WILLIAMSTOWN — Admission is free at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), and that should be reason enough to visit one of New England’s most picturesque towns this Spring. But there are other reasons, and 200 of them are good until June 11: WCMA is exhibiting 200 prints by one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century, Sol LeWitt.
But it wasn’t prints that made LeWitt’s fame — at least not at first. He worked in almost every medium imaginable, from graphite and crayon to acrylics and gouache. He even designed a synagogue. But it was his wall drawings and three-dimensional works that brought him early recognition.
Preferring the term “construction” over “sculpture,” LeWitt created three-dimensional works for indoor display and, on a much larger scale, immense outdoor structures that were built from aluminum or steel by industrial fabricators.
In his 1967 essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” LeWitt explained that the idea or concept of a work is preeminent, that with this art form all design decisions are made in advance, while the physical execution of the finished work becomes a matter of routine.
“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” he asserted. “So, in theory, anyone can construct such an installation simply by following a set of written instructions.”
LeWitt isn’t new to WCMA. In 2008, the museum collaborated with the Yale University Art Gallery and MASS MoCA on a retrospective exhibit of LeWitt’s wall drawings. He has been the subject of other shows at the museum, but exhibition curator and Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Massachusetts David S. Areford calls this exhibit “the most comprehensive presentation of the artist’s printmaking to date.”
Areford is the editor of “Strict Beauty,” an in-depth exhibit catalog co-published by the New Britain Museum of American Art, Williams College Museum of Art, and Yale University Press.
Many of LeWitt’s works consist of a set of simple, written instructions that assistants can follow repeatedly in numerous locations — anywhere in the world — to execute the work without any further input from the artist. That kind of portability may be the most important feature of conceptual art.
LeWitt is recognizable as a true artist not only by his works but by his heartfelt words. The best way to convince any creative person — sculptor, painter, writer, whatever — of LeWitt’s legitimacy and importance as an artist might be to hear what he had to say to his peers. That he knew how to advocate forcefully and eloquently for his fellow artists is apparent in the words of a now famous letter, read here by Benedict Cumberbatch, to the American sculptor Eva Hesse.
“Don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor,” he urged. “It can be anything you want it to be … Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you — draw & paint your fear & anxiety.”
Perfectionism kills creativity, LeWitt reminds his friend — and this line has been quoted a million times: He advises Hesse to “surrender the addiction to good work and use the bad as a springboard into the great.”
“You don’t have to justify your work — not even to yourself,” he said. “Try the most outrageous things you can. Shock yourself … You have at your power the ability to do anything.”