The American artist Sol LeWitt (1928–2007), who was a key proponent of both Minimalism and Conceptual art, built an extensive collection of works by his contemporaries, including Hanne Darboven, Dan Flavin, Eva Hesse, Robert Mangold and Robert Ryman, among many others.
LeWitt collected in other areas, including Japanese woodblock prints and hand-coloured tourist photographs, modernist photography and scores by composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
Lydia Yee: Do you know when, where and how Sol first began collecting?
Carol LeWitt: He started collecting stamps when he was eight years old. He became an obsessive collector of block of four stamps. I even have a little note he wrote to someone in Shanghai saying, ‘I am a collector, can you please send me something with such and such a stamp on it?’
Some of the musical scores in his collection are from people like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Alvin Lucier. I can imagine that he felt an affinity with his own work, the serial nature of that kind of music.
He would often say that everything he learned about serial art he learned in two ways: from Bach’s fugues, because that was a perfect serial system, and from Dan Flavin. Flavin’s ideas on seriality were enormously important to Sol, and he would always talk about that and always credit him.
Do you have any interesting anecdotes about any acquisitions that he made?
Sometimes he would buy things that we couldn’t afford. He would just find a way to make it work. I remember he saw a Richter show of candle paintings, at Sperone Westwater Fischer in the 1980s, and if he could then he would have bought the whole show. He did buy a painting. It was $10,000 at the time and a tremendous amount of money for us.
But an incredible investment now if you look at it. But I’m sure that’s not what he was thinking.
That never would have occurred to him. He always used to quote Gertrude Stein, who said a work of art is priceless or worthless.
What is the relationship between the objects in the collection and Sol’s own work? Was he looking for something in the work of other artists that spoke to him and to the way he worked?
I think that because of his collecting interests, the collection went way beyond what he would have taken from his own work. I think if he had collected that way it would have been a much more refined and defined kind of collection. This was more like Sol, the great proletarian collector, everything from young people, artists that had little recognition, little value. None of that ever mattered to him.
And when he put things up in the house, was it also with this non-hierarchical approach?
It would be a total mixed bag, with the kind of eclecticism that was part of everything he did. One of the other interesting things is not only did he buy art, he loved furniture. He collected Hoffmann furniture and Rietveld furniture, he made his own furniture, and he loved Umbrian antiques. So it’s a real mix.
He was ahead of his time, because now this kind of mixing has become quite fashionable, but less so 30 years ago.
Sol never thought about style. He loved comfort, so his spaces were always very personal and filled with books and colour. That was one of the things he started to do when we first renovated the house in the mid-1980s — it was sort of cool colours, white and maybe a light grey. He decided to paint the house up. He started by painting the central hallway of this federal house a kind of brown. I remember once saying, ‘Brown is not exactly a fashion colour, I don’t know about that’. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m one of the great colourists of the century, and I think this is the colour!’ It went on and on: we had a kitchen that was electric yellow that went into a chartreuse room with a red door. It was very personal and very eccentric.