Last Thursday, the 1954 Gallery of the Williams College Museum of Art was filled with Sol LeWitt enthusiasts. Residents and students alike gathered for the gallery talk and performance Sol LeWitt: The Well-Tempered Grid, featuring Robert Sterling Clark Professor of Art History and the exhibition’s curator Charles Haxthausen. The 65 LeWitt pieces currently inhabiting the gallery all share the same structural principle: the grid. In conjunction with Associate Professor of Music Ed Gollin, Haxthausen addressed the relationship between this structured art and the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach. A harpsichord was placed in the atrium of the gallery, where some other 50 people were seated.
LeWitt is commonly considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, among the ranks of icons such as fellow minimalists Donald Judd and Eva Hesse. Exploring foundational elements such as line, geometric form and color, LeWitt is regarded by many as a true pioneer of conceptual art. The exhibition focuses exclusively on pieces in which LeWitt was working along the structural matrix of a grid. The show follows the evolution of the incorporation of these grids into his works, from his first wall drawing of that style in the 1960s to his death in 2007: The exhibit complements the Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective at MASS MoCA. The motivation for the exhibition was LeWitt’s love for classical music: He was an aficionado of classical music and had a collection of 4000 audio cassettes, including Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier.
With the help of the harpsichord, Haxthausen explained the striking relationship found between Bach’s compositions and LeWitt’s grid work. The grid, according to LeWitt, is one of the simplest elements out of which intricate and elaborate structural designs can emerge. The artist would approach such a work much like a composer would approach a piece: by breaking it into its most basic element and developing a larger whole from the countless permutations and variations of its design. Haxthausen also described LeWitt’s great admiration for Bach’s variations for the harpsichord, in particular The Well Tempered Clavier. According to Haxthausen, LeWitt greatly admired the complex structures and formulations produced from simple variations of a basic element. The juxtaposition of a Bach variation played by Gollin and the structure of LeWitt pieces exposed the similar underlying constructs. LeWitt also considered his works portable and capable of giving the same impression regardless of location, similar to how musical pieces could be transported and played with the same grandeur as originally intended.
LeWitt became enthralled by the concept of the grid with the work of early English photographer Eadweard Muybridges, who captured a running man from multiple angles and presented the resulting photos in a grid-like fashion. Indeed, this fascinated him, as “the logic of the serial image was the important thing … the fact of seeing things from different angles as they emerged and changed. It had a beginning and an ending.” Walking through the exhibition one sees an immense shift in its dynamic, as his work becomes ever more simplified through the decades. Run (1960) and Run IV (1962) present various figurative elements and a design loosely based on a grid. However, beginning in the mid ’60s LeWitt began to experiment with open cubes, creating complex structure based on this simplified element.
Hauxthausen then led the audience into the 1954 Gallery, in the middle of which stood various large white, cubic structures. Titled Three part variation in three different kinds of cubes, each of the work’s structures is composed of three large cubes, whose surfaces are alternatively open or closed. A walk around the room, which is filled with journals and sketches, quickly reveals the mathematical and geometric process through which LeWitt produced these structures, representing all the possible combinations of each type of cube and the sub-combinations of open and closed surfaces of each cube. This conceptual approach to the artistic process clearly demonstrates Haxthausen’s original statement that “LeWitt used the mind instead of the eye in his art.”
LeWitt was not particularly concerned with the visual product of his work: In fact, he never actually knew what to expect from his pieces. Instead, he would start from an idea and allow it to lead his actions and processes, maintaining the conceptualist idea of the artist as the thinker rather than the craftsman. He was never attached to any particular medium nor did he ever feel restricted; rather, he explored the elements in all mediums and means of production. His work was incredibly influential to 20th-century art and expanded the idea of conceptualism through his unique approach, though many still today do not recognize the magnitude of his pieces. Analytic philosopher and conceptual artist Adrian Piper, formerly involved in the production of various LeWitt pieces, stated rather fittingly in Sol Lewitt: A Retrospective that LeWitt “is to art what Bach was to music.”