Peter Good | Essays

Remembering Sol Lewitt (1928-2007)

Sol Lewitt, "Bands in Four Directions," 1980, used as a family coat of arms. Courtesy The Lewitt Collection, Chester, CT.

Many speak of Sol Lewitt's artistic genius and his profound effect on generations of artists and art lovers, but to me, it was his unpretentiousness, intelligence, wit, generosity and high ethical standards that defined his total being. He was an American original, the antithesis of the romantic, self-possessed artist. He lived his life like he practiced his art, without focus on himself. He always said, "It's the art that's important, not the artist."

I first met Sol in 1986, when he and Carol and their young daughters moved to Chester, Connecticut, a small town on the Connecticut River where I have a graphic design studio. We met at an opening at the Chester Gallery, a gallery that would exhibit his prints, drawings and gouaches, many times over the years. Sol published numerous books and occasionally he would ask me to help him with the typography for a book cover, an invitation, a letterhead or postcard. I learned very quickly that one does not give Sol LeWitt advice on typefaces. He would listen, politely and patiently and then simply say, "Let's use Franklin Gothic Bold Condensed." (It was one of his favorites.) Sol had professional training in the Graphic Arts early in his career, so he was familiar with typographic conventions. But, as with his art, he seemed to possess a very private and mysterious compass that guided his decision making. Volumes have been written on his art, and theories proliferate in attempts to decode its essence and meaning, but it all tends to be enigmatic because of the inherent contradictions which are an integral part of his genius. As soon as you think you have figured him out, he delights, surprises, transforms and reinvents.

Of course, I was pleased, as was everyone in the large community of artists and craftsmen who worked on his prints, wall drawings and sculptures, to assist him in any way I could. To me, his choices of typography — clear, simple, un-selfconscious, un-trendy, and un-stylized — related to his art. He preferred sans-serif fonts, usually bold in weight, and produced in black and white. Sol had such an extraordinary range of expression, from subtle glossy black forms on matte black, to high chroma primary colors; but a special delight for him, which relates to his typographic preferences, was his graphic work with stripes. I used to tell him that he's the only contemporary artist with his own brand. In the 1970s, his graphic, playful, bold and primal approach to lines in various arrangements became an essential part of his vocabulary. "Lines in Four Directions," one of his iconic motifs, could be called a contemporary coat of arms. So powerful and appealing, this design has appeared as large wall drawings, prints, tables, screens, and even on watches and scarves.

And just as his art changed whenever there was a hint of predictability, he always surprised me with his choice of typeface. In redoing his personal stationery recently, I asked, "Same Chelt as last time?" He thought, looked at me with his charming smile, and said mischieviously, "How about Beton Bold Condensed?"


This article originally appeared in The Architect's Newspaper, May 9, 2007.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Obituaries

Comments [12]

Great article. And thank the stars it's now in the top spot. If I had to look at that nasty rooster comb one more time...

Haha agreed. I haven't even read the article yet. But wanted to just post a thanks for a new picture.

Having had the opportunity of knowing both... what a sublime memory by one good soul about another good soul.
Timothy McDowell

A few years ago, I did a documentary video for a corporate client ,covering among others, Sol Lewitt's 13 story high mural at the Embassy Suites in Battery park. I witnessed how his troops of lowly paid
"worker ants " at the Brooklyn Navy Yard executed his " vision " done on a single sheet of paper.He never once showed up to so much as look at the work. When I asked to interview him for
the documentary ( something all the other participating artists graciously agreed to do )a lady named Hess turned me down flat. I never even got to speak to the " Master ".
Lewitt pocketed a large fee and didn't even bother to
show up to the inauguration. To me Sol Lewitt was the master " shamster " of the art world. He makes
Marcel Duchamps, who at least had a sense of humor about it, look like a novice...
Daniel Aubry

It's unfortunate that Mr. Aubry never got a chance to interview Sol because, if so, his opinion of Sol would be decidely different. Sol also refused to accept numerous prestigious awards, some of which included large monetary sums. He avoided publicity in any form and preferred spending time with other artists and friends. From my experience, he was always generous with his assistants and was beloved for encouraging and sharing his art with young artists.
Peter Good

I doubt that my opinion would have been any
different. I suspect that Sol Lewitt didn't give interviews because he had little new to contribute artistically but he was smart enough to know it. This freed critics to " read " into his work whatever they wanted to and for a gullible public to buy into it. Don't you think, Paul, that it's time
to admit that "the emperor had no clothes "?

P.s. I'm sure he was also nice to his dog. But what does that have to do with art?
Daniel Aubry

Daniel, Sol was much more interested in creating art, rather than talking about it. As for the value of his art, you are in a distinct minority, unless you succumb to the whims of massocracy. As you noted, the public is quite gullible.
Peter Good

Very nice memorial for Sol Lewitt. I co-executed a huge rainbow coloured piece at the Art Gallery of Ontario two years ago and it was quite an experience.
Candy Minx

Wow, I'm kind of scratching my head about the poor taste of some of these comments. I can't for the life of my understand why anyone who disliked (or maybe didn't get) Duchamp would seek out a Lewitt obituary to comment in.

I have to be honest, reading Lewitt's Sentences on Conceptual Art was one of the most liberating experiences in my design career. At a time when I was just formulating my own aesthetics and understanding of art history that text just cut through everything like a laser.

His work was always about being a one liner, about testing the limitations of an idea. Anyone that doesn't get him and insists on getting worked up about his work should track down Krauss's writing on him.. I think she had a pretty good handle on what he was up to.

I think Lewitt contributed immeasurably to 20th century sculpture and drawing!

If anyone is interested I wrote a brief text on my blog when he had passed.
Greg J. Smith

I saved the gorgeously oversized square business card from the Lewitt collection that I got in the early 2000s. I can't believe it never occurred to put two and two together, as far as who designed it.

Thanks for this article. I'm still smiling about it.
Emily Luce

I was saddened when I read the comments of Daniel Aubrey who was declined an interview with Sol LeWitt during the Embassy Suites project. As Sol's assistant and curator of his collection for the last 17 years, it is a rare but disappointing occasion to me when someone feels they have had a negative experience with Sol's work, especially as Sol made a practice of being gracious.

While Mr. Aubrey may have perceived the wall drawing technicians and assistants as "worker ants", I doubt if any of them would have described themselves that way, except possibly with good humor. Wall drawing technicians and fabricators were well compensated, credited where possible, and appreciated by Sol, and the most long-standing of those were counted among Sol's close friends. In earlier days, a cadre of young volunteers, usually artists or art students, might be enlisted to work on wall drawings with a technician, and these volunteers would receive a small original work by Sol at the end of the project. More recently, the "volunteers" were paid.

Sol LeWitt was an extraordinarily prolific artist and only very rarely declined a request to do a show, whether at a small local library, an up-start gallery, or a major world-class museum, (not to mention to donate a work to a benefit auction -- he was known as a soft-touch for this and donated copiously to many causes). As enormously in demand as he was, he did necessarily depend on a group of carefully trained assistants to execute much of his work. It must be remembered, though, that he worked in his studio six days a week until well into his battle with cancer. In his studio he produced hundreds of original gouache drawings in his own hand, as well as hundreds of working drawings for wall drawings and structures that would ultimately be executed by those trained assistants or fabricators. During the process of fabrication or installation, the assistants were always in very close contact with Sol by fax, phone, and email. If logistics or his schedule did not permit Sol to make site visits during execution, he would nevertheless receive color images documenting the progress, and he would if necessary make revisions, in close discussion with the technicians on hand. That being said, an aspect of certain works in Sol's ouevre is the playing out of an idea, so sometimes it was inherent in the work that it simply be executed according to the instructions, and the visual result might surprise and delight Sol as well as the viewer.

Being so busy, he relied on those close to him to field some of the many requests that came his way. I learned early that he granted interviews only very rarely, and that I should politely turn down all requests for them (as well as all requests for photographs of him) . His feeling was that art is about the work, not about the artist. Sol was an intellectual and a thinking person of great depth and originality. Even if one does not appreciate the nature of his work, a reading of the few interviews that he did grant would dispel any notion that the work was vacuous or a "sham".

There has never been anyone here by the name of Hess, so we do not know who Mr. Aubrey may have spoken to, but if that person was any less than gracious, I apologize for them now.

As for humor, one only need look at the body of work to understand Sol's wit. He had a playful and intelligent sense of humor, the memory of which has sustained me and made me smile amid my grief at losing such an inspiring friend and colleague.

Janet Passehl

nice article..

just fyi, i put the article on my portfolio blog..


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