The conceptual artist Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) is best known for his programmatic wall drawings and modular structures, but alongside these works he generated thousands of lithographs, silkscreens, etchings, aquatints, woodcuts, and linocuts. Strict Beauty: Sol LeWitt Prints is the most comprehensive presentation of the artist’s printmaking to date, including single prints and series, for a total of over 200 individual prints.
The exhibition begins with the artist’s earliest prints: figure studies and scenes of urban life made at Syracuse University and in Hartford, Connecticut. LeWitt’s mature printmaking is explored in four thematic sections that reflect the diverse abstract languages he pursued throughout his career: “Lines, Arcs, Circles, and Grids,” “Bands and Colors,” “From Geometric Figures to Complex Forms,” and “Wavy, Curvy, Loopy Doopy, and in All Directions.”
Curated by David S. Areford, professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the exhibition is accompanied by an in-depth catalog co-published by the New Britain Museum of American Art, Williams College Museum of Art, and Yale University Press. The exhibition and catalog highlight the essential role of printmaking in LeWitt’s oeuvre, deepening the understanding not only of the variety of LeWitt’s output but of the genealogy of his distinct geometric and linear formal language.
Printmaking played a pivotal role throughout LeWitt’s career. He discovered lithography in his junior year at Syracuse University and his early prints elicited his first professional recognition, including a group exhibition called Young Talent at the New Britain Museum of Art (then the Art Museum of the New Britain Institute) in 1949, as well as a cash award from the Tiffany Foundation that same year. The grant enabled the young artist to finance a life-changing trip to Europe. Italian art and architecture would become an especially important inspiration years later when he purchased a home in Spoleto. Links to his Italian influences, for example the architecture of Santa Maria Novella church (Leon Battista Alberti, 1456–70) in Florence and Leonardo’s famous drawing Vitruvian Man, are illustrated throughout the exhibition as Areford draws parallels with the prints on view.
After serving in the Army in Korea, LeWitt established himself in New York City, and his growing international recognition soon centered on his wall drawings; however, beginning in 1970, he rededicated himself to printmaking and continued this practice for the rest of his life. Areford argues that printmaking provided a perfect medium for the artist whose creative output was the visual realization of thought, and who famously said “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” In printmaking, LeWitt could begin with a defined concept, such as that expressed in the silkscreen series Lines in Color on Color to Points on a Grid (1978), and explore a multiplicity of outcomes through a mechanical process allowing both uniformity and variation. And while he began with a self-imposed set of rules and a desire to distance himself from the outcome, LeWitt’s prints nevertheless convey human expression in his own mark making, the decisions of various printmakers who carried out the artist’s instructions, and the occasional “errors” yielded by the process itself. Within the strictness of the artist’s plans and systems, LeWitt’s many prints demonstrate that, in Areford’s words, “ordered and logical ideas often result in contradiction and irrationality, especially in terms of the viewer’s perceptual experience and the captivating beauty of the artist’s colors, geometric forms, and diverse lines, bands, and brushstrokes.”
Several of the prints on view are based on LeWitt’s wall drawings or vice versa, as the artist’s visual concepts were not only experimentations with his own unique vocabulary of line, shape, and color, but were also dialogues with scale and space. Whereas the wall drawings become architectural elements, in relationship to the wall’s structure and dimensions, the prints are human-scale documents of an idea, designed to be more accessible, democratic, and lasting. Whirls and Twirls (2005), a kaleidoscopic rainbow of intertwined colored bands, is a stunning linocut on a nearly four-foot-wide sheet of paper. Its formal antecedent is Wall Drawing #1126, installed in 2004 on the vaulted ceiling of a library in Italy (Biblioteca Pannizzi, Reggio Emilio), a site-specific artwork evoking ready references to Renaissance murals. As a print, the design evokes very different links to medieval metalwork and manuscript illumination.
“We are thrilled to host this exhibition of Sol LeWitt prints at WCMA,” states Pamela Franks, Class of 1956 Director. “It is an extraordinary opportunity to share new scholarship on a pioneering conceptual artist, and to partner with the New Britain Museum of American Art, which is home to the one of the largest collections of LeWitt prints in existence. Strict Beauty also presents a spectacular opportunity for visitors to the Berkshires, which has been rightfully called ‘LeWitt country’ since the opening of Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective at MASS MoCA in 2008. David first approached WCMA with the idea for this project in 2015, and so it is especially gratifying to see Strict Beauty come to such abundant fruition with the publication of the catalog in late 2020, the exhibition at New Britain last year, and now the presentation at Williams.”
LeWitt’s relationship to artmaking has been compared to that of a music composer, whereas he wrote or drew the instructions for a piece which only then comes to life through its performance or execution. “If LeWitt’s wall drawings are orchestral in nature,” says Lisa Dorin, Deputy Director of Curatorial Engagement, “perhaps his prints are like chamber music. There is an intimacy in the viewer’s experience which reveals the artist in new ways.”