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Sol LeWitt, 78; sculptor and muralist changed art

April 10, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Sol LeWitt, an American artist whose modular sculptures and systematic murals rank among the most innovative works of the last 40 years, changing the direction of art internationally, died Sunday in New York City after a lengthy struggle with cancer. He was 78 and lived in Chester, Conn., a short distance from his birthplace in Hartford.

In 1966, LeWitt made his first modular sculpture and first masterpiece. The open framework cube, 6 feet on a side and resting on the floor, was composed from 27 two-foot cubic modules made of white-painted wood. (The original sculpture's whereabouts is unknown, although two subsequent versions were made.) The methodical structure pulled the plug on subjective taste as a criterion for making and evaluating art.

Two years later, in October 1968, LeWitt made his initial wall drawing. First in graphite, then in crayon, later in colored pencil and finally in chromatically rich washes of India ink, acrylic and other materials, the wall drawings are a unique contribution to the history of art. Like the modular sculptures, they are composed from precise sets of logical, often mathematical instructions that anyone could be trained to execute.

The instructions are somewhat like musical scores, with the artist assuming the role of composer. "The idea becomes a machine that makes the art," LeWitt once wrote.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
LeWitt obituary: In the April 10 California section, a caption with the obituary of Sol LeWitt said a photo that showed the artist with a wall work was taken at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The photograph was taken at the Margo Leavin Gallery in Los Angeles.

Direct evidence of the artist's hand had been a central value in Western art for 500 years, at least since the Renaissance. LeWitt developed an intimate acquaintance with the murals of Piero della Francesca during a 1958 trip to Arezzo, Italy. He made numerous pen-and-ink drawings based on them, as well as studies of paintings by Botticelli, Velazquez, Goya, Rubens and Ingres.

Among his earliest surviving paintings is 1961's thickly painted oil "Embarkation for Cythera (After Watteau)," which simplifies the courtly figures of French aristocrats into chunky smears of brown, gray and violet paint. Each study seems an exercise in learning to see in two dimensions.

LeWitt's art values the artist's mind over the artist's hand. He referred to his wall works as drawings rather than paintings or murals, regardless of the materials that were employed, because drawing is the medium that most closely tracks the movement of artistic thought. A proposal for a wall drawing was included in "Information," an important 1971 survey of younger international artists at the Museum of Modern Art.

It was his sculptures, however, that initially brought him attention, when they were included in the pivotal 1966 exhibition "Primary Structures" at New York's Jewish Museum. The show is commonly credited with introducing Minimalist art to the public. Minimalism replaced representational imagery with geometric form. The pedestal, which had long elevated sculpture above the plane of daily human experience, was banished. Industrial fabrication eliminated individual gesture, which represented the equally elevated touch of the artist's hand.

Precedents in early 20th century Russian and Dutch Constructivist art influenced Minimalism's development. LeWitt also took a keen interest in the sequential studies of animal motion made by the English-born California photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). But Minimalism was a watershed partly because it represented something entirely new: It was the first art movement of international significance forged exclusively by American-born artists.

Perhaps the artist's own maturity explains the resilient clarity in his groundbreaking work. LeWitt was 38 when he made "Modular Cube" and, despite the MOMA survey of "younger artists," was older than 40 when he did his first wall drawing. The resonant simplicity of his art is not representative of an artist just starting out.

LeWitt was born Sept. 28, 1928, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. His father was a doctor, who died when the boy was 6. His mother, a nurse, moved the family from Hartford to her parents' home in nearby New Britain. As a child he took art classes at Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum, America's oldest public art museum and a leading center for avant-garde art in the 1930s. The same year that LeWitt's father died, the Wadsworth hosted America's first major Picasso retrospective and mounted the world premiere of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's opera "Four Saints in Three Acts."

After graduating from New Britain High School, LeWitt enrolled at Syracuse University, where he studied art. Service during the Korean War saw him stationed in noncombat duty in California, Japan and Korea. When he returned to the United States, he moved to Manhattan and set up a studio on the Lower East Side, in the old Ashkenazi Jewish settlement on Hester Street. He kept the studio for two decades. To support himself, he did production work for Seventeen magazine and, in 1955 and 1956, was a graphic designer in the office of young architect I.M. Pei.

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