This Day in Jewish History

1928: An Artist Who Loved the Work More Than Himself Is Born

Sol LeWitt, a father of conceptual art and minimalism, also designed the 'neo-shtetl' synagogue in Chester, Connecticut.

Sol LeWitt, wall drawing, in May 2012 during the Wall Drawings from 1968 to 2007. At a Sol LeWitt restrospective exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz, Metz, France.
Bava Alcide57, Wikimedia Commons

September 9, 1928, is the birthdate of the late artist Sol LeWitt, a key player in the move from modernism to post-modernism.  The very opposite of the flamboyant, celebrity artist, LeWitt tried to remove himself from the equation, to the extent that eventually he designed his non-figurative works, but they were executed by others, and might even be destroyed after being exhibited. LeWitt is considered one of the founders of both minimalism and conceptual art.  

Solomon LeWitt was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and was the only child of Abraham and Sophia LeWitt, both of them immigrants to the United States from the Russian empire. Abraham was a medical doctor and Sophia a nurse.

When Abraham died, in 1934, Sophia moved with Sol to nearby New Britain, where her sister lived and operated a grocery. His mother would take him back to Hartford for art classes at the Wadsworth Atheneum, and he would draw on plain wrapping paper he found in his aunt’s shop.

As an adult, LeWitt recalled New Britain as being “highly industrialized,” a place he "detested" that produced “hardware, locks, ball bearings.” Fortunately, with the help of an uncle who was an alumnus of Syracuse University, he was admitted to college there at age 16, in 1945.

Night receptionist at MOMA

LeWitt earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1949, and after a semester working as a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois, won a grant from the Tiffany Foundation that allowed him to spend a year traveling and viewing art in Europe. On his return to the U.S. in 1951, the Korean War was on, and he was drafted into the army, which sent him to Japan and Korea, and had him design posters. It was in Japan that he began buying art prints, the seeds of a vast collection of contemporary art that he spent the remainder of his life assembling and then loaning out.

Back in New York, LeWitt studied at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (later the School of Visual Arts), and did graphics work for Seventeen Magazine, before getting a job as graphic designer in the architecture office of I.M. Pei in 1955.

The pivotal experience for LeWitt, however, was working as a night receptionist at the Museum of Modern Art. There he encountered the work of such artists as Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who had been selected to show in the museum’s 1959 influential exhibition “Sixteen Americans.”

Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek, the synagogue in Chester co-designed by Sol LeWitt. The Magen David painting on the front of the Torah ark is his.
Robert Benson Photography

Until then, LeWitt had been struggling to find his artistic voice, in the midst of the Abstract Expressionism craze he did not feel connected to. Now, he began to work with simple materials, creating lines and simple shapes and lines, in what would soon be called minimalism.

His first solo show took place in 1965. Soon he was designing works as an architect would, providing the concept and instructions for its realization, but leaving the execution to assistants. "The idea," said LeWitt, "becomes a machine that makes the art."

In 1982, he escaped the American art scene by moving to Italy. When he came back toward the end of that decade, he settled in Chester, Connecticut, where he spent the rest of his life. Despite his media-shy persona, with other artists he was supportive and generous. He was active, too, in his synagogue, Reform Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek, in Chester, whose new building, which opened in 2001, he co-designed with architect Stephen Lloyd. Its form, LeWitt said, was “neo-shtetl” in style, inspired by the old wooden synagogues of Poland.

After his death, artist and critic Patricia Rosoff wrote about LeWitt that, “his art is not about him. It is about art, which he defined as a good ideas generated into physical form. He conceived of the artist more along the lines of an architect, whose blueprints direct a construction of a building, or a musical composer, whose notations direct a performance, than as someone with skillful mastery. To LeWitt, art is the idea.”

Sol LeWitt died of cancer on April 8, 2007, at the age of 78.

The Star of David on the front of the ark at the synagogue in Chester, CT codesigned by Sol LeWitt.
Robert Benson Photography