J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Art at Film Forum: Sol Lewitt

They might not know his name, but any New Yorker who has come through the Columbus Circle subway station has seen his work. Lewitt believed in making art accessible for everyone, yet his brand of conceptualism was hardly the stuff of mainstream popularity. Nonetheless, Lewitt became one of the most influential and collectible artists of the conceptual/minimalist era, while staying faithful to his own vision. Chris Teerink surveys the artist’s work in Sol Lewitt (an appropriately minimal title, trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Lewitt was an artist, not a celebrity or a self-styled public intellectual. There is not a lot of footage of Lewitt discussing his work or nearly anything else, so the rare 1974 audio interview heard throughout the film constitutes quite a find. Through discussions with Lewitt’s curators, colleagues, and former assistants, Teerink paints a rather oblique portrait of a “difficult” but loyal person. Tellingly, his assistant are still probably his best PR reps, explaining how Lewitt often gave them pieces, as well as collecting their own work.

Indeed, Lewitt is clearly the sort of artist who required a small army to install his large-scale wall drawings. Lucky museums mounting his work often just received a detailed set of Ikea-like instructions. Teerink’s talking heads readily admit Lewitt’s plans did not always pan out, but when they do, they are quite striking.

This is a quiet film, but it vividly captures the unique sense of space created by each Lewitt project. Teerink also shows the arduous process of installing #801: Spiral, provoking sympathy for the exasperated staff at work in Maastricht’s Bonnefantenmuseum.

Considering the extent to which Lewitt’s work has been embraced by European museums (including several like the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague, which might not be on the prime tourist path), Teerink’s film serves as handy and economical tour of some of his most striking installations. Teerink has a sharp eye for what will look good on-screen and he presents everything in a flattering light (with the help of co-cinematographer Jacques Laureys). Too cerebral to be accused of hagiography, Teerink’s Sol Lewitt is recommended for connoisseurs of conceptualism and site-specific public art when it opens this Wednesday (5/7) as part of a double feature with Llyn Foulkes One Man Band (separate admissions) at Film Forum.

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