The Prints of Sol Lewitt
Cubes, Whirls and Twirls, Loops and Curbes, and Wavy Brushstrokes
ESSAY BY BREIANNA COCHRAN
LeWitt moved to New York in 1953, a time when Abstract Expressionism dominated with works full of emotion, psychological content and pictorial dynamism. While LeWitt started his career in the 1960s painting in this format, he didn’t continue for long. LeWitt is known as the Father of both Minimalism and Conceptual Art, movements that led away from the psychological content and gestural form characteristic of Abstract Expressionism. Conceptualism focused more on ideas than handmade objects; a movement that didn’t resort to highly personalized expression; art that used form as a means instead of an end. LeWitt was originally associated with Minimalism due to his extensive use of reductive, geometric forms, namely the identical cubes. He reduced art to a few of the most basic shapes (quadrilaterals, spheres, triangles), colors (red, yellow, blue, black), and types of lines; examining how the addition or subtraction of one of these items could ultimately alter an otherwise similar work, organized them by guidelines that in the end he felt were not imperative to maintain.
By 1970 LeWitt published his first prints and in just one year had completed three major print projects, each in a different medium. LeWitt fully utilized the ease with which elements of a print could be altered, by changing color or adding layers, which allowed him to develop his prints beyond that of his sculpture or drawing. The collaborative nature of printmaking, in which the artist works side-by-side with the printer, is central to LeWitt’s working method. Assistants have always been of special importance in LeWitt’s work, which established a redefined image of the artist, depriving collectors, gallery owners, curators, and viewers, of artworks “by his hand”.
He began screen printing in 1970 with the help of the printer John Campione. Provided with a template of parallel lines in black ink by LeWitt, Campione created a screen from this template in which he would use for over twenty editions in the next two years. For each screen print, LeWitt made a sketch of the composition and numbered each element to indicate color and line direction- restricting his palette to red, yellow, blue, and black and line direction to vertical, horizontal, and two diagonals. The method in which these prints were created is comparable to LeWitt’s approach to his wall drawings, which he let others create based on his guidelines.
In 1968, two years before delving into printmaking, LeWitt executed his first wall drawing, consisting of pencil lines. Originally he drew some of the wall drawings himself, but later left their fabrication to a team of trained assistants, a method of working much like that of architects and musical composers. “Good architects are called artists even though they don’t lay their own bricks”- a concept very new to the fine art world where nearly all works were created by the artist himself. LeWitt created a method of art making based on letting other people bring his ideas into physical and visual form. It was of little concern for LeWitt to have others create his ideas, he was more interested in the artistic process than the finished work.
By the mid-70s Joe Watanabe, a former wall drawing assistant, became LeWitt’s principal printer. Watanabe became a vital element to LeWitt’s printmaking, with his keen knowledge of LeWitt’s work and his masterful craftsmanship in the print medium. Watanabe’s knowledge of LeWitt’s work and his masterful craftsmanship made him essential to LeWitt’s printmaking. Watanabe had such an exact sense of LeWitt’s color and composition that LeWitt simply had to sketch and diagram his ideas, as he did with his wall drawings. “I am not an artist. I am basically an extension of Sol LeWitt’s hands,” Watanabe once said.
Putting aside his conceptual foundations, during the early 1980s, LeWitt began to address color and playful shapes instead of strict geometry. His series no longer exhausted all possible variants, and introduced more subjective decisions. The 80s was the beginning of perception prevailing over conception for LeWitt. His 2004 mural “Wall Drawing #1131, Whirls and Twirls” in Hartford’s Wadsworth Athenaeum illustrates this more playful style.
Since his first solo show in 1965, LeWitt has explored countless media, genres, and colors which consecutively influenced a generation of artists. In 2000, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art staged a retrospective of his work that traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
LeWitt has been credited as the founder of Minimal and Conceptual art. LeWitt said, “I wanted to emphasize the primacy of the idea in making art.” LeWitt was interested in making his work accessible and printmaking helped him reach that goal. He developed close partnerships with individual printers and workshops to employ a range of printmaking techniques in his works.
Since the beginning of LeWitt’s career he found inspiration in the cube. The exhibition will feature multiple examples of this influence including three works in the Centered Cube Within a Circle series and a set of five block prints titled Distorted Cubes. The artist also used sequential images and lines of color to convey movement and the passage of time. Wavy Brushstrokes Superimposed is a set of four etchings in the exhibition that exemplifies this idea.