May 14, 2014

FILM: Sol Lewitt, humble utopian


Guest contributor Jonathan Stevenson / There is something undeniably beautiful about the consuming harmonic elegance of a Sol LeWitt wall painting. But for some viewers, the apparent despotism of his process – his compulsive and exacting instructions, his enlistment of multiple assistants to arduously carry them out – deflates its appeal by calling his own motivations into question. If he was so obsessed with getting the piece just right, one might ask, why the hell didn’t he make it himself? Sol LeWitt, Chris Teerink’s meticulous, focused, and quietly moving documentary about the late seminal Minimalist and conceptual artist, substantially answers this question.

Image at top: Ángel Franco's NYTimes image of the Sol Lewitt mural in the Columbus Circle subway station.




The film is as methodical as its subject was, interspersing tours of his flowing geometric paintings and depictions of how others make them with testimonials from former assistants, fellow artists, and friends about the loyalty he inspired, the community he generated, and, importantly, his modesty, kindness, generosity, and unobtrusiveness. Perhaps the film’s most intriguing aspect is LeWitt’s own enigmatic remark, from a rare interview recorded in 1974, that for him making art any other way – for example, by merely drawing a person and showing the drawing – would not be “ethical.” Huh?

What he meant, I think, was that shepherding assistants to execute straightforward yet very precise plans of his to produce works of enveloping order, simplicity, and rhythm impelled a social ideal that transcended art – namely, the collective creation of something that improved the world, brought the creators closer together, and in the bargain, at least for the duration of the project, provided for their livelihood. “Aesthetics and ethics,” he said, “are really very much the same kind of thing.” LeWitt thus emerges as an authentic utopian: organizing small communities of artists to constructive effect, diverting them from folly with directives that require effort, concentration, teamwork, and time to fulfill.

From this perspective, his humble conviction that the artist’s personality had no place in art – he resolutely eschewed art-star celebrity – made perfect sense. He wanted to prescribe work that anyone, at least in theory, could produce, and which did not derive inordinate value from an exalted originator. In this he was intensely egalitarian and seemed broadly anti-capitalist (he insisted that some drawings be sold for no more than $100, and withdrew them from the market when it became clear that this mandate was impossible to enforce). Paradoxically, of course, LeWitt’s vision was singular and iconoclastic. His character and philosophy suffuse his work and frustrate his quest for anonymity. And although the film appropriately features the art more than the man, its still enshrines him. But personality fades with time and movies recede into archives while the artwork endures.

Fellow conceptualist Lawrence Weiner, the fim’s grizzled magisterial eminence, notes that LeWitt was neither “a friendly human being” nor “a saint.” Yet he clearly liked him. Beyond that, he admired LeWitt for advancing the potential for art to render what is still an ugly and brutal world not merely more attractive and interesting, but eventually good.

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