The Boxer: Sol LeWitt
by Maxwell Redder
Walking into downtown Cincinnati’s famous Carl Solway Gallery (424 Findlay St.) between September 7, 2012 and December 22, 2012 is something I recommend to everyone. If not for the sheer simple beauty of works by the late Sol LeWitt, an extremely important contemporary artist, then for the inquisitive feeling one may be left with while attempting to conceive why his art is considered important: inquisitive due to what is often considered visual simplicity, meaning flat art with easy shapes. However, as one of the founding members of conceptual art, LeWitt considered the ‘visual’ less important than a piece’s intellectual idea. While understanding that beauty can ooze from the pores of simplicity, he committed to dissecting art as the combinations of processes as art is made.
LeWitt’s work bridges two contemporary art movements, minimalism and conceptualism, along with other key artists such as Ellsworth Kelly. The idea of flatness was always important to LeWitt; he used color and geometry to play visual tricks. He liked the idea that anyone could reproduce his artwork with proper instruction. As a result, his simplicity and visual illusions can often become trite or boring to look at, especially when viewed in mass quantity, as at the Solway Gallery. His methods themselves have a long history in art. Josef Albers, considered the grandfather of color theory, regularly would put color next to color to change the effects of those colors. For example, the same red may appear to be a different red if it is surrounded by a green as opposed to a pink. Those ideas are crucial to the work of LeWitt, and stand as an obvious influence. Hans Hoffman’s famous discovery of how some colors push forward, while others pull backward is a precedent for these artists.
The title of the Carl Solway Gallery current exhibit is Editions and Structures, 1970-2005; Editions refers to the work’s being editioned prints. LeWitt called his three dimensional works Structures instead of sculptures, probably due to their simplicity and easy ability to replicate, such as a house with a detailed blueprint would be. Three structures in the middle of the North Gallery titled Flat Topped Pyramid, Cube Without a Corner, and Cube on a Cube, are shaped from solid slabs of Syntactic Polyurethane and painted in lacquer, 6 x 6 x 6 inches, each created in 2005. The titles are descriptions of the work. LeWitt’s structures indicate how unpretentious shapes derived from a cube will demand appreciation, though, paradoxically, his unpretentious shapes resting in a gallery can often come across as actually being pretentious.
Most of LeWitt’s work in this show are prints ranging from 1970-2003. His early work focused on a cubes, polygons, and lines; intrinsic to his interests are impressions of color, geometry, and architecture. His oldest work on display, Composite Series (1970), deals with square, rectangle and line. A set of five separate 20 x 20” silkscreen prints have varying colored squares and rectangles stack on top of each other. The most impressive part of these prints is the lightly colored stitch-like lines that run through each entire piece. The lines are so subtle that they blend and become the color of each square or rectangle. From afar, the shapes run horizontal and vertical, while the angled line hint that something is odd. Composite Series is flat looking, without depth, just shapes and color on the wall, an attempt by LeWitt to remove emotion from his artwork in order to allow ideas behind the art to become the art.
Piet Mondrian pioneered the idea of painting with primary colors while using lines of horizontal and vertical planes. Sol LeWitt appropriated that idea and put his famous conceptual twist upon his 1978 edition called, Lines in Color on Color From Corners Sides and Centers to Specific Points on Grid – nine 32 x 32” panels arranged in a 3 x 3 grid. The piece becomes extremely mathematical even outside of grids. It is important to describe that the top three squares are gridded yellow paper, the middle three gridded red paper, and bottom gridded blue. The furthest right column includes all primary colors by combining the left and middle panels per row. For example, the blue row combines its right panel’s yellow ‘starburst’ with its middle panel’s red lines to equal the left panel, though the starbursts is twisted ninety degrees on the left panel. LeWitt thus completes an aesthetic/geometric idea begun Plato, raised to spiritual heights by the Russian Constructivists.
Unlike Mondrian, LeWitt introduced diagonals which jetted from each panel’s sides or corners to seemingly random points on the grid, however, with careful observation the viewer will notice the lines are purposeful are repetitious. One of LeWitt’s most notable and identifiable characteristics is repetition. Lines in Color on Color From Corners Sides and Centers to Specific Points on Grid is arguably LeWitt’s strongest piece in this exhibit; the concept and visual are interesting and sophisticated, and utterly cohere.
Admittedly, many people learned to draw the Open Cube in Color on Color cube in the second grade. It’s the one when two overlapping squares are drawn and four lines connect their similar corners. When moving across a row the lines of each cube are the same color. When moving down a row the contours of each square are different colors. When moving diagonally through the piece, the background colors remain the same, and when moving across a row or down a column, none of the background colors are constant – it’s a bizarre Sudoku of sorts. Open Cube in Color on Color is one of the strongest pieces visually because it absorbs the ideas of minimalism and conceptualism together: the same colored cube appears to be a different color as the background colors change.
The constants and non constants, repetitions and non repetitions, color theory and geometry are some of the characteristics of artwork making LeWitt’s ideas timeless. It is concept which truly launched him into fame. In his early days he wrote, as published in a 1967 Artforum article, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” which is an idea as complex as his art. LeWitt never left that notion. Once the idea is solidified, and the art executed according to plan, the viewers are allowed to think whatever they like about the product.
Later in life, a fascination with lines that curve and wave entered the spectrum (as well as experimentation within the color spectrum). Good examples of curvy lines with no colors are, Black Loops & Curves No.1 – 3, created in 1999, which are well explained by the title. For a more minimal eye they are gorgeous as well as intellectually challenging.
One example of curvy lines with color, also minimal but exceedingly powerful, is Wavy Lines with Black Border, 1997, which is the only piece that fishes emotion out of the viewer, even if by accident. It seems to scream as the nearly confused lines vibrato like the seismograph of his soul so confined in a cube that it literally became his art for years. His works were often extremely flat, on purpose, lying perfectly content where they were. The Carl Solway Gallery made a good choice exhibiting LeWitt’s work, though for most viewers will secure a one time visit only within its three months of hanging. Much of the work is able to pass by without much thought, which is ironic because the thought behind the work is so important to LeWitt.
Also included in this exhibit are two photographers, Elizabeth Bryant and Stephen Berens, whose work interprets LeWitt’s as part of FotoFocus. These exhibits are being covered separately by Aeqai’s writer Karen Chambers. Further information can be found at www.solwaygallery.com.