Circles Of Life


On your next Upper West Side jaunt, a tall, narrow wall inside the JCC in Manhattan will pop out at you; its simple design, a series of six concentric circles painted in alternating shades of bright yellow, red and blue, will call out to you from Amsterdam Avenue on even the grayest and gloomiest of days.

The mural, which is installed a light well in the bustling JCC’s lobby, bears the impossibly long title “Wall Drawing #599: Circles 18” (45 cm) wide, from the center of the wall, with alternating white, yellow; white, red; and white, blue bands.” It is the most dramatic part of the JCC’s current exploration of the work of Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, largely because the artist, who died in 2007, did not paint it himself.

“Wall Drawing #599” was installed over the last month and heralds the JCC’s latest exhibit in its Laurie M. Tisch Gallery, “Sol LeWitt: Shaping Ideas,” which opened last week and runs through Nov. 12.

The large wall drawing, which will be up indefinitely, is on a long-term loan from the LeWitt Estate in Connecticut. LeWitt originally conceived it in 1989, and the JCC was responsible for purchasing materials — 397 feet of scaffolding, five different types of tape, a quart of acrylic paint and many gallons of water — with which to create the ink wash that the art workers applied to the walls.

Aspects of “#599” were particularly appealing to the JCC, given the symbolism of its dimensions. It is 36 feet tall and each of its circles is 18 inches wide, the number representing life in numerology. Every circle, a symbol of life, is as important as the others, much like a balanced community. The highly visible location jives with an interest in access to art that is shared by both the JCC and Lewitt.

To install a LeWitt is a unique experience, replete with its own vocabulary. “Conceptual Art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions,” LeWitt wrote. The Conceptual Art movement was based on ideas and words that questioned art’s commodity status. LeWitt’s wall works, which come with written instructions, are prepared by “art workers” in LeWitt lingo, who are credited.

Though “Wall Drawing #599” was painted, it is called a drawing, as all of his works on walls are; his sculptures are referred to as structures. “#599” was made with two layers of ink application: the first was called The Wipe and the second, Boom Boom.

LeWitt loved classical music and his works can be seen in that context; just as a composer’s music can be played by different musicians in various locations, LeWitt’s drawings can be made without him present. The artistic process was more meaningful to him than the outcome. He famously wrote that, “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.”

Three art workers from the LeWitt Estate installed the wall drawing over the course of 27 days, fitting it to the space. It is through LeWitt’s instructions that works such as “#599” can continue to be executed, long after the artist’s death.

This is the only installation of this wall drawing at this time, in accordance with the terms of the loan, though it is one of many LeWitt wall works on public view in New York.

An interactive map through which the public can find other LeWitts on view throughout the city, including the nearby Columbus Circle subway station, is being displayed as part of “Sol LeWitt: Shaping Ideas.” The exhibition is composed of LeWitt drawings, prints, posters and multimedia works dating from the years 1975 through 2005. And it serves as an introduction to the work of an artist JCC officials suspect may not be widely known, as well as an exploration of his Judaism, an often overlooked aspect of his work.

Born in 1928 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Connecticut, LeWitt studied art at Syracuse University, served in the Korean War and then moved to New York City where he met artists such as Dan Flavin, Frank Stella and Robert Mangold.

According to the JCC’s senior director of arts and ideas, Megan Whitman, “LeWitt wasn’t a Jewish artist but an artist who did Jewish works.”

One such project was “Lost Voices,” a site-specific piece at an abandoned synagogue in Germany. The installation was composed of an audio loop of prayers from the High Holy Days and a 15-foot-high brick wall standing before the entrance, blocking entry. The preparatory drawings and original soundtrack are being presented at the JCC.

There is also a poster from an Israel Museum exhibition, “Red, Blue and Yellow Lines.”

Closer to home, LeWitt helped design a synagogue for Temple Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek, his own congregation in Chester, Conn. His plans referred to synagogues in Eastern Europe. The drawings on view here include drafts for the facade and the ark doors, whose vivid Star of David design was later reproduced on a leather yarmulke and sold as a synagogue fundraiser; it quickly became a must-have.

As Anthony Allen of the LeWitt Estate put it, “Sol would have been very pleased to have this work on view for the Jewish community and for the public at large. Though he was “a very, very observant nonbeliever” (as his wife Carol described him), he also whole-heartedly embraced his Jewish faith and cultural heritage, and created works for synagogues and other Jewish institutions.”