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Art From Ideas

How does Sol LeWitt use simple shapes to create stunning artworks?

Sol LeWitt and his Wall Drawing #993, at the Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo credit: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

Your geometry teacher asks you to make a drawing using “arcs and bands in color.” What would this look like? Do you think you and the person sitting next to you would interpret this phrase the same way?

Arcs and Bands in Color is the title of the 1999 work by American artist Sol LeWitt on the cover. Look carefully. Do you see examples of arcs within the image? Bands? Color? This abstract artist combines seemingly simple lines and shapes into eye-catching geometric designs. His most famous works are larger-than-life drawings and paintings executed directly on museum and gallery walls. And while his works are visually interesting, it’s his ideas that really dazzle viewers.

Pretend that your teacher asks you to draw “arcs and bands in color.” What do you think this looks like? Would you and your classmates draw the same thing? Arcs and Bands in Color is the title of the work on the cover. American artist Sol LeWitt made it in 1999. Look carefully at the image. Do you see arcs? Bands? Color?

LeWitt is an abstract artist. He uses familiar lines and shapes to make geometric designs. His most famous works are drawn or painted right onto walls. His art is interesting to look at. But his ideas impress people most.

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #1005 and #900, 2001. Acrylic, dimensions variable. Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, Massachusetts. © 2020 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Kevin Kennefick, Courtesy Mass MoCA.

How does LeWitt make the flat image below left appear three-dimensional?

Master Plans

LeWitt, shown above, was born in 1928 in Hartford, Connecticut. At age 16, he left home for Syracuse University to study art. In the early 1960s, while living in New York City, he became interested in minimalism—the idea that art could be stripped down to basic elements such as colors, lines, and shapes. “[My] main decision was . . . to simplify things rather than make things more complicated,” he once explained.

The artist believed that the ideas behind a work of art mattered more than the physical artwork. LeWitt saw his job as coming up with those ideas, which other artists could then execute. This made him more like an architect or a musical composer than a traditional painter. This way of working became known as conceptual art.

LeWitt typically provided written instructions and sometimes a sketch of his plan for an artwork. Then he hired other artists to interpret and carry out his design. In 2008, dozens of artists and students helped draw and paint 105 of LeWitt’s works onto the walls of a threestory building at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The colorful work at left is one of his many isometric drawings. LeWitt uses two-dimensional lines on a flat wall to represent three-dimensional geometric forms.

LeWitt, shown above was born in 1928 in Hartford, Connecticut. At age 16, he went to Syracuse University to study art. He later moved to New York City. In the 1960s, he began exploring minimalism. Minimalism is art made of basic colors, lines, and shapes.

LeWitt believed that the ideas behind an artwork were more important than the art object. This type of art-making became known as conceptual art. LeWitt usually wrote instructions for an artwork. Then other artists decided how they would draw or paint his design based on his instructions.

In 2008, artists and students helped create 105 of LeWitt’s designs for a show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The colorful work at left is one of them. LeWitt uses two-dimensional lines on a flat wall to make shapes that look three-dimensional.

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #370: Ten Geometric Figures (including righ triangle, cross, X, diamond) with three-inch parallel bands of lines in two directions, 1982. Painting, dimensions variable. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York. © 2020 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo credit: Jeffrey Greenberg Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

How does LeWitt use lines to create shapes in this wall drawing?

Made for Destruction

Because LeWitt considered his ideas to be his artwork, he never intended their physical representations to be permanent. He developed the instructions for the wall drawing above in 1982. In 2014, a team of artists installed it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In 2018, museum officials had the wall painted white again. But as long as LeWitt’s description and sketches are not destroyed, the work of art still exists.

This work’s full title is Wall Drawing #370: Ten Geometric Figures (including right triangle, cross, X, diamond) with three-inch parallel bands of lines in two directions. Vertical and horizontal lines meet at precise edges to form 10 geometric shapes. Some elements of the work, such as its exact dimensions, are up to the artists who install it.

LeWitt considered his ideas to be his art. He never meant for the physical work to be permanent. He created the instructions for the wall drawing above in 1982. In 2014, artists installed it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In 2018, the wall was painted white again. But as long as LeWitt’s instructions remain, the artwork still exists.

This work’s title is Wall Drawing #370: Ten Geometric Figures (including right triangle, cross, X, diamond) with three-inch parallel bands of lines in two directions. The title informs artists how to draw it. They use vertical and horizontal lines to form 10 different shapes. LeWitt didn't describe every part of the work in his instructions. For example, the artists decided on the work’s size.

Sol LeWitt, Open Cube, 1968. Painted aluminum, 41 1/3x41 1/3x41 1/3in. (105x105x105cm). Inv. Sammlung Marzona 0341. National Gallery Staatliche Museum, Berlin, Germany. © 2020 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo credit: bpk-Bildagentur/ Peter Neumann/Art Resource, NY.

How does LeWitt involve the viewer in this work?

Building Blocks

LeWitt also made sculptures, which he called “structures.” He believed cubes were the most boring form, which made them good for experimenting. In his 1968 structure Incomplete Open Cube, above, LeWitt leaves the cube incomplete, inviting viewers to finish the idea in their minds.

Until his death in 2007, LeWitt promoted the idea that everyone could make and appreciate art—not just professional artists and critics. He thought choosing clothes to wear or arranging the furniture in your home could be forms of artistic expression. “Every person alive is an artist in some way,” he said.

LeWitt experimented with cubes and other forms. He did this in his sculptures, which he called “structures.” In his 1968 Open Cube, above, LeWitt leaves the cube incomplete. This encourages viewers to finish it in their minds.

LeWitt believed everyone can enjoy art. He thought that some choices we make every day, like the clothes we pick out to wear, are artistic expression. “Every person alive is an artist in some way,” he said.

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