WCMA curator discusses Jewish themes in Sol LeWitt’s art

Nigel Jaffe and Genevieve Randazzo

Professor of Art History at UMass Boston David S. Areford gave a lecture at WCMA about the exhibit he curated: Strict Beauty: Sol LeWitt Prints. (Photo courtesy of WCMA.)

Last week, Professor of Art History at UMass Boston and curator of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) exhibition Strict Beauty: Sol LeWitt Prints David S. Areford gave a lecture at WCMA. The talk aimed to draw connections to Jewishness in the oeuvre of Sol LeWitt, a pioneer of conceptual art who was famous for producing a vast collection of pieces across various mediums, often mixing vibrant colors with precise lines, shapes, and angles. 

One of us (Genevieve) is an artist, but isn’t Jewish; the other (Nigel) is a Jew whose training in watercolor began and ended with YouTube. Despite our contrasting backgrounds, the two of us were drawn to Areford’s talk, titled “Making Walls Speak: Sol LeWitt’s Jewish Projects,” by our shared interest in a challenging question that the title brought to mind: What exactly would it mean for there to be Jewish themes in conceptual art like LeWitt’s, which by definition tends to eschew traditional elements of artistic practice like depiction and symbolism?

As he began the lecture, Areford noted that LeWitt’s Jewishness was more a matter of heritage than faith. Although LeWitt was raised Jewish, he never mentioned his religious beliefs in interviews, and he didn’t discuss the topic with his children. 

In discussing the cultural side of LeWitt’s Jewish identity, Areford was breaking relatively new ground, which he said made his task all the more daunting. Only a handful of art historians, such as Professor Emeritus of Art History Charles Haxthausen, have published work exploring LeWitt’s relationship to Judaism and how it may have influenced his art. 

We suspect that broader trends in the field of Jewish history can help explain why so few experts have taken up the issue in depth. According to the historian Lila Corwin Berman, scholars of American Jewish history typically aim to “explain the conjunction of Jews or Jewish spaces and some other variable, say, midcentury American tax law” — or, in this case, 20th century American conceptual art.

That historical goal is easier to accomplish when looking in “places where Jewishness is visible and stated,” or when focusing on the historical figures whose Jewishness is most evident: in Berman’s words, the especially “Jew-y” Jews. 

Those like LeWitt — the not-so-Jew-y — challenge historians to show why Jewishness matters for how we understand the lives and work of people who have ancestry in the Jewish diaspora, but whose Jewishness appears on first glance to have made little difference for how they lived their lives and were treated by others. 

Areford rose to meet that challenge, not by making grand claims about potential ties between LeWitt’s religious or cultural identity and his distinctive aesthetics and techniques, but by singling out three artworks that together offer a way into understanding how LeWitt engaged in his art with Jewish history, memory, and faith.

These were Black Form (Dedicated to the Missing Jews), a concrete block structure installed in Germany in 1987; the synagogue Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Conn., which LeWitt designed in 2001; and Lost Voices (2005), a sculpture and sound installation inside a former synagogue near Cologne, Germany. 

LeWitt described Black Form, a jet-black cinder block structure roughly six feet tall by 17 feet long, as the “only political art I ever made.” The brick-shaped mass, which Areford likened to a sarcophagus or a mausoleum, sucks in the light around it. Photographs of the ornate, beige facade of the nearby Altona town hall with Black Form in front of it bring to mind a puzzle with a piece missing. The gap evokes the void left by the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust and publicly memorializes them. 

Since its creation, Areford said, Black Form has been seen as “provocative and disruptive.” Today, its placement makes it ripe for vandalism, often by activists, whose graffiti and postings give the structure an additional political resonance whether or not they’re aware of the meaning Black Form holds for most viewers. 

Each year, community members paint over the graffiti, much as LeWitt’s murals are painted over in order to de-install them. But in the case of Black Form, this is no act of erasure — rather, the repainting returns the work to its original state. 

In a footnote to the book chapter on which the talk was based, Areford described the Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek synagogue as LeWitt’s only project that “can properly be designated as ‘Jewish art,’ since it was specifically created for Jewish ritual use.” On the doors of the ark where the Torah is kept, LeWitt placed a large, vibrantly colored Star of David, conveying an unusually familiar symbolism through a style that’s typically abstract. A smaller version of the six-pointed star is on view at the Strict Beauty: Sol LeWitt Prints exhibition.

Lost Voices, a 2005 site-specific installation commissioned for a former synagogue, divides the space in two with a wall made from the same bricks as the synagogue’s exterior. Viewers enter the space and are greeted by a wall blocking off the rest of the synagogue, while an hour-long loop of Jewish liturgical music plays. The wall ends two feet below the ceiling, allowing light to pass over. 

Areford analyzed the elements of light, limited space, and sound to argue that Lost Voices recreates for viewers the confinement of the ghettos, highlighting the passage of time and calling to their attention the voices of lost Jews trapped behind the wall. The music, too, he said, obstructed and enclosed viewers, forming a barrier between them and a past that won’t return — the singing voices. 

Taken together with Wall Drawing #720: Consequence, which LeWitt created for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Black Form and Lost Voices cannot help but contradict LeWitt’s insistence, as Areford put it, that his art had no “social or moral purpose.” These pieces mark how he became one of a substantial number of conceptual artists to create works in specific reference to the Holocaust. 

After the talk, we felt a deep appreciation for the power of these memorials, which Areford helped to situate in a larger conversation about the capacity of conceptual art to respond to unthinkable tragedy. His lecture pushed us to wonder whether, as art historian Mark Godfrey put it, “abstraction, as a non-representational art, is the most appropriate kind of art to respond to an event that is beyond representation.”

LeWitt’s wife, Carol, who was at the lecture, once described Sol as “a very, very observant nonbeliever,” suggesting that in spite of his lack of religious beliefs, he was more deeply invested in his Jewishness than many realize. We feel Areford is right to suggest that LeWitt’s synagogue and his pieces in commemoration of the Holocaust are the most natural places to begin in drawing a link between the artist and his Jewish heritage. 

Still, we were left with the sense that Areford’s talk just scratched the surface of a larger set of questions that can only be answered by exploring some of the many rich and diverse elements of Jewish culture that are less directly connected to religious practice or the Holocaust. Although communal institutions (synagogues) and traditions (Holocaust remembrance) are integral to Jewish culture, there is, of course, much more to it. 

With that in mind, we came away from Areford’s incisive and thoroughly researched lecture hoping that historians of Jewishness (or art) will continue to take LeWitt’s relationship to Jewishness, and specifically Jewish culture, in new interpretive directions. 

Following Berman’s lead, we wonder where they might go with broader questions, like: How does LeWitt’s identity as a Jewish conceptual artist tell us something about the history of American Jewishness, conceptual art, or both?