in Opinion | 01 NOV 07
Featured in
Issue 111

Lead by Example

Sol LeWitt's exemplary approach to art and life

in Opinion | 01 NOV 07

Last summer we were regaled with stories about a brash art-worldling who had been sticking diamonds on somebody else’s skull. We were also told that he hires people to do his work for him, collects art in bulk and shows it in hot venues. In short, he is just the kind of guy the popular press loves to hate, and defenders of the true Bohemian cross harrumph about in choral harmony while awaiting deliverance that never comes. Comparatively little notice was paid to the passing of another artist who trained assistants to realize his projects and who collected art in depth and showed it when asked. His name was Sol LeWitt.

Yet it was LeWitt who first took the heat for defying the old-guard belief that the visible trace of the artist’s hand was the ultimate criterion of aesthetic authenticity and value. Of course, László Moholy-Nagy had challenged that notion back in the 1920s by phoning in the design for an enamel painting to a factory that then made two versions in different sizes. In the ’60s LeWitt went further in legitimizing such practices by establishing the principle that art should be judged by the quality of the idea behind it. ‘Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution,’ he wrote. (And that goes for jewel-encrusted crania too.) Just as importantly, he made a point of publicly crediting those who gave substance to his ideas.
Meanwhile LeWitt’s collecting revealed a discerning but pluralistic appetite for the visual that few would guess from the rigour of his work and that some who have claimed him for a narrow anti-materialist or an anti-art version of Conceptualism still find impossible to acknowledge. As the selection from his collection recently shown at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in North Carolina made plain, here was a man who liked both Hanne Darboven and Franz West, both Dan Graham and Alex Katz. The exhibition was also typical in that the institutions with whom LeWitt shared what he owned were usually off-the-beaten-track museums and art galleries that had little of the sorts of thing he quietly gathered.

Generally LeWitt acquired them by trading with other artists, but these exchanges had nothing to do with speculating on rising stars or coming trends. Rather, LeWitt amassed a cross-section of work by contemporaries with ideas that matched his in clarity and seriousness. Naturally there was a concentration of friends and comrades from the Manhattan avant-gardes of his generation: Andre, Barry, Bochner, Hesse, Marden, the Mangolds, Smithson, Tuttle and Weiner. But far from having a ‘New York School’ focus LeWitt’s scope was cosmopolitan from the outset, encompassing Buren, the Bechers, Dibbets, Gilbert & George, Long, Merz and Salvo, when not many in the USA had heard of them. Moreover, in a period when it was anything but the norm – actually it still isn’t – his perspective included many women and artists of colour: in addition to those just cited are Eleanor Antin, Jo Baer, Charles Gaines, Adrian Piper, Dorothea Rockburne and Pat Steir, among others. To the end of his life LeWitt kept an eye peeled for fresh talent and generously swapped first-rate drawings for art that was just beginning to find a market.

LeWitt’s capacity to recognize diversity and merit in others stemmed from total confidence in his own work and in that work’s absolute integrity. So too did his discretion. LeWitt’s drawings and sculptures are ubiquitous and famous, but he was never a household name or a tabloid face. On the contrary, he refused even to provide a photograph of himself for exhibition catalogues and systematically turned down the public honours and lucrative prizes that came his way. Although he wrote ‘rules’ for his art, his ethical code of conduct is known only by example. (In this regard he differs from Ad Reinhardt, whose austere mysticism has certain affinities with LeWitt’s, but whose tart art-world ‘dos and don’ts’ turned him into waspish man-about-downtown.)

Like others with whom he is grouped, LeWitt has lately become a reference point for younger artists intent on examining the contradictions of Minimal and Conceptual art according to various schools of political and cultural critique. Some of this work is glib, and some – for instance the ‘Bloodwork’ drawings of Felix Gonzalez-Torres – is thoughtful, elegant and worthy of the precedent it takes on. But while objections are heard everywhere to the showboating style of newly minted millionaires fresh out of the art academies, the fact that all eyes stay trained on them when they could be looking for alternatives reflects a society fixated on icons and personality cults certain to betray it. LeWitt’s scruples and reserve make it hard to notice him right now, but what he represented and the ‘life of art’ he lived are what we desperately need.