One day in 1996 my friend Zeke called me up. “Do you know this guy Sol LeWitt?” he asked. “He’s hiring people to draw lines on a wall for $10 an hour.”
I explained that LeWitt was a famous conceptual artist, who creates what he calls “scores,” then finds people to execute them. A sample score would be:
From the top of a 48-inch square, draw a not straight horizontal line. The line is black. The second line is drawn beneath the first line, as close as possible, imitating the first line. The next line is drawn beneath the second line. Continue copying, until the bottom of the square is reached.
That’s Wall drawing #869 (1998).
The wall drawings were designed to be temporary. (The art world prefers the word “ephemeral.”) After a month or two, they would be painted over, and disappear. If you’re interested in his work, the closest thing to Sol LeWitt 101 is Mass MOCA, which has 105 of his wall drawings spanning the years 1969-2007. (The artist died in 2007, at the age of 78.)
LeWitt’s art has a disconcerting way of being both symmetrical and off-balance. His colors look like they were chosen while LeWitt was completely drunk. One can see his wall drawings as a political statement. Having a group of people—including non-artists—create an art object together, then erasing it, so that it can’t be owned by anyone, is a perfect anarchist act!
Though best known for his wall drawings, LeWitt worked in many mediums: sculpture, photography, artist books, painting, printmaking. The most comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s prints ever mounted, “Strict Beauty: Sol LeWitt Prints” is currently on view at the Williams College Museum of Art. This month’s cover, Lincoln Center Print (1998), is part of “Strict Beauty.” This image was commissioned by Lincoln Center to promote the Mostly Mozart Festival. The same piece was used as a limited-edition silkscreen and on a poster.
“The fact that he made this image was not surprising, because LeWitt was a great fan of classical music, and often compared himself to a composer, in that he wrote scores that others performed,” remarks David Areford, professor of art history at UMass Boston and curator of “Strict Beauty.” Black horizontal lines in the piece resemble the lines in sheet music. In fact, LeWitt collected the musical scores of friends like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, buying them when the composers were low on funds.
“This particular print is probably his most overtly musical print, in terms of its conception,” Areford explains. “Staff lines and notation, the musical colors and tempos, repetitions, that all seems reflected in this print. And they really do create a kind of rhythm, and movement.”
LeWitt saw Lincoln Center Print as a breakthrough, ushering in brighter colors and more curvilinear forms than he had used in the past. It’s as if the music of Mozart had entered into his art as a collaborator. (Did LeWitt have synesthesia, the ability to see a concerto as a visual shape?)
“Strict Beauty: Sol LeWitt Prints” will remain at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts until June 11.