The Friends and Family Plan: Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse

This post is about a show that’s up at Craig F. Starr Gallery until May 27—a collection of artworks by Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse. This isn’t a review because reviews are supposed to be objective, and the curator of the show, Veronica Roberts, is a close friend of mine.  But the show itself is about friendships between creative people. So the fact that it’s a friend’s show seemed thematically appropriate.

Veronica Roberts, Mass MoCA 2008. (The first picture above is Mass MoCA volunteers in LeWitt quotation tees.

To me, here’s the big question of the show: as an artist, what does it mean to be open enough to another person to allow them to affect your work?  Is that the true marker of friendship—being open enough to receive influence and solid enough to give it too, and being known enough to another person for that to be possible?

Veronica starts her catalog essay with a story that gave me a lump in my throat the first time I retold it:

In 1970, Eva Hesse died at the age of 34.  When Sol received word of her death, he was in Paris preparing a show that would open a few days later.  In that short time he made a brand new work dedicated to Eva. It was the first time in his entire career that he made “not straight lines.”  Everything before that—whether Yaffa-block-like sculptures of “incomplete open cubes” or his “wall drawings” with their ordered lines you could stencil notebook paper off of—was never anything but straight.

Sol LeWitt, "Wall Drawing #46." Vertical lines, not straight, not touching, uniformly dispersed with maximum density covering the entire surface of the wall (detail). Pencil on wall, 108 x 108 inches. First drawn by: Sol LeWitt in 1970. First installation: Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris, May 1970. At Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York; 105-1⁄2 x 89-1⁄2 inches.

LeWitt and Hesse are both, by almost any measure, famous artists.  Sol died in 2007.  A retrospective of his work is up for the next two decades (through 2033), at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.  I thoroughly recommend seeing it.

Eva’s work was in a retrospective in 2002 and 2003 that was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum Wiesbaden, and traveled to the Tate Modern.

In the Craig F. Starr Gallery on East 73rd Street, the space itself supports the intimacy of friendship, with the proportions of a house, and even the careful interior decoration details of someone’s home, down to the fireplace and a breathtaking set of window drapes that exactly match the greenish tint of middle gray of the walls.

In the first room, Wall Drawing #46—the very same inaugural non-straight lines (pictured above), in Eva’s honor—stands as if with its back to the door.  Next to it is a set of works on paper, one by each of them.  Sol’s is a blank page to which he has added neat elegant grids, a veritable constellation of homages to the square.

Sol LeWitt, "Drawing Series I/3241/A&B," 1968. Ink on paper, 10-1⁄4 x 20-3⁄4 inches. Inscribed and dated lower left: "For Eva/ November 6, 1968" and signed lower right: "Sol LeWitt."

Next to it, Eva has started out with graph paper.  But even on the gridded page, she had drawn lively, organic circles inside the squares, each one as different as a snowflake, all of them wrestling with the grid as if the elegant, artistic version of a slug in a box.

Eva Hesse, "No title," 1967. Ink on graph paper, 10-7⁄8 x 8-1⁄2 inches.

Across the room, Sol’s perfectly gridded wall drawing lies lithe on the surface of the wall opposite Eva’s sculpture of a cube.  The metal frame of Eva’s cube is stamped with regular rows of holes, which she has connected with short lengths of black tubing.

Eva Hesse, "Accession V," 1968. Galvanized steel and rubber, 10 x 10 x 10 inches.

The effect on the outside is repetition and order, if made slightly organic by the flat segments of rubber connecting the holes.  The effect peering down into the box is messiness, as you see the innards of all the tied tubes.  As Veronica pointed out, this work is order on the outside, chaos on the inside—as personally relatable a human drama as I’ve seen in an artwork of late.

In the back room is a low-slung, large, square coffee table Sol and Eva made together.  Sol constructed the base of shiny black painted wood.  Eva covered the surface with rows and rows of the flat circles of black rubber washers you’d find in a hardware store.

Eva Hesse, "Washer Table," 1967. Rubber washers, painted wood, and metal, 8-1⁄2 x 49-1⁄2 x 49-1⁄2 inches. Note: Sol LeWitt built the table.

I spent most of the opening standing next to this table, meeting Sol’s widow Carol; talking with Grace Wapner, who had shared a studio with Eva’s husband and was seeing many objects she had been around before in personal settings; and Helen, Eva’s sister.  Helen, a beautiful, spunky woman, in her 70s, gamely told me when I asked if she was also an artist, “Oh, no! I am the math one.  I was an economics major in college.”

It seemed to say lot about Sol and Eva, and about Veronica, that it was a friends and family event.  Carol graciously met generations of Veronica’s friends, and the show, like the artists and the curator, felt warm and scholarly at the same time.

I’ve always loved the category of “colleague-friend”—of people who are both personally and professionally close, where the life of the mind and the heart—and in the case of visual artists, the hand—all overlap. Even more broadly, if you think (as I do) that everyone is an artist and that your life is your greatest work of art, then does everyone face this question of collaboration and influence with everyone we choose to know, or know well?

Few people are immune to the difficulties of making creative work.  I always describe it as the feeling of treading water in open ocean.  You are okay as long as you don’t try to get your bearings and touch bottom, but if you do, you realize you can’t, and panic might set in.

On that note, one of the nicest moments of friendship in the show is a letter Sol wrote to Eva.  Veronica has blown it up and printed its pages in the middle area of the gallery, by the desk, just adjacent to an unassuming “torn paper” drawing Sol made out of a coffee filter:

Sol LeWitt, "R 487," 1975. Torn paper, 12-3⁄8 inches diameter. Signed, dated, and inscribed lower right: "R 487 Sol LeWitt 8/16/75."

The letter from Sol ends on every page with a big drawing that says—without any equivocation or lead-in of Nike’s “Just” or anyone’s “it”:

Sol writes to Eva (and I asterisked the expletives because I don’t know yet how we roll at Art21, and wanted to defer to anyone’s art-loving, language-protecting grandfather-like-mine):

Learn to say “F*ck you” to the world once in a while.  You have every right to.  Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, rumbling, rambling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, b*tching, moaning, groaning, honing boning (sp?), horse-sh*tting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose-sticking, *ss-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long-waiting, small-stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop and just. . . . —> DO <—” (the “DO” is written as the drawing above; my attempt to recall it in type).

As a side note, just typing all that out, I realize Sol is doing with language what he did with lines and cubes—exploring all the combinations and permutations, which is also to say, exploring the relationships between things.  This amazing to me (in my humbled, careful-typing state).  It should come as no surprise Sol LeWitt is a master of the hyphen and that he would be a champion player of whatever that email-forwarding word game is that requires changing one letter to create a new word.  But what the letter also shows is that Sol—for all his analytic wizardry, thoroughness, and focus—was also as warm and generous and encouraging as they come.

“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” wrote Sol of his conceptual art practice.  But the idea itself seems to come about sometimes in the context of friendship—with oneself and other people.

As Sol also to Eva later in the letter, “you don’t have to justify your work, not even to yourself.”  On that note, I attach the entire letter here: Sol LeWitt letter to Eva Hesse, with thanks to Veronica Roberts.

If you’d like to read proper reviews or mentions of the exhibition, here are links to the New York Times,, and The Brooklyn Rail.

And if you plan to see the show, here are the details: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt, curated by Veronica Roberts, Craig F. Starr Gallery, April 12 – May 27, 2011. 5 East 73rd Street, New York, NY 10021. Open Tuesday – Saturday, 11:00am – 5:30pm.