|Lary Bloom isn’t in the art business, he was a friend of LeWitt, and as such this biography is more about the man than his art.|
There were several curious aspects to my purchase of an original pen and ink drawing by Sol LeWitt from his incomplete cube series. A work long coveted, when one came onto the market in the middle of the financial mayhem of late 2008, I set aside caution and bought it. After making a deal with a highly regarded gallery in NYC, I was asked to send a personal check directly to the consignor of the work as no commission was being charged, “The sale is being handled as a favor to a long time and very dear customer.” Included with my check was a personal note of thanks, describing my longstanding admiration for LeWitt and a promise that the drawing had found a home where it would be enjoyed and not be resold.
Before the drawing was delivered, I received a phone call from a person who did not immediately identify themselves, and due to age, was somewhat difficult to understand. During a one-sided conversation, I listened to fascinating stories of the New York art scene during the 1970s. Finally, Mimi Wheeler thanked me for my kind note and said she was glad that someone who could appreciate Sol’s drawing now had it. She apologized for not taking better care of it, “…but you know he just had so many of them.”
So, my surprise was profound while reading in a recent biography of LeWitt, A Life of Ideas, by Lary Bloom from 2019, that Mimi Wheeler (interviewed in the book) was more than a friend of LeWitt, as she had described herself to me. They had an intense romance and having lived with Lewitt from 1969 to 1972, she certainly knew just how many of those drawings he had.
While this may seem a long-winded way of starting a book review, it dovetails nicely with what makes the book so interesting. Bloom isn’t in the art business, he was a friend of LeWitt, and as such this biography is more about the man than his art. As a professional writer as well as a family friend, Bloom is in a unique position to talk about LeWitt, a man who had very little to say about himself publicly. In fact, the artist Lawrence Weiner while emphasizing his respect for LeWitt also makes clear that “…socially, Sol had a lot of warts.” This tension comes through in Bloom’s book where the mixture of praise from those who didn’t know LeWitt well but enjoyed the beneficence of a man who could be amazingly generous contrasts with stories from friends who could find themselves thoroughly frustrated with LeWitt.
Born in 1928, and raised around Hartford, Connecticut, and later attending Syracuse University, LeWitt lived a relatively nomadic life. Joining the army, LeWitt spent time in San Francisco, Japan, and Korea. In 1953 he rented an apartment in New York City to pursue a career as an artist. He later chose to spend many years living in Spoleto, Italy where both his daughters were born. Finally, LeWitt and his family settled in Chester, Connecticut. Overlay a listing of all the exhibitions and shows, and it is striking how much travel LeWitt managed over his lifetime. While he tended to avoid the opening receptions, he enjoyed seeing his work on-site, especially later wall drawings that were mostly executed by others. Artist Jan Dibbets joked that an important lesson he learned from LeWitt was that the gallery or museum should always provide a ticket for the artist to attend the exhibit, “No tickie, no showie.” Just as LeWitt moved from idea to idea, this feels mirrored in his tendency to move from place to place.
Far from a cold, calculating intellectual, as less rigorous writers often describe not just LeWitt but many artists obtusely classified as Minimalist or Conceptual, Bloom shows us that LeWitt was very much human. His was not the life of a rarified Brainiac, but of a man who experienced all of the pain and joy that falls to all of us. In the final analysis, LeWitt simply managed to express our all too human foibles in so many inspiring and beautiful manifestations. That new works have continued to appear since his death in 2007 demonstrates clearly that the ideas can survive beyond life.
After you have read Bloom’s biography, watch Sol LeWitt, a documentary by Chris Teerink from 2012, supposedly the first-ever documentary about his life and work. Here, LeWitt’s artistic output can be placed in a context that follows the narrative of the biography. From drawings to paintings to photographs to sculpture to prints and works built using cement blocks, the breadth of LeWitt’s work is made plain to see. Additionally, the video is filled with scenes from the overwhelming MassMOCA exhibit of LeWitt’s wall drawings located in a three-story building that once housed a textile mill. With 105 of the over 1200 wall drawings LeWitt created on display in North Adams, MA the effect can be dizzying.
As for my drawing, it arrived – ink on vellum and identified as 10/5 in pencil at the bottom left. LeWitt’s signature was also in pencil, on the bottom right and dated 1974. His artist’s book, Incomplete Open Cubes was printed in 1974 and with the aid of a magnifying glass, it is easy to discern that my drawing was not the one used in his artist book featuring the entire series of 122 drawings and photos of the sculptures. The sheet is not quite square, being clearly cut from a larger piece of vellum. The cube is an isometric rendering that almost touches the edges at the top and bottom. It matches both photos of other drawings from the series, as well as printed descriptions in catalogs, almost perfectly. The drawing is in front of me now, hanging above my desk and will likely remain there until…