Sol LeWitt stood in the middle of the Margo Leavin Gallery admiring his dazzling wall paintings. It was the first time he'd seen them because the actual painting had been done by a team of younger artists, a methodology that he pioneered in late 1960s. Looking at his geometric shapes, in pure Crayola tones of red, yellow and blue, green, orange and violet, he says, "I try to imagine the outcome but I'm always surprised when I seem them."
LeWitt is a founding father of Conceptual art, a movement that rejected the psychological content and flamboyant paint handling of the 1950s Abstract Expressionists. His new paintings stem from his better-known wall drawings. Since the late '60s, he has made original drawings on paper that are then used as a set of instructions for others to execute on a wall, in a process meant to undermine the notion of the work of art as the unique product of the artist's own hand. A typical example is Wall Drawing #86: Ten thousand lines about 10 in. (25.4 cm.) long, covering the wall evenly.
In the catalogue for LeWitt's retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Art last year, curator Gary Garrells wrote that such work pairs "intellectual substance. . . with visual delight, both of which seep into one's consciousness."
His work has been shown at various galleries in Los Angeles since his debut at the now defunct Dwan Gallery in 1967. This time, he is showing simultaneously at Leavin and at Regen Projects. Both shows continue to Oct. 27, 2001, in West Hollywood.
The exhibition at Regen Projects consists of a concrete block wall, again constructed according to LeWitt's instructions but by others. It blocks the entrance and runs the length of the gallery interior. Light can be seen seeping over the top of the wall, tantalizing the viewer with notions of what might be concealed. At the opening on Sept. 8, listening to someone rave about the colorful paintings at the Leavin Gallery, artist Charles Ray quipped, "You should see the ones on the other side of that wall."
"It should give you a certain surprise," LeWitt says. "You think of what you are not seeing. If you know the gallery, it is a complete reinvention of the space you expected. To be confronted within a couple of feet with something you ordinarily see at a distance changes your personal perception."
LeWitt, who turned 73 the day of that opening, is a reticent fellow with a cherubic expression. Complimented on how well the paintings turned out, he shyly added, "Sometimes I get good luck, sometimes bad luck."
This is typical LeWitt modesty, but it also has to do with the role of chance in a body of work that is otherwise determined by precision and order. "I work from plans but think of it in more abstract terms than real terms," he said.
For the past decade, LeWitt has pursued elaborate wall drawings for museums and private collectors. Usually, he has a maquette built for their approval. There was no maquette for the gallery, however. "For some reason, Margo took me at my word. I told her it would work and she believed me," he said. "It was an act of faith on their part since I hadn't done this particular imagery ever before. This is absolutely new!"
LeWitt is also well-known for his series of white, three-dimensional, openwork grids and there is an example of this early sculpture in the Leavin show. But this is the first time he has attempted to render the cubes as two-dimensional wall paintings of primary and secondary colors. The shapes, however, defy the laws of perspective, and the brilliance of the paint makes the horizontal and vertical pillars vibrate against the background.
Calling his abstract trompe l'oeil "isometric projections," LeWitt explained that "all the angles are equal, whereas in perspective drawing, all the angles diminish towards a vanishing point."
LeWitt, who keeps a second home in Italy, has long found inspiration in 14th- and 15th-century frescoes.
"If you look at early Renaissance artists from the 1300s," he said, "before the use of perspective, they always used a kind of isometric form. It was more suited to wall painting because it maintained the flatness of the wall while intimating a third dimension."
Translating the open cube to the wall proved challenging, however. LeWitt used blueprints and photographs to conceive them. "I'm computer ignorant," he said with a touch of pride. "They are complicated to draw but they look natural even though they are not realistic," he said. "They shouldn't look distorted." The recent lapidary works have been linked by critics to the joyful exuberance of Henri Matisse. Hearing the comparison, LeWitt averts his eyes and mutters, "People are welcome to whatever perception they have. But I don't think of it that way. I think of it as something I want to do. It answers some sort of need in my psyche."
If all this preparation seem at odds with the usual method of an artist at work, LeWitt also paints more spontaneously every day in the studio of his home in Chester, Conn., where he lives with his wife of 19 years, Carol, and their two teenage daughters.
On view in a room near the entrance to the Leavin Gallery are entirely different sorts of works: wiggling skeins of contrasting hues on sheets of five by five foot painted paper. They have none of the methodology of wall works or cube structures. There is "no formula. No way of preplanning" them, LeWitt said.
How do these intuitively composed works jibe with his identity? Hasn't he said that the nature of Conceptual art is that it is entirely conceived before the actual execution? "Yes," he said with a smile. "But I also said that Conceptual art is for mystics."
LeWitt is a native of Hartford, Conn. He attended Syracuse University, where he studied traditional painting and sculpture. After graduating and serving in the Korean War, in 1953 he moved to New York and worked as a graphic designer. It was the heyday of Abstract Expressionism but LeWitt never felt any attraction to it. Instead, he was painting series based on the work of motion photographer Eadweard Muybridge.
"To me, Muybridge was the key to working in series, the liberation from formal concerns to the idea of using the cube as a grammar. Next I did a cube within a cube. That, to me, was a very sculptural expression of an idea. The idea of something being inside of something. More important, it broke the ideological handcuffs of formalism. . . The next step out of that was something to do with content."
Arent these lush, radiant wall paintings too beautiful to be considered Conceptual art?
"I have nothing against beauty," he said. "I think beauty is wonderful. I always felt that beauty was subjective, absolutely personal. Dissonance, disharmony and asymmetry can also be beautiful."
"I don't want to be a prisoner of my own ideas, either. They have these meetings of old Conceptualists and it's like an academy, which I think is dead.
"The wall paintings started out as a direct evolution from drawing but I wanted to use color. That may seem retrograde," he added, "but who cares? If you think about what other people might think, you are going to be completely immobilized. You are doomed to failure unless you liberate yourself completely."
Sol LeWitt at Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 273-0603 and Regen Projects, 629 N. Almont Dr., (310) 276-5424. Both shows continue until Oct. 27.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.