|There’s a little part of the art world not widely traveled offering a nuanced view of an artist’s oeuvre called Ephemera.|
By definition, ephemera are “items designed to be useful or important for only a short time, especially pamphlets, notices, tickets, etc.” So, in the art market, this includes exhibition posters, announcements – usually postcards – of exhibits in private galleries, rough studies, and notebook pages, privately printed artist’s books, autographed catalogs (especially those with sketches) as well as personal correspondence to friends and family.
I happen to spend a lot of time traveling in this space, with my collection of Sol Lewitt ephemera now numbering over three hundred items. There’s also ephemera on my shelves relating to Max Beckmann, Ad Reinhardt, Ed Ruscha, Chuck Close, William Wegman, and many others. My friend in the business, Lawrence, is also smitten by the ephemera bug and has helped to grow my Lewitt collection.
An exciting new addition is a pen and ink drawing inscribed to Heiner Friedrich from 1967. I was intimately familiar with this work for several years before adding it to my collection, though exactly what its original intention was had remained elusive.
It had an odd version of Lewitt’s signature – which was discovered to have been in use for only three years during the late 1960s. The grid contained eleven columns – highly unusual for an artist known for his serial work formulas like 3-6-9 or 4-8-12. A serendipitous comparison with another bit of ephemera, a poster from an early Lewitt show at Dwan Gallery, revealed the drawing’s connection to the large-scale piece, Serial Project #1 (A, B, C, D). An analysis of the various equations explained the eleven columns – there were only nine. Finally, the recipient of this drawing had both seen the Dwan show in California and visited Lewitt in NYC on the same visit to the U.S. Friedrich was one of the first gallerists to exhibit Lewitt’s work in Europe the following year.
So, here’s my best guess. After visiting Virginia Dwan’s eponymous gallery in Los Angeles and seeing the exhibit that put Lewitt on the art world’s radar, Friedrich visits Lewitt in New York on his way back to Munich. Lewitt gives Friedrich one of his working sketches from the sculpture then on display at Dwan. Their meeting in NYC becomes a catalyst for Friedrich’s gallery to participate in Lewitt’s first series of shows in Europe.
And then there is the equation on the upper left that was later corrected (appears to use a different pen) on the right side closest to the grid. Turns out if you count the horizontal sides of eleven connected squares (equation on the left) there are, in fact, twelve lines (equation on the right). A possible reason for Lewitt to hire a mathematician while designing the incredibly complex incomplete cube series? Yeah, another bit of ephemera in the collection.
Most visitors prefer Lewitt’s bright prints of color bands in squares and rectangles. No one has commented on the goofy sketch hanging in the midst of my Lewitt collection. Yet, like so much of its fellow ephemera, the drawing reveals a fascinating insight into the world of Sol Lewitt.
|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…
|“…it’s fascinating to see people converging at similar visual endpoints even when starting from different places, following divergent paths, and all the while thinking about different things.”|
For no particular reason, I bought a handsome catalog of Paul Klee works printed in conjunction with an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum (May 7 to September 19, 1993). Fairly limited in scope, featuring works mostly from the Guggenheim’s own collection, it did manage to convey the breadth of styles that Klee worked through, from adolescence to his early death. Always experimenting, Paul Klee used some unconventional methods to create original works, as well as multiples and prints. From sophisticated uses of color to the more primitive, and childlike imagery that he is widely known by, the guy did some really fine work.
But the “A-Ha” moment came with two works in particular. The first was a pen and ink drawing from a Bauhaus course catalog (1929), “Five Part, Polyphony.” The second was a later painting (1939), “Rocks at Night.” Both were precursors – whether acknowledged or not – of Sol Lewitt. This suggestion is not to in any way intended to diminish the originality of Lewitt’s work.
“By diverse means, we arrive at the same end.”
-Michel de Montaigne
I was reminded of an essay by Jorge Luis Borges, Kafka and His Precursors. Borges reflected on the phenomenon of similarities of early artistic expressions to later ones that only become obvious in retrospect. In other words, to use Borges’ example, the relationship of writings from the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea to those of Franz Kafka. The work of Kafka is not intended to reference Zeno, but using ideas discussed by Kafka allows us to see something fresh in Zeno. Or, put another way, reading Zeno through the lens of Kafka allows us to tease new meaning from something old and familiar.
Similarly, Lewitt took some heat in the early 1970s when his “Circles, Grids, Arcs,” series culminated (logically) with a drawing similar to the works of a French artist, Francois Morrellet. Very different sensibilities, both arriving at similar visual expressions, are not proof of plagiarism. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz anyone?
So here in the Paul Klee oeuvre was a drawing, Polyphony, of straight lines in four directions, many converging and overlapping, creating an image reminiscent of ideas explored by Lewitt years later in his many series’ featuring “Lines in Four Directions.” Then the beautiful blue painting, Rocks, which could hardly appear more alike to some of Lewitt’s “Irregular Shapes” images.
Stretching out a bit, some of the most beautiful of the Paul Klee paintings in the Guggenheim catalog look like carbon copies of Australian Aboriginal Dream paintings. The similarities of some Klee drawings to the work of Milton Avery and Ben Shahn is striking. Prints reminiscent of recent work by Jim Nutt seem obvious. Like Lewitt’s intersection with Morrellet, it’s fascinating to see people converging at similar visual endpoints even when starting from different places, following divergent paths, and all the while thinking about different things.
This short note is inspired by the fact that Sol LeWitt died in April 2007, and since then exhibits of work created after his death continue to occasionally pop-up.
“The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product.” LeWitt wrote this in 1967 and it remains, perhaps, the most insightful expression of what his conceptual artwork was about; the idea, not the object. Further, LeWitt was widely known for his (even now!) use of other artists to actually create his “finished product” so it is not unreasonable that people assume LeWitt was above the dirty work of putting pen-to-paper or brush-to-wall. This notion of the artwork itself, not being the point, dogged LeWitt throughout his career. Yet his later work is so colorful and lyrical that the label of conceptual no longer seems appropriate. His comment from 1982, “I would like to produce something I would not be ashamed to show Giotto,” may better speak to LeWitt’s true sensibilities as an artist.
|Sol LeWitt art should not be defined by hard logic and cool detachment. LeWitt’s work is better appreciated for the humor, color, and inventiveness that Giotto would have certainly enjoyed.|
LeWitt’s process of seeking every combination of a series served among other things, to ensure that he had plenty of material to work with. Seemingly endless variations of bands in four directions were turned out in seemingly endless varieties of mediums. The consistency of the form allowed for an opportunity to fully explore the interaction of colors, or in the case of sculpture, the interaction of light and shadow. LeWitt repeatedly set strict limits that allowed for infinite variety. Or, to use a phrase attributed to many but best expressed by Jorge Luis Borges, LeWitt created “an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
|“Those who understand art only by what it looks like often do not understand very much at all.” Sol LeWitt, 1973|
For reasons most people will not understand, I’m excited about a little work recently added to my collection of ephemera by the artist Sol LeWitt. Part of the reason this work resonates more than many others is due to the evolution of my goals as a collector. More than other items, many of which frankly offer more pleasing aesthetics, this drawing exemplifies the ideas that draw me to the artist. And to LeWitt’s stated goals as an artist.
The pencil sketch was likely the original conception of a wall drawing intended for an exhibit at the John Weber Gallery in March 1986. I have the invitation to that particular show, and now the working drawing for a signature piece from the exhibit. Further, Lewitt was meticulous in documenting his output, and in a catalog of wall drawings published in 1989, this work can be clearly identified as #472. Its most unique attribute is that it was gray – no colors were used, even for the background. As with so many of the wall drawings designed for specific exhibitions, the assumption was that the work would eventually be painted over, as was the case here. My research has not yet – and may never – come up with a photo of the actual painting.
|From early on in his professional career, Lewitt emphasized that the idea was more important than the final artifact – painting, sculpture, wall drawing, etc…|
“I find it difficult to write a statement that will be a correct summation of my philosophy of art. The work itself seems to subvert such statement figurines the total of one’s work creates its own philosophy. This emerges from work to work, successful ones or failures, finding its own dimensions. The total of all past work exerts its influence on the new work. The new work combines the reality of the old and destroys the idea in which it was conceived. It cannot be understood in the context of other work, the original idea is lost in a mess of drawings, figurines, and other ideas.”
“Sol LeWitt is very much aware of the traps and pitfalls of language, and as a result is also concerned with enervating “concepts” of paradox. Everything LeWitt thinks, writes, or has made is inconsistent and contradictory. The “original idea” of his art is “lost in a mess of drawings, figurines, and other ideas.” Nothing is where it seems to be. His concepts are prisons devoid of reason. The information on his announcement for his show (Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, April 1967) is an indication of a self-destroying logic. He submerges the “grid plan” of his show under a deluge of simulated handwritten data. The grid fades under the oppressive weight of “sepia” handwriting. It’s like getting words caught in your eyes.”