Sol LeWitt

Sol LeWitt (1928–2007)

“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. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” [1]
—Sol LeWitt

About the artist

Sol LeWitt was born in 1928 in Hartford, Connecticut. After receiving his B.F.A. degree from Syracuse University and serving in the Korean War as a graphic artist, he moved to New York in 1953, just as Abstract Expressionism was gaining public recognition. He found various jobs to support himself, including working for the young architect I.M. Pei as a graphic designer. This contact proved formative, for as LeWitt would later write, “An architect doesn't go off with a shovel and dig his foundation and lay every brick. He's still an artist.”

For LeWitt and his colleagues, Abstract Expressionism had become an entrenched style that offered few new creative possibilities. LeWitt began to create works that utilized simple and impersonal geometric forms, exploring repetition and variations of a basic form or line as a way to achieve complex works. Perhaps most importantly, he evolved a working method for creating artworks based on simple directions, works that could be executed by others rather than the artist. The fertility of this approach is demonstrated by the aesthetic richness and variety of the wall drawings, none of which were drawn by him. LeWitt rejects the notion of art as a unique and precious object. Formulated from an initial idea outlined in a diagrammatic sketch accompanied by a set of instructions, his works are installed on the wall of the gallery or museum by a team of assistants, who rigorously follow the artist's directives. Some instructions are simple and straightforward, and some are long and complex. By placing his drawings directly on the wall of the gallery or museum, LeWitt merges his drawing with the architecture, while also calling into questions ideas about permanence, value, and conservation.
–Adapted from an essay by J. Fiona Ragheb, Guggenheim Museum Collection: A to Z, New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2001.

Footnotes:

1. Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967), pp. 79–83, reprinted in Gary Garrels, ed., Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective (exh. cat.), 2000, p. 369.

View + Discuss

Sol LeWitt (1928-2007)
Wall Drawing #146. All two-part combinations of blue arcs from corners and sides and blue straight, not straight and broken lines., September 1972
Blue crayon: dimensions vary with installation
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Panza Collection, Gift, 92.4160
© 2005 Sol LeWitt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo ©Giorgio Colombo, Milano

Sol LeWitt’s methods challenge what we traditionally think about how works of art are created. With your students, look at Wall Drawing #146 and discuss the questions on the right.

1. LeWitt likens his method of creating art to that of an architect. He has stated, “An architect doesn’t go off with a shovel and dig his foundation and lay every brick. He’s still an artist.” Do you agree or disagree with LeWitt’s line of reasoning? Explain.

2. This work was executed, not by Sol LeWitt, but by a team of assistants according to a set of directions written by the artist. It is LeWitt’s premise that the art is in the idea. Do you think that it is important that the artist actually draw or paint the work, or is it equally valid that the artist conceive the work and have others execute it? How does this method of making art change what we mean when we call a work “an original”?

3. This work is drawn directly on the wall, and in many cases will be destroyed at the end of an exhibition. How do you feel about art that is created to exist only for a short time and then destroyed? How does making a drawing that will later be painted over challenge traditional ideas about the importance and value of the art object?

4. The fact that this work can be re-created many times in different settings raises a key question: Must a work of art be unique?

Further Explorations

LeWitt’s directions for Wall Drawing #146 state: “All two-part combinations of blue arcs from corners and sides and blue straight, not straight, and broken lines. September 1972. Blue crayon: dimensions vary with installation.” If you were given these directions, a blue crayon, and a surface of your choosing, create the drawing that would result from you interpreting these directions. Compare your solution with those that your classmates create. How does making a drawing according to written directions help you better understand LeWitt’s methodology?

Each student should create directions for a drawing. The artist may stipulate the media, size, tool(s), color(s), shape(s), placement of all elements, or only some. Then ask students to exchange directions and create the drawing based on their classmate’s directions. This activity can be done with traditional art materials or by using drawing applications on a computer. How is the finished drawing different or similar to what the author envisioned? Describe the process of creating a drawing from someone else’s directions.

LeWitt’s drawings are frequently labor intensive, requiring many people and many days to complete. If your school has an empty wall in need of art, try a class collaboration to create a LeWitt-like wall drawing. Teams of students can collaborate both in writing and diagramming the project and then following the written directions to execute it on the wall. In keeping with the spirit of LeWitt’s work, the finished drawing can either be a temporary installation that will soon be painted over, or a lasting addition to your school environment.

Additional Resources

Batchelor, David, Rosalind E. Krauss, et al. Sol LeWitt: Structures 1962–1993 (exh. cat.). Oxford: The Museum of Modern Art, 1993.

Garrels, Gary, ed. Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective (exh. cat.). San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Kaiser, Franz, and Trevor Fairbrother. Sol Lewitt: Drawings 1958–1992 (exh. cat.). The Hague, Netherlands: Haags Gemeentemuseum, 1992.

Sol Lewitt, Twenty-Five Years of Wall Drawings, 1968–1993 (exh. cat.). Andover, Mass.: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993.

Sol LeWitt (exh. cat.). Alicia Legg, ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1978. 

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