The Right-Hand Man to Sol LeWitt

At 70 years old—40 years since he first began screen printing for Sol LeWitt—master printer Jo Watanabe says it was mental stimulation from LeWitt, who he printed for until the artist’s death in 2007, that has kept him sharp. “It is very complicated to organize the printing method and the process,” he says. “It’s not like drawing with pen, you don’t start and finish one by one ... It takes a certain amount of brainpower.”

Though he’s printed for countless legends—Chuck Close and Yue Minjun among them—it was Sol LeWitt, “and nobody else,” who first hooked Watanabe on screen printing in ’75. But it didn’t stop with printmaking. Over the course of 30 years, Watanabe was LeWitt’s right hand man on projects like Wall Drawings and The Incomplete Cubes. “Basically, he would think of an idea, and [other people would execute it]. But at the beginning he did it himself,” he says.

“I started to help him come up with materials and methods for the ink wash Wall Drawings,” he says, “because he only used four colors: red, yellow, blue, and gray ... He didn’t want pure colors, but more aged, fresco colors, like the Sistine Chapel ... So I had a formula for the ink and the methods, like three coats for each color.”

Of their work together, Watanabe says, “the hands don’t have to belong to the artist himself. Anybody’s hands—maybe not the dog’s hand, or the elephant’s hand—but a human hand. Because we share emotions that are more or less similar. If you can use somebody else’s hand, you can do lots of work.”