Sol LeWitt’s musical waves return to Australia alongside First Nations art

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The late American artist Sol LeWitt used the term “conceptual art” in a 1967 manifesto, seeing himself a “thinker and originator of ideas” rather than a craftsperson, “a composer rather than a player”.

There is an inherent musicality in the Connecticut-born, New York-based artist’s experimentation with line and form and use of geometrical shapes. This is notable in some 1200 “wall drawings” he made over the next 40 years, as well as working with photographs, prints, ceramics, furniture and sculpture.

“Almost from the beginning, his concept was that the art of creation is the idea,” explains the Australian art collector and patron John Kaldor, who brought LeWitt to Australia to make work in 1977 and again in 1998.

Finer hands of artisans would be charged with carrying out LeWitt’s ideas. “He gave very precise instructions on how to execute a work: the instructions were the art,” says Kaldor. “He compared himself to a music composer who creates the music but then orchestras perform it—straight away or years later.”

Indeed, when LeWitt created wall drawings for the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) each in 1977, the curator and art historian Daniel Thomas wrote in The Bulletin that the pattern of LeWitt’s work across the walls “can seem, like Bach’s variation on a musical theme, to symbolise the wonder of creativity”.

Kaldor and LeWitt maintained a friendship until the artist’s death in 2007. Now, Kaldor is bringing LeWitt’s work to Australia for a third time, with Sol Le Witt: Affinities and Resonances opening at AGNSW, where LeWitt’s vibrant Wall drawing #955: loopy doopy (red and purple), 2000, is being painted onto the same southern wall of the John Kaldor Family Hall that carried LeWitt’s first Australian wall drawing 45 years ago.

Installation view of Sol LeWitt, Wall drawing #955: loopy doopy (red and purple), 2000, acrylic paint, first drawn by: Paolo Arao, Nicole Awai, Hidemi Nomura, Jean Shin, Frankie Woodruff, first installation: Whitney Museum of American Art,New York, November 2000. © Estate of Sol LeWitt/ARS.

On the opposite wall, two untitled paintings by the late Anmatyerr artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye made in 1995 and 1996 have been hung, as well as a work by the late Anmatyerr artist Gloria Tamere Petyarre titled Awelye for the mountain devil lizard (Twenty-one women) from 1996. The second time Kaldor brought LeWitt to Australia, he took him to an exhibition in Sydney showing work by such Central Desert Indigenous painters, including Kngwarreye, and he says LeWitt found an “affinity” with their work.

Bridging these large, awe-inspiring paintings will be three specially commissioned musical pieces that audiences can play by holding their phones to QR codes. Each musical piece was created over Zoom during the pandemic lockdowns, pairing an Indigenous Australian composer with a composer based in the United States.

LeWitt was “an avid music collector” says AGNSW’s curator of music and community Jonathan Wilson. “He was really close with [American composer and minimalism exponent] Steve Reich and people like that, who referred to him as a composer as well, and referred to his practice as musical most of the time.

“The wall drawing lends itself to being so musical if you just drill it down to basic sign waves. These giant wavy lines are the fundamentals of sound,” explains Wilson.

The waves took time to build to their crescendo in LeWitt’s art, however, as did changes to his personality. In April 1976, prior to his first Kaldor project in Australia, LeWitt handwrote a letter to Kaldor composed entirely of capital letters, which read in part: “I DON’T WANT TO DO ANY LECTURES OR PARTIES, DRINKS AND TOO MUCH SOCIAL STUFF”.

“When he came [in 1977], it wasn’t a happy patch in his life,” Kaldor recalls, “and he was very introverted. He was single . . . But a few years later [in 1982] he married an American woman of Italian parents [Carol Androccio] who was very outgoing and very Italian, and he had two girls by her [Sofia and Eva], and he’d completely changed his life,” explains Kaldor. “He became much more social, much more extrovert, liked good wine, like dinners. So, the second time he came out, in 1998, he was a different man.”

In 1997, Kaldor saw LeWitt’s extraordinary wave-like forms in striking primary and secondary colours at New York’s Ace Gallery, and when LeWitt returned to Australia the following year, this style of work would cover the tallest walls of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Instead of the stripped back colour and form of 21 years earlier, huge matt and shiny acrylic black shades were interspersed with bold, multicoloured waves—like contemporary frescoes.

“It was like a completely new way of expressing his art, and I was very taken by it,” says Kaldor. Loopy Doopy, first installed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2000, was an extension of this colourful new development.

“In some ways, I liken Sol to Matisse: when Matisse had arthritis, and his hands couldn’t paint anymore, he started the cut outs, and that gave him a new lease of life and a wonderful body of work. Sol, towards the last 15 years of his life maybe, I’m not exactly sure, he knew he was ill—he had cancer for a long time—he came out with this very exuberant form of expression, and it was wonderful.”

When Kaldor took LeWitt to the exhibition of Central Desert artists, the American told him: “I really love it. Where can I buy a Kngwarreye?” Kaldor himself wasn’t interested in Indigenous art at that time, but still took LeWitt to a gallery where he could buy two small Kngwarreye works.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled, 1995, synthetic polymer paint on polycotton, 245 x 201 cm, Private collection, Sydney. © Estate of Emily Kame Kngwarreye.

Back in the US, LeWitt said he would like to continue to collect Indigenous works, and proposed a barter system with Kaldor: “Why don’t we make a deal? You send me Indigenous works, and I’ll send you drawings in exchange.” Kaldor thought that was a good deal, and so for the last decade of LeWitt’s life Kaldor would send him two or three Indigenous artworks each year.

The musical collaborations connecting the works in Sol Le Witt: Affinities and Resonances include the pairing of California-based pedal steel guitarist Chuck Johnson with Yuin musician JWPATON; New York-based indie rock guitarist Steve Gunn with de/anti-colonial ambient noise composer amby downs aka Tahlia Palmer; and Los Angeles-based experimental musician Claire Rousay with Yuin electric beat musician E. Fishpool.

“That was the most interesting thing about the project,” says Wilson, “having seen that 1998 MCA show when I was still just in art school, and being so taken with it, because my brain was just exploding with conceptual and minimal artists in that 90s period—and then to think of the Indigenous works, the Central Desert works, and how do these two relate?”

Wilson says the musical compositions connect the works “physically” and “in the ether, emotionally”. As he explains, “It’s not this transactional, two-dimensional thing on either side, just looking at each other. There was something needed to bring them together to create this conversation around these works arriving through completely different pathways at the same point.”

Sol Le Witt: Affinities and Resonances
Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW)
27 August—12 February 2023

Steve Dow