Sol LeWitt, Father of Conceptual Art, and Father of Eva LeWitt
Conceptual art pioneer Sol LeWitt is known for fathering a movement that radically changed the course of artmaking. To those that knew him, he’s remembered as a modest, risk-taking, loyal friend to artists; and we paint his picture through their memories—like Jo Watanabe, the master printer at Pace Prints’ screen printing studio, who shared stories of printing for LeWitt around the time the two met in 1975. On the occasion of LeWitt’s new show at London’s Sims Reed Gallery, where a major survey charts the artist’s lifetime of printmaking, we paid a visit to his daughter, Eva LeWitt, who has freely explored her own creative impulses. Summers with her father in his studio in Spoleto, Italy, and a childhood home where every room was painted a different, vibrant hue, no doubt lent the primary colors and geometric shapes of her father’s oeuvre to her own work. For LeWitt Sr., the works in the show map the idea-driven, sophisticated system of art-making of his legacy, wrought with the colorful, graphic and playful forms his daughter calls “a backdrop to a very happy childhood.” In LeWitt’s own early years, as a night clerk at the Museum of Modern Art, he worked with artists like Dan Flavin and Robert Ryman and discovered the work of Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, who all became strong influences. It seems we all have great artists to look up to—and lucky for Eva, hers happens to be her father.
Artsy: Can you talk a bit about your influences as an artist? Looking at your pyramidal sculptures, we think of Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures, but what is it that you see? And what do you draw from?
Eva LeWitt: I’ve been very lucky to grow up surrounded by art and artists. The occupation of being an artist has always felt practical and attainable—a blessing and a curse, I suppose—but I have always felt free to indulge and explore my creative impulses. I am inspired by the way artists work, not necessarily what they make. I believe the nuts of being an artist is working every day; going deeper and following the natural progression of the studio practice.
The influence I take from Oldenburg is the sense of humor, the wink, and the warmth that I feel is so present in his work. His soft sculptures and his early plaster works especially. My soft pyramidical sculpture (it’s actually a cat) was one of the first steps into “soft sculpture”—the most logical technique to subordinate traditional sculpture by sewing it, stuffing it; making it manageable. I was interested in trying to impose a rigid geometry and then watching it fail, and loving it all the more for its failures. I recognize these failures and achievements in Oldenburg’s work, and his continued dedication to those qualities, that sense of humor, is definitely a strong inspiration.
Artsy: How did you begin to work with the materials, colors, form that you work with now?
EL: My inspiration always comes from the materials themselves. I have gravitated towards soft, synthetic, colorful materials; plastic bags, sponges, yarn, tape, etc. I struggled for a time using traditional sculptural materials such as plywood, steel, fiberglass. But these materials hurt me—literally and figuratively. I prefer to work in complete solitude, and I physically could not manage these materials alone. I could not dominate them or manipulate them the ways I wanted to. That is why I choose soft, tactile, materials. I want to be able to control and transform the materials.
Artsy: When looking at your work it seems that primary colors play a central role. Can you talk a bit about this?
EL: Color is simultaneously the most important and least important quality in a material. When a material is available in so many colors, it makes my choices less important. I must have color in my work, but I am never trying to make a statement with color. I am never trying to convey a specific mood, just an overall exuberance, warmth, and responsiveness.
Artsy: Would you call yourself a sculptor, and these works sculptures? Are there particular histories you draw upon when creating these works?
EL: Yes, these are sculptures and I am a sculptor. I think I am following in a history of craft, primitive work—of women’s work. I think this comes from my desire to work alone, to do it all by myself. I have very limited technical skills, and I am a woman. I work the most freely when I limit my materials and techniques. I have the luxury of choosing this, but the greatest crafts and primitive arts are made only out of the materials at hand. For me this is the most exciting part of making sculpture—what are the inherent limits I can push this material to, how beautiful and interesting is it capable of becoming? What is that sack of sponges and that roll of tape concealing and how can I reveal it ?
Artsy: Primary colors, geometric shapes—though you have stated clearly that your work is of course radically different in form from that of your father’s, do you find that such things as color and shapes trickle in from having grown up within the purview of your father’s oeuvre? For example, your triangular pyramidal compositions bring to mind Sol LeWitt’s Pyramids. Can you speak to this a bit?
EL: It is very hard to divorce my father’s work from my childhood. I grew up inside of it quite literally. I spent every summer with my father in his studio. Each room in my home was a different, vibrant color and filled with art in all forms and styles. I think I find an inherent comfort in the most iconographic works of my father, simply because they were the backdrop to a very happy childhood. I want my work to make people feel happy, comforted, inspired—because that is how art made me feel growing up.
Artsy: Can you speak a bit about what you’re currently working on?
EL: I am currently working on webbing, which has been a revelation. I have been thinking about ways to use it for years now, and I am beginning to figure it out. It has the perfect combination of strength and suppleness; quality and sheen. I cut the webbing into “tiles” and seal the edges with tool dip. They are woven together with plastic beads and thread—the beads acting as spacers/building blocks that give the work volume and space. Each of these materials come in many colors but I have tried to stick with primaries, blacks, and whites while I am still figuring out new patterns; at this point the form is the most critical focus, but I still need the “noise” that color gives—primaries are a good balance.
The pieces started on the wall as a series of explorations of what the material could do in 2D. These were very exciting for me because they translated from my mind to reality in just the way I hoped and thought they would. I realized they could get even more interesting taken off the wall; less decorative, less tribal. So now I have begun building with the material from the ground up. I know it is strong—I can build with it and it won’t collapse. Like basket weaving, there are endless patterns to follow, and I am teaching myself these patterns as I go.
The new series of chairs
that I am working on now allows me to explore this geometry and these color
combinations on a sculptural, human scale. The comfort that I try to invoke in
my work plays a big part here. Chairs are universal. Almost anything can become
a chair if you can find a way to sit on it. Chairs can represent anything from
comfort, to status, to torture. They offer me just enough of a boundary to be
completely set free.
“Sol LeWitt” is on view at Sims Reed Gallery, London, through March 18th, 2014.
First image of soft sculpture by Nancy Linn; all other images of Eva LeWitt sculptures and portrait by Annie Powers