Sol LeWitt was a pioneer of Minimal and Conceptual art. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1928, he received his BFA from Syracuse University in 1949. After serving in the Korean War, LeWitt moved to New York in 1953 to attend the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (now the School of Visual Arts or SVA). During the 1950s, he held various entry-level jobs, including a stint at Seventeen magazine and working as a graphic designer for architect I. M. Pei. From 1960 to 1964, he was a night watchman at the Museum of Modern Art, where fellow artists Robert Mangold, Dan Flavin, and Robert Ryman and the future art critic and writer Lucy Lippard also worked. Many of those co-workers became lifelong friends, and LeWitt credited their conversations about art making with having a significant impact on his practice. He later recalled: “The discussions at that time were involved with new ways of making art, trying to invent the process, to regain basics, to be as objective as possible.”
Although LeWitt is best known for the more than 1,260 pencil, chalk, and painted wall drawings that he produced during his lifetime, his first solo exhibition—which was held at the Daniels Gallery in New York in 1965—consisted of five sculptures, or structures. With matter-of-fact titles like Floor Structure and Wall Structure, the rectangular black wood forms signaled his lifelong commitment to an elemental geometric vocabulary, as well as a sensitive consideration for the architectural context of his work.
During the 1960s, LeWitt also helped formulate the tenets of a burgeoning conceptual art movement. In his 1967 essay for Artforum, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” LeWitt argued that the concept behind a work of art was more important than its execution. “To work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity,” he explained. His instructions-based conceptual practice also proposed a very different model of artistic authorship, one that defined artistic practice by an artist’s ideas, not by the personal touch or mark of the artist’s hand. LeWitt frequently likened his role as an artist to that of an architect or composer. He drafted compositions that others—fabricators for his three-dimensional work or students and artists for his wall drawings—could realize. Although LeWitt enjoyed working with preset concepts and systems, the remarkable variety of work he produced during his lifetime attests to the freedom he found within self-imposed limitations and the benefits he yielded from the collaborative nature of his practice.
Circle with Towers, 2005/2012
The wall is never merely a backdrop in LeWitt’s art. It assumes primary importance as a critical component in many of his three-dimensional structures and as the surface upon which his wall drawings are painted or drawn. It is not surprising, then, that LeWitt eventually set his sights on constructing walls as well. Circle with Towers is, in effect, a low circular wall capped at regular intervals by eight rectangular towers made of pale gray concrete blocks stacked atop each other like a Rubik’s cube. The outdoor structure possesses a discernible logic and rhythm: the concrete towers are four blocks wide while the low walls between them are eight blocks wide—a perfect 1:2 ratio. The fact that there are eight towers, each composed of repeating four-sided square modules, further instills a sense of calibrated order.
LeWitt first conceived Circle with Towers for an exhibition at New York City’s Madison Square Park in the summer of 2005. For the initial installation, the sculpture was paired with one other structure—a serpentine wall, also made out of concrete blocks. The curved contours of both works sympathetically registered the oval shape of the park’s grassy lawns, while the stacked concrete blocks harmonized with the urban context of Manhattan’s gridded sidewalks and skyscraper windows.
LeWitt introduced concrete block into his work in the 1980s. A humble material commonly found in school gymnasiums and college dorm rooms, concrete block appealed to his interest in making art that privileged concepts over materials or surfaces. He also liked the fact that rectangular blocks can be stacked on end so that the cube, or square, becomes a repeating motif. While LeWitt’s work evolved in significant ways over the course of his career, the cube appears at each phase and in every medium, from sculpture to photography. It is telling that LeWitt’s first published essay was entitled “The Cube”—a short tract dedicated to the module that first appeared in the 1966 summer issue of Art in America. In the essay, he maintains that, “The most interesting characteristic of the cube is that it is relatively uninteresting. . . . Compared to any other three-dimensional form, the cube lacks any aggressive force, implies no motion, and is least emotive. Therefore it is the best form to use as a basic unit for any more elaborate function, the grammatical device from which the work may proceed.” The square and cube were both crucial elements in LeWitt’s vocabulary, both as single units and as the basis for the ubiquitous grids found not only in his art, but also much of the art from the postwar period.
Given the dialogue that exists between LeWitt’s structures and architecture, it is fitting that Circle with Towers has been erected in front of the new Gates Computer Science complex designed by New Haven–based architecture firm Pelli Clark Pelli. As LeWitt explained in a 2003 interview, “I have always called my three-dimensional work ‘structures’, because my thinking derives from the history of architecture rather than that of sculpture.” LeWitt also repeatedly invoked architectural practice when explaining his conceptual, hands-off approach to making art: “Working in an architectural office, meeting architects, knowing architects had a big effect. An architect doesn’t go off with his shovel and dig his foundation and lay every brick. He’s still an artist.” The fact that LeWitt’s structure will greet students, faculty, and visitors to the Gates Center also seems appropriate, as both his instructional-based practice and computer code can be understood as generative languages.
In keeping with LeWitt’s longstanding practice of employing trained labor, Circle with Towers was assembled at The University of Texas at Austin campus by local Austin masons, according to the late artist’s detailed instructions and with the guidance of Jeremy Ziemann, an artist who supervised the construction of countless LeWitt concrete block structures during the artist’s lifetime. In a career spanning nearly five decades, LeWitt employed legions of art students, fabricators, maquette makers, masons, master printers, and countless others to help execute the nearly 1,300 wall drawings, approximately 2,200 prints, and innumerable three-dimensional works he conceived. LeWitt was, effectively, a one-man WPA program of the postwar period. Unlike other visual artists who work with assistants, LeWitt always acknowledged the role of his collaborators—insisting that their names appear on museum and gallery labels and in any written materials accompanying his projects.
LeWitt deliberately embraced a depersonalized approach to making art, epitomized by his famous 1967 declaration, “the idea is the machine that makes the work of art.” Nevertheless, his work retains a sense of the human body and hand, and of the manual labor that makes it possible. Even in his large wall drawings covered with arcs and lines, LeWitt prescribed that the grid be sized so that each arc could be drawn with the single sweep of a hand. Similarly, the concrete block structures are laid by hand, one block at a time. Like many of LeWitt’s works, Circle with Towers offers a glimpse into the artist’s generous mind and into the labor of the many people who are crucial to realizing his artistic visions.
Although Sol LeWitt is best known for the many wall drawings he made during his lifetime, when asked once about inventing the medium, the artist drolly replied: “I think the cavemen came first.” LeWitt’s wall drawings are, nevertheless, radical in nature. They do not exist as permanent objects but rather as a diagram and set of instructions that are realized by a team of both trained and novice drafters for collectors and institutions. Moreover, while a single wall drawing can be owned by only one person, it may be on view simultaneously in an infinite number of temporary exhibitions. LeWitt often commented on the pleasure he took in the fact that his wall drawings could exist in more than one place at once, likening this to the way a Bach sonata can be played simultaneously in concert houses around the world.
Wall Drawing #520 was first installed in 1987 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. This current installation at The University of Texas at Austin marks the first time the work has been rendered since that initial presentation. During the 1980s, LeWitt chiefly produced jewel-toned ink-wash wall drawings like this one, dramatically expanding his repertoire from the pencil wall drawings that predominated the first decade of his career. In this wall drawing—one of the few that the artist ever conceived for three walls—cubes float across the walls without a clear logic to their placement. The colorful palette and slight depth of the geometric figures—which are characteristic of LeWitt’s wall drawings from the 1980s—attest to the artist’s interest in Italian Renaissance frescoes, an interest that was spurred by the artist’s move to Spoleto, Italy, in 1980. While these works depart from the more muted palette and systematic logic of LeWitt’s early pencil wall drawings, they also reflect his continued interest in using basic geometric elements like the cube (especially fitting here given the cubic concrete block structure in the Landmarks collection). Equally significant, the tonal variations achieved in LeWitt’s ink wash wall drawings result from layering only basic primary colors and gray. The diagram accompanying this work spells out the particular combinations and order of color for each facet of the figures: “RYBB” (Red, Yellow, Blue, Blue), “RRY” (Red, Red, Yellow), etc. While the spirit of Wall Drawing # 520 is one of modesty, simplicity, and restraint, the visual results are lush.
In keeping with LeWitt’s practice of acknowledging the many people who helped make his work possible, the author would like to thank Andrée Bober, Mark Brooks, Bill Butler, John Hogan, Mariah Keller, Sofia LeWitt, Nisa Mason, Rus Mehta, Bruce Porter, Anthony Sansotta, Patrick Sheehey, Patricia Spencer, Kirsten Swenson, Andrew Witkin, and Jeremy Ziemann.
Veronica Roberts is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton Museum at UT Austin. From 2010-2012, she served as Director of Research for the Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing Catalogue Raisonné and worked closely with the artist to coordinate his 2000 retrospective for the Whitney Museum of American Art. She has written extensively on LeWitt; most recently, in the summer of 2012, Master Drawings published her recent scholarly essay on LeWitt, “Like a musical score: Variability and Multiplicity in Sol LeWitt’s 1970s Wall Drawings.” She has lectured on modern and contemporary art at numerous institutions such as Dia:Beacon, MoMA, and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.