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Arts & Ideas Fest Celebrates Sol LeWitt's Conceptual Work

Roger Catlin

June 06, 2010

If there was any artist who personified the key elements of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, it would be Hartford-born conceptual artist Sol Le Witt, for whom the idea frequently was the art.

With the 15th annual festival expanding from New Haven to across the state, who better to celebrate this year than LeWitt, who even after his death in 2007, at 78, finds his vivid wall drawings still being completed worldwide and across Connecticut?

Although his relationship with the state wasn't always smooth (such is the case with cutting-edge artists), he eventually made the state his home again. And the museum where he took art classes as a child is leading the way with a retrospective of his work covering nearly four decades.

" Sol LeWitt is represented in this collection more than anyone else," says Patricia Hickson, the Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, the nation's oldest public art museum. "And that's how it should be for an influential international artist who has come from Hartford."

"Sol LeWitt: Hartford's Native Son," opening Saturday at the Atheneum, is drawn entirely from the holdings of the museum and shows a vast output of work and subtly changing focus spanning nearly 40 years.

Among the works from the master of Conceptualism and Minimalism are drawings, sculptures, notes and full-size wall drawings — actually, colorful geometric paintings — for which he became best known.

Of the five major wall drawings completed at the museum, three are on display. Among the more prominent are the vivid "Wall Drawing #1131, Whirls and Twirls (Wadsworth)," which blossoms in color over a Beaux Arts-style marble Morgan Great Hall, and "Wall Drawing #793 C (Irregular wavy color bands on two facing walls)," exhibited on two facing walls in the Helen and Harry Gray Court entrance. A much more subtle 1960 wall drawing in colored pencil hangs near the museum café, in hues so subtle, it usually has to be pointed out to visitors.

A fourth wall drawing that is still up at the museum, #352, was originally designed for the Hartford Civic Center but withdrawn by the artist in 1980 after a bitter hubbub over public art. The museum became a home for the striking geometric work, but it is currently partially obscured in a part of the building used for offices and out of public view.

Wall drawings were made to be temporary, of course, and LeWitt's main role in creating them was devising the exacting ground rules for creating them. As such, what's left for the wall drawing he made for one of the first Matrix shows of contemporary art at the Atheneum, "The Location of a Rectangle," are the instructions: "A rectangle whose left and right sides are two thirds as long as its top and bottom sides and whose left side is located where a line drawn from a point halfway between the midpoint of the top side of the square and the upper left corner to a point halfway between a point halfway between the center of the square and the lower left corner and the midpoint of the bottom side is crossed by two lines…" (It goes on from there for another paragraph).

While LeWitt frequently oversaw the completion of his work, he needn't be present in this new kind of art. As he said in his influential 1969 "Sentences on Conceptual Art," "it is difficult to bungle a good idea."

LeWitt, during his life, said little about his art himself, preferring to let the works (and their detailed instructions) speak for themselves. He did say in 2005, though, "basically we wanted to re-invent art."

Russian Heritage

Born in Hartford to a doctor and nurse who were Russian immigrants, LeWitt and his mother moved to New Britain after his father died when he was 6. He graduated from New Britain High School and went to Syracuse University, studying art. After a stint in the Army, he settled in New York City, where he took odd jobs, worked on his art and became part of a new group of artists who arose in the '60s.

By the time the Atheneum presented his first solo show there in 1975, LeWitt was in his late 40s. The show began a long association with the museum, where he was part of the first set of Matrix shows (for which he made a famous handwritten poster).

His first project with the Atheneum involved three portfolios and six individual prints from 1971, examples of which are included in the new show.

LeWitt was the subject of three Matrix shows — and he remains the only artist in 160 shows to have had more than one.

The last of them, in 2001, featured a series of "Incomplete Open Cubes," sculptures that were variations on a 12-legged three-dimensional cube and how it looked minus one or more of the legs.

"He looked at every possible variation, from a three-edged to 11-legged cube, 122 variations overall," Hickson says. The 2001 show featured 30 of them. His summer's overview features drawings as well as sculptures, artist-designed announcement cards and posters, limited-edition books, preliminary plans for wall drawings and what turned out to be a rare piece of LeWitt ephemera: a photograph of him.

"He shied away from the camera in a very big way," Hickson says.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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