Sol LeWitt's many variations
One of America's most highly respected artists, Sol LeWitt, is best known today for abstract drawings executed directly on a wall. Both personally and professionally, LeWitt is one of the art world's great charmers, but the three-dimensional objects that first made him famous could have been models for teaching geometry.
In a recent interview, he said the austere LeWitt of 1965 would probably hate the more colorful and high-spirited work he is doing today.
He began in conscious opposition to the abstract-expressionist style of the 1940s and 1950s. Such painters as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning had carried to its ultimate extreme the tradition of the artist as a drunken rebel who makes seemingly formless images.
By the 1960s, it was time for something different, and a group of younger artists became famous for using very simple, familiar forms. Jasper Johns did American flags, Andy Warhol did soup cans, and Sol LeWitt worked with rectangles and cubes.
Abstract expressionism had been compared to jazz, rooted in free improvisation. For LeWitt, a more congenial precedent in music would be Bach, elaborating systematic variations on a short series of notes.
Johns's flags are obviously not about patriotism, and LeWitt tries to make it equally clear that his own work is not about mathematics. "Geometry is just one thing out in the world that can be used as art," he has said, "like trees or toes." He makes geometric art, more intuitively than rigorously, to please himself and, in recent decades, a growing public as well.
Sol LeWitt is the subject of a major retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. After closing in San Francisco on May 21, the show travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (July 22-Oct. 22), and the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (Nov. 30-Feb. 25, 2001).
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