Sunday, April 22, 2007

Sol LeWitt

Hartford native Sol LeWitt, who died in New York April 8 at age 78 after a long battle with cancer, was a master and trailblazer of minimalist and conceptualist art. His popularity was such that it is difficult to visit an art museum these days and not stumble upon of one of his wall drawings – actually usually simple geometric paintings in politely muted primary colors executed by assistants based on his math-problem-like instructions.

I’ve never much cared his stuff, for its relentless dull geometry, its tedious modular, mathematical permutations. Consider his recipe for “Wall Drawing #146” from 1972: “All two-part combinations of blue arcs from corners and sides and blue straight, not straight, and broken lines.” And then there are his sculptures that look like 3D graph paper. Ugh.

So much art of the past generation has been about trying to recover from the puritanical fundamentalism of minimalism and conceptualism. Attempted remedies have included rejecting it via the messy expressionism of the 1980s and the kinder, gentler minimalism of the past decade that has tried to humanize the old cold stuff by making the colors hotter and the surfaces softer.

LeWitt himself loosened up with a series of wiggly line paintings and wall drawings over the past decade or so. His 2004 acrylic paint mural “Wall Drawing #1131, Whirls and Twirls” (below in Allen Phillips' photo) on the wall of Hartford’s Wadsworth Athenaeum, where LeWitt took art classes as a kid, mutates his sober minimal vocabulary into something wild and dazzling. It’s as if after decades of ultra-serious high math theorizing, he realized his accumulated geometric smarts could be put toward designing psychedelic pinball machines. Not bad, not bad at all.


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