PRINT Summer 2007


Sol LeWitt

Sol LeWitt died on April 8 at the age of seventy-eight. At the time, Artforum was poised to publish “Scribbles” a new group of seven drawings that he had recently completed for our pages. LeWitt had asked that these images be accompanied by no explanatory information, save for his name and the title on the table of contents. Though we might have been tempted to say more after learning of his passing, we presented the work in our May issue exactly as he had wished—yet now as a memorial tribute. Here, we follow that portfolio with remembrances by artists Mel Bochner and John Baldessari, LeWitt’s friends of forty years.


WHEN MANET DIED, Degas said, “He was much greater than we thought.” And the same is true of Sol LeWitt.

Sol and I were friends for more than forty years. But my conversation with him began before I had even met him. I first heard his name in the studio of the painter Peter Pinchbeck, who insisted I see Sol’s 1965 show at the Daniels Gallery in New York. “He’s the best,” Pinchbeck said. “The best.” I tried to see the show, but the Daniels Gallery kept notoriously irregular hours and I never managed to find it open. The first work I did see was in a group exhibition at the Graham Gallery in the winter of ’65. It was an ungainly thing—a low, black, open, gridded plane centered on top of a stack of two open black cubes. Like nothing I had ever seen before, it resembled a three-dimensional skeleton of the Platonic ideal of a table. I was intrigued because I couldn’t imagine what line of thought could lead someone to make an object that looked like that. Then came the Jewish Museum’s famous “Primary Structures” exhibition in the spring of ’66. In the context of the more than fifty works on view, Sol’s “jungle gym” stood out as one of the most radical, certainly the most Minimal, and for me the most beautiful single object in the show. But it was at his one-person exhibition at Dwan gallery that April where I really “got” it. In my Arts Magazine review of that exhibition I tried to render the work’s effect on me in words:

Sol LeWitt: Grid. Cube. White. Wood. Intersection. Joint. Obstruction. White wood grid cubes and other structures which are not cubes. On the floor. In corners. Against walls. Floor to wall. Wall to wall. Ceiling to floor. Their presence prevails over description. Sol LeWitt’s white wood grid multiple structures are computations of interstices, joints, lines, corners, angles. They constantly permute. Binocular vision destroys regularity. Vision unlocks within impassable areas. There is no invitation. Formality is a guise. Space tenses: past, present-future, plural-present. Perceptual phenomena: indeterminate sequence, infinite invention, coordinate disorder. Everything is still. Everything is repeated. Everything is obvious. The accumulation of facts collapses perception. The indicated sum of these simple series is irreducible complexity. And impenetrable chaos. They astound.

I had met Eva Hesse sometime before, and after my review came out she arranged for Sol and me to meet. I don’t know what I was expecting him to look like or to be, but it wasn’t the utterly unpretentious and totally straightforward person I met. Sol put on no airs and assumed no attitudes. From the moment we were introduced it seemed that we had always known each other. That was not uncommon with Sol, because other people have told me they had the same experience. Unlike most of the artists I knew, with the exception of Robert Smithson, Sol was a true intellectual. We immediately discovered we had similar tastes in authors—Samuel Beckett was an obvious one, but also more offbeat and marginal figures like Michel Butor and Céline. There was almost no writer you could name whom Sol hadn’t read; no artist, past or present, whose work he didn’t know. There was also no piece of music, from medieval chansons to the most contemporary atonalist, that he didn’t have in his vast collection of records and tapes. In fact, the composer Morton Feldman periodically called Sol to borrow some obscure recording of his own music that even Feldman himself didn’t have. Sol had the whole of culture at his fingertips.

For two years, Sol, Eva, Bob, and I were incredibly close. No day went by when two or more of us didn’t see or talk to one another. We visited each other’s studios, or went to the movies on Forty-second Street, or had dinner at Puglia, Sol’s favorite dive in Little Italy, complete with a waiter who sang “Take Me Back to Old Sorrento,” with or without being asked. And we talked. We talked and talked and talked. Ideas were what really mattered to us. We were all poor, living more or less hand-to-mouth, so nothing else was at stake besides ideas. Often the disagreements became quite heated. The tectonic plates of the culture were shifting and you could feel it. Whether it was the latest book by Alain Robbe-Grillet, or film by Jean-Luc Godard, or Andy Warhol’s “Cow Wallpaper” exhibition, or the larger implications of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” or how to escape the tyranny of the gallery system, or why formalism was doomed, or why the term Conceptual art created more problems than it solved, or whether it did or didn’t matter what a work of art looked like, or how to get the United States out of Vietnam . . . everything was up for grabs. Over the years, Sol developed a reputation for being very laid-back, impassive, the “Buddha” of Minimalism, but there was another side to him. Make no mistake about it, Sol was a tough-minded, intense guy; his opinions may have been quietly stated, but they were totally thought out, logically airtight, and tenaciously held. When you got into an argument with him, especially about politics, you had better know what you were talking about, because he wouldn’t hesitate to take you apart. It was an amazing time to be alive. Everything seemed open and possible. We recognized no discernible boundaries to what art could be, and we thought we could change the world. So many new and remarkable ideas came out of that time.

Eva, Bob, and I were roughly the same age, but Sol was a good bit older. We all looked up to him, not only for what he had already accomplished, but for his intelligence, rigor, and generosity of spirit. Sol had struggled for a long time to find his true work. He was thirty-seven or thirty-eight years old before he had his first one-person show, so when success came he was already set in his ways and it never seemed to change him. Eva liked to tell the story that in the ’50s Sol was the only Abstract Expressionist who got up at 5:00 am, finished a full day of painting by noon, and then spent the rest of the day reading the New York Times cover to cover. Over the years, his art changed dramatically, but his schedule never did. Sol was a man of many parts, most of them hidden from view. He was, for example, a passionate sports fan, especially pro football. And he played a mean game of touch football himself. Never one to play a backfield position, Sol was always (what else?) a lineman. Back then he was physically pretty solid and not afraid of getting hurt, so when he put a block on you, you went down, hard. He had an incredible sense of humor, but it was so dry and so subtle that it often slipped past unnoticed. Sol was very hard of hearing, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say he was very selectively hard of hearing. He once had an operation to remove a bone spur in his ear. When someone asked him if he was enjoying his new ability to hear, he replied, “Not really. I had forgotten what stupid things people say.” He later let the bone spur grow back.

Sol’s generosity and humanity are legendary. But the Sol I knew, and loved, was a strictly “no bullshit” guy who could be quite caustic but never mean. He was a good man but he was no goody-goody. Too often, however, the myth of his “niceness” diverts the conversation away from the enormous accomplishment of his art. His relentless questioning of the fundamental grammars of art and his daring in cutting across the conventions of presentation helped to divert the stream of art away from object-making toward a more open and democratic vision of art’s relationship to culture. For this fact alone, all subsequent art is in his debt.

But Sol could also be a sly and devilish critic of other artists: Of Dan Flavin he once said, “I like everything about Dan’s work . . . except the lights.” Or of Donald Judd’s 1968 Whitney retrospective, “This show firmly establishes Don’s reputation as . . . our leading West Coast sculptor.” What is not well known is that his peers returned those sentiments. Sol was the outsider of Minimalism. Judd thought his work “old-fashioned” because it was made of wood; the so-called materialists found it too conceptual; and Flavin, well, Dan more or less didn’t like anything. But ultimately, I think that being the outsider is what saved Sol, because he never had anything to lose in dismantling the orthodoxy. Sol welcomed new ideas and fresh provocations; his willingness to embrace younger artists kept him alive and growing. He had a restless mind, and never stayed with anything too long, because he always saw something new just over the horizon—from sculpture to wall drawing, from black and white to color, from rigid geometry to irrational curves—he kept his work moving and unpredictable. It’s for the “Loopy Doopy” risks he took that I admire him most. Up until the very end he was engaged in what Apollinaire once called “this long struggle between . . . order and adventure.” Right before slipping into his final coma, he said to his wife, Carol, “If anyone asks, tell them my best work is still ahead.”

Mel Bochner is a New York–based artist.


SOL WAS MY ROLE MODEL, as both a person and an artist. As an artist he opened up new territory. Beauty wasn’t an issue; it would take care of itself, it would be a by-product of a strategy. I once told Sol that a particular wall drawing was beautiful, and he said that wasn’t the point. Yet I found many of his wall paintings better than those done by many painters. We learn how to make beautiful work early; let’s have other goals. He was a fork in the road.

As a person, Sol was generous. He aided and encouraged young artists. His attitude was not “I suffered, therefore you must suffer.” He was adamant that art was about the art and not the artist (a valuable lesson right now). One lesson I have yet to learn is “work smarter,” not longer. Sol told me when I first met him that he quit working at 3:00 pm and then went swimming. Books, music, baseball, wine—the list was endless.

Sol said his standard for a good work of art would be something he could show to Giotto. What a scene to behold in that big art gallery in the sky.

John Baldessari is a Los Angeles–based artist.