January 26, 2004

LeWitt on the Quad

Katherine Mitchell is senior lecturer in the visual arts program.

Are you ready to open your mind to contemporary art? If new works and art from recent decades challenge you, I encourage you to use the new sculpture on Emory's Quadrangle as a fresh point of entry.

Through the generosity of an anonymous donor and the efforts of many in the University community, last year Emory acquired a sculpture by one of the most significant artists of the 20th century, Sol LeWitt. The intersection of aesthetic and mathematical concepts in the 75-year-old LeWitt's work makes it especially significant for Emory and its prominent placement on our Quadrangle most appropriate.

The installation of LeWitt's "Tower with Vertical Blocks 1" (2002) between White Hall and the Administration Building inspired me to share some of my thoughts on this work. I respond to the piece, not as a scholar or art historian, but rather as an artist. Each time I view it, I am rewarded and hope the entire Emory community also will be enriched by it. Perhaps my comments will provide an introduction and glimpse into the ideas that inform the work and encourage people to take time with it.

Born in Connecticut of Russian Jewish parents, LeWitt attended Syracuse University, served as a graphic artist during the Korean War and later moved to New York, where he worked as a draftsman for the architect I.M. Pei, as well as a receptionist for The Museum of Modern Art. Rejecting abstract expressionism and other artistic movements of his time, LeWitt became a pioneer of minimalism and conceptual art. His work includes serial images, an exploration of geometric form and large-scale wall drawings and installations.

Having a generous, populist spirit, LeWitt made some kinds of his work available to the public at very low cost; his books sell for around $10. He believed art should be experienced by anyone interested, not just the wealthy. In addition, he is well-known for helping younger artists and scholars, and was kind enough to correspond with me for many years. I have always had a profound response to his work and was pleased our paths could cross. LeWitt has collected the works of many friends and younger artists, often donating them as gifts to significant museum collections.

I first saw LeWitt's work in the early 1970s, when a piece was being installed at The Museum of Modern Art by a team of workers, according to LeWitt's precise instructions. LeWitt insists that the plan for a work is akin to an architect's blueprints or a musical score; one does not expect the architect to build nor the composer to perform the work each time.

The materials are also specified, as they were for the Emory piece. In fact, a choice of two or three materials was given. The artist once explained that his plan is to "select the basic form and rules that would govern the solution of the problem. After that, the fewer decisions made in the course of completing the work the better. This eliminates the arbitrary, the capricious, and the subjective as much as possible."

In 1977, I returned to graduate school, having studied in Rome years earlier. My research led me to closely examine LeWitt's work, and I initiated our correspondence. We exchanged letters, postcards, catalogues and sketches for more than 10 years. His postcards were beautifully chosen and included images of Il Duomo in Siena; Wenceslaus Hollar's "Five Butterflies" of 1646; the Grand Hall of the Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple; a small Egyptian gold shrine from the 18th Dynasty and the reign of Tutankhamun; and the Gap of Dunloe in Killarney, Ireland. Once I was honored to receive a small painting on paper from LeWitt tucked into a catalogue.

In 1977, LeWitt wrote: "You asked about my having walls executed (a strange word--like being shot against a wall, but it is the wall itself that is executed) by others. It is really a very old tradition. Many other artists such as Giotto, Rubens, Michelangelo, etc., had others do all or parts of work. I always do the wall drawing myself the first few times with helpers. After that, others can do it. My work consists of lines mostly, and anyone can draw a line. An architect draws the plans of a building, but no one expects him to dig foundations or lay bricks, and it is still his work. Now, I am doing books mostly. I started because I needed documentation of some serial pieces, but I always thought of the books as works of art themselves and not as reproductions (that is a catalogue). Books can be bought at a low price by anyone. Ideas can be offered in books. Many artists are now doing books because it is a medium that can be seen and understood by many. It takes away the snobbishness of the gallery and lasts infinitely longer than a gallery show."

In another letter, LeWitt said that he would like to have his work discussed in terms of Erwin Panofsky's Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Scholasti-cism's goal was to establish the unity of truth--the elucidation of faith by reason. The Suma, a literary presentation that clarified the process of reasoning, had three requirements: totality, arrangement according to a system of homologous parts and parts of parts, and distinctness and deductive cogency. If one reads Panofsky's description of Gothic architecture, one quickly sees how the ideas and descriptions can be perfectly applied to LeWitt's sculpture.

I believe LeWitt's work can be a vehicle for expanding our definition of art and our view of what can be seen as beautiful. The piece is important to Emory for the same reasons all of the arts are important. We are nourished here by an increasingly rich arts community, and I am honored to be part of it. Right now I'm reading Joseph Skibell's new book. I have enjoyed compositions by Steve Everett of the music department, new choreography by members of Emory's dance program, and daring, new work in the theater studies department. I feel enormous stimulation in an environment where such opportunities are available.

Emory is an extraordinary intellectual community, but one in which contemporary visual arts typically have not played a major role. This is changing, and the LeWitt piece is, in part, evidence of that change. Certainly last year's Chairs Project was another piece of evidence. It was challenging and brought in a variety of artists, some of international reputation.

I also am encouraged by the increased support of the visual arts faculty, who have pursued their research in Tibet, Bosnia, India and Austria, as well as environmentally related work in the Bahamas and Ossabaw Island, Ga. Last fall, the department's six faculty held a major exhibition at SunTrust Plaza gallery in downtown Atlanta. We also have had works included at the High Museum of Art and the Museum of Contem-porary Art of Georgia, as well as institutions all over the country. I believe we are entering a new era for the visual arts at Emory, and I am delighted that we will begin an expansion and renovation of our current building this spring.

I hope you will join me in celebrating the addition of the LeWitt sculpture to campus. I encourage you to be open to many ways of approaching and thinking about it, and to letting go of expectations related to decorative qualities. I hope you will enjoy its simple, yet satisfying mathematical relationships. Emory's sculpture, an extraordinarily beautiful and austere piece, is typical of one of this master artist (though, ironically, LeWitt himself would object to the use of the word "beautiful"), and it presents an opportunity for all of the Emory community.

The author wishes to acknowledge the efforts of many departments, colleagues and supporters among University leaders, trustees, and committee members whose work, support, or involvement during the four-year process made the sculpture acquisition and installation possible. Special thanks are owed to James Meyer, Clark Poling, Bonnie Speed, Catherine Howett Smith, Bill Chace, Bill Fox, Laura Hardman, Woody Hunter, James Johnson and Jennifer Fabrick.