During the nineteen sixties, as he inched his way towards the realization of his first three-dimensional Modular Structures, Sol LeWitt, formerly a painter, continued to make work that belonged on walls. Between 1962-66, LeWitt executed more than two dozen such works. Some shared qualities with paintings; others had more in common with sculptures. There were a number that occupied some sort of middle ground. Or as LeWitt put it in 1978, “These pieces are referred to as structures because they are neither paintings nor sculptures, but both.” He completed these works, which were made from wood, with oil paint. When he covered a group of them with white, he noticed that they seemed less like independent sculptures than they might have been. According to LeWitt, “The white wall structures were visually more a part of a white wall.”
This was all befitting an artist who started his career as a painter with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree earned from Syracuse University in 1949; proceeded to study at the School of Visual Arts (which, during the nineteen fifties was known as Cartoonists and Illustrators School); and after that, was employed by architect I.M. Pei from 1955-56 as a graphic artist at the Roosevelt Field Shopping Center, then under construction in Garden City, a thirty minute car ride from Manhattan. Shortly after he graduated college and just before he served in the Korean War, LeWitt travelled in Italy where he was much taken by the frescoes on the walls of churches. There is a suite of drawings he made in 1958 based on narratives by Piero della Francesca that are among his most interesting early works on paper.
For his first solo show, held at the Daniels Gallery in 1965, which was run by the artist Dan Graham, LeWitt showed several floor pieces that were, in his words, “fairly large and simple slabs.” When nicknames like ‘Telephone Booth” and “Cellar Door” were applied to these works, he did not take offense (as Donald Judd did when his early wood pieces were referred to too casually). To achieve what he called a “hard and industrial” look for the surfaces, LeWitt used lacquer. He ended up disappointed. “Disturbed by the inconsistency of the grain of the wood in the Daniels Gallery pieces, and by the emphasis on surface (not only in appearance, but in the long hours of work needed to achieve the correct luster),” LeWitt recalled, “I decided to remove the skin altogether and reveal the structure.”
The next crop of works, executed from wood slats painted white—and later refabricated in metal (aluminum, steel) with baked white enamel—are among the first classics of Minimalism. Because thin linear elements define open spaces, LeWitt introduced delicacy along with breadth. Sounding a bit like a mathematician, the artist, who was born in Hartford in 1928, explained, “The grid and the cube had the same ratio of line (matter) to interval (space).” Whether the modules are stacked high or distributed horizontally, the works remain person-sized. They have a humanistic subtext. Take Double Modular Cube (1966), which, like Modular Floor Structure, was exhibited in LeWitt’s solo show at the Dwan Gallery in 1966. A person standing in the middle of any of its four sides can stretch his or her arms out so that they replicate Leonardo da Vinci’s famous image of a man inscribed in a circle in a square. As for Modular Floor Structure, which is about knee height, viewers look down and across at the expansive amount of floor space it occupies, which was an unusual occurrence in 1966.
The sculptures that followed in the wake of LeWitt’s 1966 one-person show at Dwan tended to be what the artist termed “serial projects.” Individual works are less independent of one another because the artist presented countless variations and permutations of a given form. In 1969, for example, LeWitt executed 47 Three-Part Variations on Three Different Kinds of Cubes, with various combinations sharing the same base. In 1971-74, he developed a slew of Cube Structures Based on Five Modules; and, in 1976-77, many Cube Structures Based on Nine Modules. In some instances, exhibitions of LeWitt’s three-dimensional works began to resemble real life reenactments of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Over time, LeWitt made sculpture out of various materials. Each new group assumed different configurations based on the substances from which they were formed. The series constructed from cinder blocks, for example, resumed the artist’s penchant for making pieces that have the appearance of being wall-like. Then, there are the so-called Splotches, which are more lighthearted works made from acrylic on fiberglass. Tall and colorful, they are surprisingly playful in light of the artist’s early work.
Unlike his colleagues and contemporaries who are also associated with Minimalism, LeWitt never lost his interest in making art that related to painting. In 1968, he began making wall drawings. Or, more to the point, he began making instructions that others could follow to execute his wall drawings. Over time, these became more and more complex. Their dimensions varied, depending on the size of the wall that was available. Theoretically, some could be as small as a breadbox. There were opportunities where wall drawings rose several stories high. Looking back at LeWitt’s career, there is only one year—1967—when he never made a work for a wall. As an artist, he was astonishingly fecund.