Backstage Stars

Backstage Stars
In a tranquil skylit passageway off the main floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art, leading into the office annex, is Sol LeWitts Seven pointed star, from Wall Drawing #808, Stars with three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine points within bands of color ink washes super-imposed (1996). The work of an artist who championed impermanence, this glorious wall drawing is accessible to all. But in a nook behind the museum’s elevators, the glowing stars within stars with the vibrant heart of yellow-gold are frequently overlooked.

Sol LeWitt, who died on April 8 at 78, was one of the major figures of his time; he revolutionized the idea and practice of drawing and realigned the relationship between an idea and the art it produces. LeWitt’s art is not about the singular hand of the artist; the idea behind the work surpasses the work itself. As curator Andrea Miller-Keller puts it, “The essence of LeWitt’s work is the original idea as formulated in the artist’s mind.” And as LeWitt himself said, “Ideas cannot be owned. They belong to whoever understands them.”

What is most amazing about LeWitt’s work is that out of geometry and repetition comes joy. From the detailed written instructions for creating his work emerge the dazzling wall drawings that light up space as much as Giottos frescoes do. It’s no surprise that his inspirations include the murals of Piero della Francesca and the sequential stop-motion photographs of Eadweard Muybridge.
LeWitt’s Star series exemplifies his investigation of serialism and geometry. Over the years, he repeatedly experimented with the form of the star in different colors and configurations, in wall drawings, gouaches, and prints. The incredible range of colors in the wall drawings is achieved through a process of layering (rather than mixing) only four colors of ink: red, yellow, blue, and black diluted to gray.

In 1996, when Wall Drawing #808 was first presented at the 23rd Bienal Internacional de São Paulo, where LeWitt represented the United States, it was immediately recognized as the apotheosis of his explorations of the star. We at the Whitney are fortunate to have this stunning work tucked away in plain sight. It reminds us continually of a great artist and a great friend, one of the most generous, unassuming, and honorable people I’ve ever known. Sol LeWitt’s star shines brightly in our passageway, quietly and modestly giving daily evidence of his enduring spirit.

"Backstage Stars" was originally published in the October/November 2007 issue of Culture + Travel magazine.