Thursday, December 14, 2000—David A. Ross, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), today announced the acquisition of over 30 works by Conceptual art pioneer Sol LeWitt. Ross stated, “Having organized the most comprehensive exhibition of LeWitt’s work in over 20 years, we are extremely satisfied to add nine important wall drawings and structures and 26 working drawings to our permanent collection. This acquisition allows SFMOMA to continue its long and rewarding collaboration with Sol well into the future.” These works join five other LeWitt works in the Museum’s permanent collection—Steel Structure from 1975–76, Incomplete Open Cubes from 1974, Wall Drawing #132 from 1972 and Wall Drawing #377 from 1982—establishing SFMOMA as one of the leading repositories of LeWitt’s work.
The acclaimed exhibition Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective, featured at SFMOMA from February 19 to May 21, 2000, and now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, traced the evolution of LeWitt’s work—including wall drawings, structures, works on paper, photographs and books—from the austere, reductive aesthetic of the 1960s to the sensual and boldly colored works of more recent years. The group of acquired works represents all the significant periods of LeWitt’s oeuvre, and 27 were donated to the Museum from the artist’s personal collection.
Two original wall drawings commissioned for the Museum’s Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Atrium were purchased by Trustee Phyllis Wattis in honor of former SFMOMA Chief Curator Gary Garrels, who organized the retrospective. The wall drawings, entitled Wall Drawing #935: Color bands in four directions, 1999, and Wall Drawing #936: Color arcs in four directions, 1999, each measure 29 x 32 feet and were specially created for the walls of the Museum’s soaring 5-story Atrium. The wall drawings will remain on view indefinitely at SFMOMA.
SFMOMA has also acquired LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #766: 21 isometric cubes of varying sizes, each with color ink washes superimposed, 1994. The work evolves into fractured forms in bright colors and origami-like folded shapes, which appear to dissolve the wall as a visual support. Like his works from the 1980s, the wall drawing is composed of ink washes and the colors are layered to create an astonishing range of hues.
SFMOMA has also acquired Wall Drawing #45: Straight lines 10″ (25 cm) long, not touching, covering the wall evenly, 1970; Wall Drawing #232: The location of a square, 1975; and Wall Drawing #565: On three walls, continuous forms with alternating 7 7/8″ black and white bands, 1988.
SFMOMA has acquired an important LeWitt structure made of painted wood entitled 13/11, 1985. 13/11 consists of two triangular towers, 13 cubes wide and 13 cubes long, attached at the top. This arrangement elegantly incorporates the cube and the triangle into a single structure. Because the cubes are not aligned corner to corner, but with each line of cubes extending a half-cube’s length on either side beyond the previous row, the structure establishes diagonal lines of sight that add another viewing perspective. The work is perfectly symmetrical and the pattern is repeated on opposite sides of the structure; the resulting geometric pattern is denser and more complex than in LeWitt’s earlier open modular cubes. The variation in the depth, and hence density, of the cubes in 13/11 makes the viewer’s experience surprisingly dynamic.
Early works Wall Structure Blue, 1962, and Muybridge II, 1964, are also included in the acquisition. Wall Structure Blue and Muybridge II are key early sculptures from the 1960s that establish many of the recurring themes in LeWitt’s oeuvre: his fascination with the square and sequential permutations on a theme. Together with Steel Structure, Incomplete Open Cubes and 13/11, these structures provide an extensive representation of LeWitt’s sculptural works.
Works on Paper
SFMOMA has acquired 26 working drawings for wall drawings presented in the retrospective exhibition of LeWitt’s work at the Museum. Included are the working drawings for Wall Drawing #935 and Wall Drawing #936, Wall Drawing #601: Forms derived from a cube and Wall Drawing #879: Loopy Doopy, among others.
In addition, the artist has donated Loops and Curves (Small), 1999, a black-and-white artist’s proof of a color sugar lift aquatint created to accompany a limited collector’s edition of the catalogue for Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective.
Historical and Biographical Background
LeWitt is one of the key artists of the 1960s. His work bridges Minimal and Conceptual art, movements that abandoned the emphasis on psychological content and gestural form typifying Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. In a seminal text written in 1967 entitled “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” LeWitt emphasized his view of art: “No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. …When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”
Beginning in the mid-1960s, conceptualism in art became an internationally influential trend encompassing work by artists with widely different approaches to art making. What linked them was an interest in extending art beyond the boundaries of traditional approaches to painting and sculpture. Using photographs, language, new materials, repeated forms, performance actions and other methods, Conceptual artists explored new ways of creating artworks that focused on ideas rather than craft. LeWitt was a central figure in the growth of Conceptual art, and his structures and wall drawings remain among its lasting achievements.
Born in 1928 in Hartford, Connecticut, LeWitt moved to New York in 1953, just as Abstract Expressionism was beginning to gain public recognition and was dominating contemporary art. He found various jobs to support himself, first in the design department at Seventeen magazine, doing paste-ups, mechanicals and photostats, and later for the young architect I. M. Pei as a graphic designer. This contact with Pei proved formative, for as LeWitt would later write, “an architect doesn’t go off with a shovel and dig his foundation and lay every brick. He’s still an artist.”
In 1960 LeWitt took a job at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, working first at the book counter and later as a night receptionist. He met other young artists working there (Dan Flavin, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman and Scott Burton), placing him in the midst of a community of young artists searching for a new direction “that would lead away from the pervasive but useless ideas of Abstract Expressionism.” For LeWitt and his colleagues, Abstract Expressionism had become, by the early 1960s, an entrenched style that offered few new creative possibilities for young artists. In contrast to the psychologically loaded brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, LeWitt began to create works that utilized simple and impersonal forms, exploring repetition and variations of a basic form or line as a way to achieve works of a complex and satisfying nature. Perhaps most importantly, he evolved a working method for creating artworks based on simple directions, works that could be executed by others rather than the artist himself. LeWitt has never forsaken the fundamental approach that he developed in the 1960s, which emphasized ideas over psychological expression and let other people bring these ideas into physical and visual form. Over the years, however, his work has grown more complex in its effects and more complicated in execution. His projects from the 1960s are the most austere and straightforward, while his work from the 1970s inventively compounds the ideas and forms of the prior decade. The early 1980s saw a marked shift to sensual color and surfaces, myriad geometric shapes and their permutations and a more explicitly expressive overall character. In the past five years, the vitality and invention of his work has been especially pronounced, with forms of undulating waves and swirling nets and colors that are often hot and bold.
LeWitt has maintained an astonishing openness to new concepts and experimentation. He has been fearless in reinventing the possibilities for his art, while never straying from the precision and clarity of decision making that was characteristic even at the outset of his career. At every turn his work and attitude toward the role of the artist, as well as the potential of art, have proved to be fertile ground for other artists. Both intimate and magisterial, open ended in process and often iconic in result, Sol LeWitt’s work is among the great art achievements of our time.