Sol LeWitt, a Master Of the Art of the Idea

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

You can feast on Sol LeWitt. The drawings he produced are mentally delicious. What makes them so delicious, so pleasing to the mind, is that he didn't have to draw them. That's because the artist, who died at age 78 on Sunday, employed what one might call the conceptual cookbook method.

Each of LeWitt's drawings came with its own recipe. The rest was up to you. If you followed the directions, you could cook it up yourself.

Until they paint it over, one of his drawings will remain on a broad wall at the National Gallery of Art, on the concourse level of the East Building. It was supposed to be a vertical, but since no tall wall was available it's lying on its side. LeWitt wrote its recipe in 1993:

Wall Drawing No. 681 C/ A wall divided vertically into four equal squares separated and bordered by black bands. Within each square, bands in one of four directions, ink washes superimposed.

LeWitt made an idea -- a crisp and immaterial sequence of instructions. His assistants simply followed them. The idea made the art.

The wall drawing you see is colorful, imposing and magisterially decorative. The crystalline, and egoless, idea at its core is equally important, because it strengthens LeWitt's drawing -- rigorously, invisibly, from the inside out -- the way an inner steel armature supports a work of clay.

When LeWitt first came to prominence in the early 1960s, the macho active gestures of abstract-expressionist practice still ruled Manhattan art. Sudden stabbings with the loaded brush were very much in fashion then; so were accidents and splashes. LeWitt's art wasn't like that. It didn't look accidental at all.

Because he liked to choreograph orderly Euclidian forms -- circles, squares and triangles, compass-arcs and grids -- his art, at first, seemed minimal, but it didn't stay minimal. It kept exploring different scales (the miniature's, the mural's). It exploited different moods (the intricate, the simple, the muscular, the gentle). It kept growing on and on.

Since ideas were the engines that produced his works of art, LeWitt was often placed among New York's conceptualists. But he didn't exactly fit. Much conceptual art looked wordy, colorless, astringent, but many of the drawings that poured out of LeWitt weren't like that at all. Their look was often spicy. They fed the eye exuberantly. His method seemed austere, but the thought-seeds LeWitt planted kept bursting into flower. He left a full garden of art.

The interesting idea of making works of art in accordance with a recipe isn't just his. The priests of ancient Egypt who came up with the design of the pyramids of Giza (each face ought to be an equilateral triangle; make the base precisely square) had something similar in mind. So did sculptor Tony Smith (1912-1980) who, in 1962, dialed the Industrial Welding company in Newark and ordered, on the telephone, "a six-foot cube of quarter-inch, hot-rolled steel with diagonal internal bracing." What he got was not a box, but a curiously malignant, fate-suggesting sculpture. Smith, who called it "Die" (for dying, and for dice) kept it brooding in his backyard. ("Die" is now in Washington, in the National Gallery of Art.)

When you give them half a chance, all the drawings and the structures and the murals of LeWitt get you in two ways. They're never one thing only. They hit you through the eye, and they hit you through the mind.

There's a difference.

The great Frenchman Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who much influenced LeWitt, was most taken with the latter. What helped him comprehend non-retinal beauty was his long experience of playing competitive chess.

"A game of chess," Duchamp said, "is mechanical, since it moves; it's a drawing, it's a mechanical reality. The pieces aren't pretty in themselves, any more than is the form of the game, but what is pretty -- if the word 'pretty' can be used -- is the movement. . . . In chess there are some extremely beautiful things in the domain of movement, but not in the visual domain."

A drawing that's "extremely beautiful" with a beauty that's invisible. What a cool idea!

More than almost all the other artists of his age, LeWitt picked it up and ran with it. Duchamp, who'd grown up in the France of the impressionists, was sick of their mere visual appeal, which he called "the retinal shudder." LeWitt was more tolerant than that.

He gladly and increasingly offered to his viewers pale-colored atmospheres, flickering color contrasts, geometrical presences and other visual knockouts. But the beauty he was seeking, the beauty he provided -- a beauty in the domain of sequential operations -- wasn't only for the eye.

That's what makes his art so bracing. It somehow keeps you poised between what you know and what you see.

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