Author Lary Bloom celebrates life of artist Sol LeWitt
Connecticut author, playwright and teacher Lary Bloom brings equal measures of perceptivity, pragmatism and style to Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas, on the creative life and mind of unconventional and renowned Connecticut-born artist Solomon (Sol) LeWitt.
Bloom’s biography, published by Wesleyan University Press and a 2019 selection in the Driftless Connecticut Series award, draws from Bloom’s extensive research and personal recollections of Sol LeWitt, among the twentieth-century’s most influential artists, who revolutionized both the making and marketing of art.
Born in 1928 to Jewish immigrants from Russia, LeWitt rose to prominence in the late 1960s with innovative wall drawings whose elemental colors, shapes and patterns captured and challenged the imagination of his audience. But success, as Bloom observes, is not without pitfalls, and while LeWitt was prolific in painting, photography, printmaking and installation, he was rejected by his hometown of Hartford during the reconstruction of the Civic Center after its 1979 collapse.
Then in 1980, LeWitt was commissioned to create a piece for the complex. “The idea was to uncover thirty-six boulders and arrange in them in some sort of design in a public park,” Bloom noted. “To use the basic shapes LeWitt had always worked with. But that made [him] an easy target for people to say, ‘That’s not art.’”
Instead of reacting in anger, LeWitt quietly withdrew from the competition. “That was Sol,” Bloom said. “He felt such struggles were essential to an artist’s success.” And the greater the art the harder the labor. “Success never came easy for LeWitt,” Bloom remarked. “He was an outsider, as we all feel at times.” Bloom proved the universal sense of angst at a reading of the biography. “I asked, ‘Who has ever felt like an outsider?’ Every hand went up.”
Ever the nonconformist, LeWitt was an outspoken supporter of women at a time when the art world was dominated by men who had bullied their way up, Bloom records. “Eva Hesse was an artist who escaped the Nazis. Sol’s letter to her is still used by artists as an example of a way to learn,” Bloom said. In the letter, LeWitt affectionately castigated Hesse for her fears and self-doubt then offered this: “You belong in the most secret part of you.” When the norm was projecting whatever the public wanted, “LeWitt’s idea was to be yourself,” Bloom said.
A pivotal influence in minimalism, LeWitt favored simple, large-scale forms in his work. He was also a proponent of conceptualism, where the idea behind the work means more than the finished object. “LeWitt felt the work of the mind was paramount,” Bloom explained. “The work of the hand perfunctory.”
As an example, Bloom noted LeWitt’s first wall drawing, for Paula Cooper’s Soho gallery in 1968. Thirteen artists brought their work in protest of the Vietnam War, and LeWitt decided to do his first wall drawing, the only one he installed. “It was a color pencil drawing, a line drawing,” Bloom said. “When Paula called everyone to pick up their pieces, she asked Sol what he wanted her to do with it. LeWitt went down and painted over it.” LeWitt didn’t see the object as art, only a representation of the idea, so painting over the line was easy.
Bloom’s biography, however, wasn’t straightforward and took eleven years to finish. To bring it to completion, Bloom combined a marathoner’s tenacity with his own brand of aesthetic. “I interviewed well over a hundred people,” Bloom noted. “The momentum came from the enthusiasm of the interviewees and the discoveries—it’s the idea of patience versus getting things done.”
The last section Bloom wrote was the introduction. “It could only be written once I knew what the book was about,” he affirmed. Everything that didn’t relate to the theme, what it takes to be a success without “pushing for a photo on the cover of Time”, he discarded.
LeWitt also differed from other artists in that, for him, success wasn’t about personal publicity. It was about the work and about supporting other artists. “He had a generosity you don’t find in most people, more so, in most artists,” Bloom observed. “Most of his expenses were used to buy the work of other artists, to showcase and give confidence to others.”
At the artist’s passing in New York in 2007, at age 78, tributes poured in. One in particular arrived from Adrian Piper, an artist who benefited from LeWitt’s support. LeWitt had never wanted people to suggest he had “an orbit” or that others drew “light and inspiration from his presence”, but they had, Piper affirmed, and in that they were blessed.
The legacies of LeWitt live on in his work and his humanity, well-portrayed alongside his art and artistry in Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas.