Last week, an art history professor at UMass Boston and curator of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) exhibition Strict beauty: prints by Sol LeWitt David S. Areford gave a lecture at the WCMA. The conference aimed to make connections to Jewishness in the work of Sol LeWitt, a conceptual art pioneer famous for producing an extensive collection of pieces in a variety of mediums, often blending vibrant colors with lines, shapes and precise angles.
One of us (Geneviève) is an artist, but not Jewish; the other (Nigel) is a Jew whose watercolor training began and ended with YouTube. Despite our contrasting backgrounds, we were both drawn to Areford’s talk, titled “Making the Walls Speak: Sol LeWitt’s Jewish Projects,” by our shared interest in a difficult question that the title evoked: what is What exactly would it mean for there to be Jewish themes in conceptual art like LeWitt’s, which by definition tends to avoid traditional elements of art practice like representation and symbolism?
At the start of the lecture, Areford noted that LeWitt’s Jewishness was more about heritage than faith. Although LeWitt was raised in the Jewish community, he never mentioned his religious beliefs in interviews, nor did he bring up the subject with his children.
In discussing the cultural aspect of LeWitt’s Jewish identity, Areford was breaking new ground, which he said made his task all the more difficult. 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 may help explain why so few experts have addressed the issue in depth. According to historian Lila Corwin Berman, scholars of American Jewish history generally aim to “explain the conjunction of Jews or Jewish spaces and another variable, say, mid-century American tax law” – or, in this case, 20th century American conceptual art.
This historical goal is best achieved when looking at “places where Jewishness is visible and affirmed,” or when focusing on historical figures whose Jewishness is most evident: in Berman’s words, particularly “Jewish” Jews.
Those like LeWitt — the not-so-Jewish — challenge historians to show why Jewishness matters to how we understand the lives and work of people who have ancestors in the Jewish Diaspora, but whose Jewishness at first glance appears to have made little difference to how they lived their lives and were treated by others.
Areford took on this challenge, not by making grand claims about the potential connections between LeWitt’s religious or cultural identity and his distinctive aesthetic and techniques, but by distinguishing three works of art that together provide a means of understand how LeWitt engaged his art with Jewish history. , memory and faith.
These were Black form (dedicated to missing Jews), a concrete block structure installed in Germany in 1987; the Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek Synagogue in Chester, Connecticut, which LeWitt designed in 2001; and lost voices (2005), a sculpture and sound installation inside a former synagogue near Cologne, Germany.
LeWitt describes black form, a jet-black cinderblock structure about six feet high by 17 feet long, as the “only political art I’ve ever done”. The brick-like mass, which Areford likened to a sarcophagus or mausoleum, draws in the light that surrounds it. Photographs of the ornate, beige facade of the nearby Altona town hall with black form in front of him evokes a puzzle with a missing piece. The gap evokes the void left by the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust and publicly commemorates them.
Since its inception, Areford said, black shape was considered “provocative and disruptive”. Today, its location makes it prone to vandalism, often by activists, whose graffiti and displays give the structure additional political resonance, whether or not they are aware of Black Form’s significance to most viewers. .
Each year, members of the community repaint the graffiti, much like LeWitt’s murals are painted in order to uninstall it. But in the case of black formit is not an act of erasing – rather, the repainting returns the work to its original state.
In a footnote to the chapter of the book on which the lecture was based, Areford described the Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek Synagogue as LeWitt’s only project which “may be properly designated as ‘Jewish art’, as it was specifically created for Jewish ritual use”. Over the doors of the ark where the Torah is kept, LeWitt placed a large, brightly colored Star of David, conveying unusually familiar symbolism through a distinctively abstract style. A smaller version of the six-pointed star is displayed at the Strict beauty: prints by Sol LeWitt exposure.
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 exterior of the synagogue. Viewers enter the space and are greeted by a wall blocking off the rest of the synagogue, as an hour-long loop of Jewish liturgical music plays. The wall ends two feet below the ceiling, letting in light.
Areford analyzed the elements of light, limited space and sound to assert that lost voices recreates for the viewer the confinement of the ghettos, highlighting the passage of time and drawing their attention to the voices of the lost Jews trapped behind the wall. Music too, he said, obstructed and locked viewers in, forming a barrier between them and a past that won’t come back – the singing voices.
Taken together with Wall Drawing #720: Consequencethat 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 many conceptual artists to create works with specific reference to the Holocaust.
After the lecture, we felt a deep appreciation for the power of these memorials, which Areford helped situate within a larger conversation about conceptual art’s ability to respond to unthinkable tragedy. His lecture prompted us to ask ourselves whether, as art historian Mark Godfrey has said, “abstraction, as non-figurative art, is the most appropriate type of art to respond to an event that is beyond representation”.
LeWitt’s wife, Carol, who attended the conference, once described Sol as “a very, very observant non-believer”, suggesting that despite his lack of religious beliefs, he was more deeply invested in his life. Jewishness than many think. We think Areford is correct in suggesting that LeWitt’s Synagogue and its Holocaust memorials are the most natural places to begin to connect the artist to his Jewish heritage.
Yet we felt that Areford’s speech only 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 related to religious practice or the Holocaust. . Although community institutions (synagogues) and traditions (Holocaust remembrance) are an integral part of Jewish culture, there is of course much more than that.
With this in mind, we came away from Areford’s incisive and in-depth lecture hoping that historians of Jewishness (or art) will continue to take LeWitt’s relationship to Jewishness, and specifically Jewish culture, into new directions of interpretation.
Following Berman’s lead, we wonder where they might go with broader questions, such as: how does LeWitt’s identity as a Jewish conceptual artist tell us anything about the history of American Jewry? , conceptual art, or both?