Sol LeWitt on How to Be an Artist
Sol LeWitt dwarfed by his Wall Drawing No. 993, at the Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo by Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.
I like to imagine Sol LeWitt during his night receptionist shifts at the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1960s. While decidedly unglamorous, the gig facilitated his friendships with other young artists such as Dan Flavin, Robert Mangold, and Robert Ryman, and with future art critic Lucy Lippard. During this time, he began to develop a new framework for making art that emphasized concept over execution. “By the end of the ’50s, Abstract Expressionism had passed, it was played out. Pop art was more involved with objects,” LeWitt recalled in 1993. “I wasn’t really that interested in objects. I was interested in ideas.” His goal was to “to recreate art, to start from square one,” he said.
By 1967, LeWitt had recorded conclusions in a text called “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” first published in Artforum. There, he explained the core tenets of the minimal, thought-based work that he and his artistic coterie had started making. One line reads like a mighty thesis: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”
Today, LeWitt is recognized as a founder of both Conceptual and Minimalist art. He’s best known for works comprised of loose instructions for wall murals. They’re meant to be executed by anyone with their copyrights, therefore deemphasizing his hand in favor of his ideas. LeWitt passed away in 2007, leaving behind extensive writings, interviews, and letters that outline his expansive, boundary-pushing thought processes. They include “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967), “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1968), and one particularly rousing letter of encouragement from LeWitt to Eva Hesse, sent in 1965. From these texts, we’ve gleaned several provocative words of advice from the great Conceptualist.
Lesson #1: Prioritize ideas over execution—it will free you to explore new directions
“Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form,” LeWitt wrote in “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” a list of 35 principles originally published in the experimental art and literature magazine 0 to 9. This concept was central to LeWitt’s evolving theories on Conceptual art, which he believed freed artists to explore new creative pathways. This idea-based mode, he thought, alleviated the confining pressures of physical, aesthetic perfection embedded in painting and sculpture traditions. “All ideas need not be made physical,” he continued. “For each work of art that becomes physical there are many variations that do not.”
Furthermore, he emphasized that straightforward concepts often inspired the strongest work. “The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple,” he stated in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” “Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable. In terms of ideas, the artist is free even to surprise himself. Ideas are discovered by intuition.”
In the late 1960s, LeWitt presented a groundbreaking series of sculptures that iterated quite simply on the form of a cube. Serial Project, I (ABCD) (1966), for example, features skeletons of white cubes in various sizes, placed on a grid on the floor. In a text LeWitt wrote to accompany the piece, he emphasized the work’s straightforward nature: “The serial artist does not attempt to produce a beautiful or mysterious object but functions merely as a clerk cataloging the results of his premise.”
Critic Peter Schjeldahl recognized LeWitt’s innovative use of aesthetic restraint as a means of highlighting his work’s robust conceptual underpinnings. In a New York Times review of a 1968 show at Dwan Gallery, Schjeldahl wrote: “What [LeWitt] is offering with this show is a sort of specimen of the creative process, turning art, as it were, inside out for our scrutiny.”
At the close of “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” LeWitt extended this idea, warning artists of relying too heavily on aesthetics. “Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution,” he explained. On the other hand, “it is difficult to bungle a good idea.”
Lesson #2: Logic can stunt creativity—try ignoring it
LeWitt set up a powerful binary towards the opening of “Sentences.” “Rational judgments repeat rational judgments,” he explained, while “irrational judgments lead to new experience.” Both LeWitt’s texts and artworks advocated eschewing logic and introducing irrationality as a means of encouraging artistic evolution.
“The logic of a piece or series of pieces is a device that is used at times, only to be ruined,” he continued in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” Indeed, he routinely developed patterns for his art, such as repeating circles and lines, which exploded into infinite variation as other people interpreted his schemes.
The instructions for LeWitt’s iconic wall drawings leave plenty of room for interpretation and irrationality: “Place fifty points at random,” Wall Drawing #118 (1971) reads. “The points should be evenly distributed over the area of the wall. All of the points should be connected by straight lines.” This directive could take—and has taken—many different forms. “He didn’t dictate,” remembered Gary Garrels, the curator who organized LeWitt’s 2000 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “He accepted contradiction and paradox, the inconclusiveness of logic.”
In “Sentences,” LeWitt acknowledged the generative nature of these variations. “There are many side effects that the artist cannot imagine,” he wrote of this process. “These may be used as ideas for new works.”
Lesson #3: Have fun with your practice
Some of LeWitt’s most lively words of advice arrive in a 1965 letter to his friend and fellow artist Eva Hesse. Responding to Hesse’s doubts about the merit of her work, he encouraged her to let go of expectations imposed by others and her own ego and just “DO.”
Building on his interest in irrationality, LeWitt encouraged Hesse to let loose and incorporate absurdity into her practice, which fused Minimalism with references to mortality and the female body. “Do more. More nonsensical, more crazy, more machines, more breasts, penises, cunts, whatever—make them abound with nonsense,” he wrote. “Try and tickle something inside you, your ‘weird humor.’ You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world.”
LeWitt even suggested that Hesse try making “some BAD work—the worst you can think of and see what happens.” But chiefly, he proposed that she “relax and let everything go to hell—you are not responsible for the world—you are only responsible for your work—so DO IT.” Here, LeWitt’s main goal seems to be reducing the pressure Hesse feels to succeed in the context of the 1960s art establishment. “Don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be,” he continued.
LeWitt also advocated for a process that, to the contemporary ear, recalls meditation: clearing and calming the mind, in order to access new ideas. “When you work or before your work you have to empty your mind and concentrate on what you are doing. After you do something it is done and that’s that,” he said. “After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going.”
Lesson #4: There’s no end game, only evolution
LeWitt didn’t see his work (or anyone’s, for that matter) as moving towards a particular goal or end. Rather, he thought of artmaking as an eternal process of building, reinventing, and growing. Each thought or experiment led to another, encouraging innovation. In the 1980s, LeWitt surprised his followers by introducing ink washes, color, and undulating lines to his previously grayscale, geometric works. When asked why his work developed in this way, he simply responded, “Why not?”
LeWitt then added a phrase that seems to sum up his life, his works, and the lessons he so freely offered to other artists: “A life in art is an unimaginable and unpredictable experience.”