen magazine and, in 1955 and 1956, was a graphic designer in the office of young architect I.M. Pei.
Jobs as a night receptionist and clerk at MOMA were to have a greater influence, partly because of daily contact with its outstanding collections of painting and sculpture and partly because of the people he met there. Among his fellow workers were the then-unknown young artists Dan Flavin, Robert Mangold and Robert Ryman, each of whom would be instrumental in the Minimalist revolution of the 1960s, and art critic Lucy Lippard, who would write many of the most influential critical essays of the period. The frontispiece dedication to Lippard's landmark 1973 book, "Six Years: The Dematerialization of Art (1966-1972)" is "For Sol."
With Robert Smithson, Donald Judd and several others, he was among a number of artists who also wrote about art. An 80-word press release written by Smithson for LeWitt's 1966 show at Virginia Dwan Gallery notes: "The entire concept is based on simple arithmetic, yet the result is mathematically complex. Extreme order brings extreme disorder."
LeWitt wrote two widely influential pieces for art magazines: 1967's "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art" and 1969's "Sentences on Conceptual Art," which further stripped down the already concise but provocative ideas offered in the earlier essay. The first of his "paragraphs" began, "The editor has written me that he is in favor of avoiding 'the notion that the artist is a kind of ape that has to be explained by the civilized critic.' This should be good news to both artists and apes."
He also wrote, "I will refer to the kind of art in which I am involved as Conceptual art," thus introducing the term to the art historical lexicon. His first two sentences on Conceptual art contend, "Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach."
The objective clarity of rational thought in LeWitt's modular sculptures and systematic wall drawings arose in opposition to two primary developments, one artistic and the other social. Heroic personal posturing characterized the tired subjectivity of Abstract Expressionist painting, which had settled in as art's establishment. And seeing clearly was at a premium in the chaotic 1960s, an era marked by political assassinations, multifarious civil rights movements and the debacle of Vietnam. Minimal and Conceptual art represented a distinctly democratic, deeply American impulse to sweep all that away.
LeWitt always said that he did not make art to change society. However, his work was made in relation to the political, moral and aesthetic realities of their time.
For the 1987 Sculpture Project in Muenster, Germany, he made a rectangular wall of black concrete blocks for the center of a plaza in front of an elegant, white Neoclassical government building. The sculpture, "Black Form: Memorial to the Missing Jews" is composed in the same systematic manner as his other work. It is neither figurative nor descriptive, but its modern rationalism contrasts sharply with that of the architecture's Neoclassical orders.
The context lent specific meaning to LeWitt's otherwise nonrepresentational form. "Being Jewish," he explained of his first visit to Muenster, when the sculpture was commissioned for the Plaza of the Republic, "I noticed the absence of Jewish artists and curators, Jewish bakers and candlestick makers." The sculpture registers as a blunt opposition to its surroundings, yielding a profound and immovable presence that draws a passerby to it.
Eight years later, at the Los Angeles opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art's "Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975," the first important historical survey of Conceptualism, LeWitt took a more conventional path. He joined a dozen other artists in endorsing a statement written by artist Hans Haacke to protest the show's sponsorship by tobacco company Philip Morris.
For a two-gallery exhibition in Los Angeles in 2001, LeWitt gave assistants instructions to construct a long concrete block wall that bisected a room without rising all the way to the ceiling. Encountering the unexpected spatial partition, he told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, "You think of what you're not seeing" on the other side.
Four years after a 1978 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, LeWitt moved to Spoleto, Italy, with his second wife, Carol Androccio. A gallery frenzy was being fueled by a resurgent American economy, and private money was flooding the art world for the first time since a market collapse at the end of the 1960s.
As an artist whose work had specifically removed the expressive individual from center stage, LeWitt had prospered in a 1970s milieu that focused on the work that was made. But now, artists were becoming celebrities. LeWitt, famously reticent in public, once explained to an approaching newspaper photographer as he covered his face at a museum opening, "I am not Rock Hudson."
When the LeWitts returned to the United States at the decade's end, they chose to live in the small Connecticut town of Chester, about 30 miles southeast of where he had grown up. He is survived by his wife and their two daughters: Sofia, who works at New York's Paula Cooper Gallery; and Eva, a student at Bard College who was named for his late friend, artist Eva Hesse.
LeWitt was widely respected in the art community for his unstinting support of other artists, both famous and obscure. He helped found Printed Matter in 1976, a Manhattan repository for artists' books, and he later donated many examples to the Wadsworth Athenaeum's library. His Chester studio is home to an art collection of several thousand works, which he acquired through exchange and purchase over the years.
In 2004, LeWitt began discussions with the Yale University Art Gallery about committing a large number of wall drawings and his archive to the teaching museum. That arrangement led to plans for a long-term exhibition, "Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective," which will feature 50 monumental works created between 1968 and 2007 and will be shown in an abandoned factory building being refurbished at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.
The show is scheduled to open in October 2008, on the 40th anniversary of LeWitt's first wall drawing.