Art as Concept

Art as Concept

It has taken 12 years since the death of Connecticut native Sol LeWitt — whose remarkable career turned the art world on its head — for a biography to emerge. The wait has been worth it.

In "Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas," Connecticut author and journalist Lary Bloom has brought into focus a complex, gifted and famously shy artist. A progenitor of the conceptual art movement, LeWitt preferred to lurk in the shadows of his boundary-busting art — pieces that were often quite large, thereby casting long shadows both literally and figuratively. Bloom has brought him into the sunlight.

Teasing out the story of such a reticent man was not easy, and the author has clearly done his research. It also helps that Bloom, once a columnist for this magazine, was LeWitt’s friend and a fellow denizen of Chester, where the subject and his wife Carol moved in 1986. Both men were congregants of the local synagogue.

Bloom was invited in 1998 when LeWitt played the party pooper at his own gala birthday bash, his 70th, held at the Wadsworth Atheneum of Art in Hartford. As august speakers began heaping praise, LeWitt repeatedly shouted two words at them — “No speeches!” Eventually he brought the encomiums to a screeching halt.

One on one, or in small groups, LeWitt was infinitely more winning, often quite engaging and generous with his time, ideas and his money.

But Bloom doesn’t shy away from presenting his friend warts and all, including reporting on charges that LeWitt purloined ideas from other artists. The accused responded that ideas belong to the world, not to individuals, and are to be shared, not owned: “It is a pathetically outworn romantic notion that ‘real artists’ emerge fully formed, having no traceable antecedents.”

LeWitt was born in Hartford in 1928, the only son of Jewish refugees from Russia: his mother had been a nurse during World War I and his father was a prominent physician who died in 1934, in the teeth of the Great Depression. On their own, young LeWitt and his mother were compelled to find cheaper lodgings — in New Britain, within walking distance of the New Britain Museum of American Art, whose collections include some of his works.

And what creations they are: fundamentally unlike those of artists in the millennia that preceded him — finished pieces that he frequently never laid a glove on. He conceived his oeuvres, such as his famous wall drawings (some 1,200, all told), full-blown in his head, provided instructions on how to execute the physical manifestation of his concept, and then left it to others to finish the job. The titles suggest the geometric nature of his art. For example: Lines from the Midpoint of the Left Side of Two Facing Walls to Points on a Grid, Red, Yellow and Blue Lines from Sides, Corners and Center of the Wall to Points on a Grid.

Bloom explains his subject’s revolutionary process of using his mind rather than his hand to make art: “LeWitt created in the same manner as an architect or composer does, in effect, providing only blueprints or scores and hiring multitudes of young artists to finish and install what he had conceived.”

LeWitt is widely viewed as the founder of conceptual art and influential in related 20th-century genres such as minimalism and modular art. What was infinitely less well known is what Bloom documents in compelling detail: LeWitt was a passionate, kind and generous man who supported his many friends as well as scores of striving artists in need. He also was a feminist before feminism was cool. Late in the book, when Sol LeWitt’s losing battle with cancer is recounted, readers will be saddened at his passing.