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"Sol LeWitt: The Music Collection" opens at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Music library of 3,970 cassette tapes containing approximately 16,300 works by various composers.

By: Richard Klein

RIDGEFIELD, CONN.- Unlike the majority of exhibitions concerning the artist Sol LeWitt (1928–2007), this one does not include his work, but rather the work of others who have either influenced the artist or for whom the artist has felt an affinity. Going one step further, the works presented in this exhibition are not those of visual artists, but rather composers, known for their contributions to the field of music and, in particular, Western music since the Baroque period.

As the title of the exhibition implies, The Music Collection is just that, a view into LeWitt’s amassing of both scores by contemporary composers and an encyclopedic library of recorded music. The collection of recordings, personally transferred by the artist from vinyl and radio onto the medium of cassette tape, represents thirty years of effort (the most recent tape dates from 2002). The cassettes, which lined the walls of a small room in the artist’s Chester, Connecticut, home, have been installed at The Aldrich to mimic their original organization on white wooden shelves. In the center of the space, in a small display case, is the well-worn ring binder that LeWitt used as a logbook for his music library. The consecutive numbers on the spines of the cassettes and their notation in the logbook catalogue 3,970 individual tapes.

LeWitt was a well-known collector of contemporary art, with his collection numbering over 11,000 objects. The collection includes works by LeWitt, together with those acquired by both trades and purchases with other artists, primarily those known personally by LeWitt. Contained within this collection are twenty-six scores written by contemporary composers, including Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Cage, Roland Dahinden, Alvin Lucier, and Walter Hekster. This exhibition presents a handful of these scores, three by Reich, one by Glass, and one “hybrid” score by Cage, all composers particularly relevant to LeWitt’s practice as a visual artist.

Sol LeWitt: The Music Collection is embedded in a semester-long series of exhibitions and related programming at The Aldrich that focuses on the theme of music. During the research and development of this series, one fact kept resurfacing: music was incredibly important to many visual artists, acting as both a conceptual influence and an emotional muse. The challenge is, how does one represent this? The Music Collection addresses the question by revealing one artist’s passionate—and consistent—involvement with music over the course of a career. The photograph of LeWitt’s studio tape deck and amplifier, reproduced below, provides material evidence of this fact: the front of the deck and the volume knob on the amp carries a patina of paint from years of use, while Janet Passehl, the LeWitt Collection curator, supplies eyewitness testimony: “Sol always listened to music while he worked. I would walk into the studio first thing in the morning and the music would be booming, and Sol would turn it down so we could have a conversation. In the afternoon if he didn’t return to the studio, he would retreat to the house to read and more often than not he would listen to music as well, either on speakers or headphones. He once said the only reason he didn’t read poetry was because you can’t read poetry and listen to music at the same time.”

One question that might arise is why cassette tapes? Why did LeWitt take the time and the trouble to transfer so much music—specifically from LP records—into another recording medium? The paint-covered studio sound system offers an answer to this question: If one wants to work and listen to music with the fewest interruptions, vinyl is not an ideal medium. LP records, particularly classical recordings, usually don’t exceed twenty-six minutes per side, while cassettes can contain ninety minutes of continuous music. Further, as evidenced by the controls on the studio deck and amp, one does not want to be handling vinyl with paint-covered hands. On careful inspection, the artist’s fingerprints and other traces from the studio mark the outside surfaces of many of LeWitt’s cassettes, while the tape within remains pristine. LeWitt did start acquiring CDs in the 1990s, but, numbering fewer than one hundred, they make up a minor part of the library.

Others have commented on LeWitt’s serial, conceptually based art and its connection with classical, particularly Baroque music. As art historian Charles W. Haxthausen has written, “Of particular interest [to LeWitt] must have been the model of musical structures based on multiple permutations of a given generative form…The practice of systematically developing complex structures out of the simplest elements occurs not only in the music of Boulez, Glass, and Reich; it is also fundamental to the music of Bach.” But many visual artists have been influenced by classical music with the results being anything but serial and reductive. Clearly, the formal, structural nature of much classical music has greatly informed LeWitt’s practice, yet there is something lurking deeper that might help explain LeWitt’s artistic temperament: the nature of classicism in general.

LeWitt came of age as an artist in the generation immediately following that of the Abstract Expressionists. If one were to visit the studio of an AbEx artist, it is most likely that jazz music would be playing. For instance, an album released as a companion to MoMA’s 1998 Jackson Pollock retrospective contains recordings taken from Pollock’s personal record collection, including those of Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Billie Holiday. It’s not that this generation of modernists had no connection with either the classical tradition or avant-garde developments (Hans Namuth’s film on Pollock had music written by experimental composer Morton Feldman), but jazz, particularly its “hot,” emotionally complex and improvisational nature, was more akin to the expressionist part of Abstract Expressionism. Interestingly, Mark Rothko, perhaps the most reductive and meditative artist connected with the AbEx movement, not only listened primarily to classical music (Mozart was his favorite composer), but also played both the mandolin and piano as a young man.

In traditional art criticism, a case was made for a spectrum of expression, with “classicism” on one end, and “romanticism” on the other. Classicism was not so much based on a style inherited from ancient Greece and Rome, but rather a specific attention to form with the general effect of regularity, simplicity, balance, proportion, and most importantly, controlled emotion. This list of classicism’s attributes could very well serve as not only a description of LeWitt’s art, but of minimalism in general, a style with which LeWitt is intimately connected. To greatly simplify recent artistic history, LeWitt and other members of the minimal generation, including Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd, were stylistically aligned, both formally and emotionally, with the tradition of classicism.

Looking at LeWitt’s collection of recorded music, there are only several dozen examples of music that stray outside the lineage of the Western classical tradition. Jazz, the defining musical form of the 1950s, is represented by a handful of recordings, most notably by Ornette Coleman, Charlie Mingus, and Sarah Vaughan. The vast bulk of LeWitt’s recordings are by German and Austrian composers, including (in order of popularity) Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Hayden, Schubert, Handel, and Brahms. Bach’s fugues were particularly important, with the tape collection including thirty-seven separate recordings from the composer’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues, generally considered the apogee of the fugue form. As LeWitt’s work was primarily done in a serial nature, with the artist working out all the permutations from a set of predetermined limitations, Bach, and particularly The Well-Tempered Clavier, provided him with an aural equivalent of the technique of writing a related series of works, with each cast in one of the twenty-four major and minor keys of the scale. “The most important of Bach’s works for him were the fugues, because they were a serial system,” comments Carol LeWitt. “He always said he learned everything he knew about making art from reading Bach LP jackets, and from Dan Flavin.” Flavin, who also began working in a reductive, serial manner in the early 1960s, met and became a close friend of LeWitt when both artists were employed as guards at The Museum of Modern Art.

LeWitt is credited with not only being a central figure in the movement, but also codifying 1960s conceptualism. As the artist stated in Artforum magazine in 1967, “In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes art.” This approach was utilized by a diverse range of visual artists in the 1960s, including Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, Yoko Ono, and Robert Barry, and it mirrored similar thinking in the world of experimental music. In fact, even though conceptualism can be traced back to Marcel Duchamp, the type of idea-based art that was being formulated by LeWitt shared more of a lineage with the work of composer John Cage, particularly his work from the 1950s and early 1960s that is characterized by instructions to performers without reference to what musical instruments should be used or what sounds should result. The written, instructional score for 0’ 0”, a classic Cage piece from 1962, resembles the instructions for the realization one of LeWitt’s wall drawings of the late 1960s: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification, perform a disciplined action.”

It should come as no surprise that LeWitt gravitated to the new forms of music that were evolving in parallel with conceptual art, as many of the major composers of the period were his contemporaries in the relatively small New York art world of the 1960s and early 1970s. The scores included in this exhibition were all written by composers he knew personally, although Cage, being a generation older, was not in LeWitt’s immediate social milieu. Cage’s influence on other musicians is manifest in the early scores of both Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The Reich score Slow Motion Sound (1967) is not based on traditional musical notation (or notation of any kind), but rather in a conceptual statement open to broad interpretation by the performer: “Very gradually slow down a recorded sound to many times its original length without changing its frequency or spectrum at all.” The commonalities between visual artists and musicians working in a conceptual mode during this period had the effect of frequently erasing or blurring the inherent differences between mediums. For example, the Cage work in this exhibition, Score for Changes and Disappearances 18 (1972–82), is really a set of instructions for creating a suite of prints via chance operations, not a score that results in any aural phenomenon, a distinction that Cage considered irrelevant. The accompanying work, Maps for Changes and Disappearances 18, presents the drawings created by following one of these series of operations, which, in an homage to Duchamp, involved dropping a series of short sections of string in order to create linear elements.

LeWitt’s interest in music clearly went beyond mere listening. The growing success of his career in the late 1960s and early 1970s allowed him to purchase scores directly from musicians in order to support their efforts in a world that wasn’t as highly commodified as that of visual art. Included in this exhibition is an early version of Steve Reich’s score for Drumming (1970), a work that has been categorized as “minimalism’s first masterpiece.” Reich lacked the funds for the first performance of the piece, and LeWitt, in a now legendary gesture (at least in the world of percussionists), bought several of Reich’s scores, allowing him to purchase the necessary, but expensive, glockenspiels.

I would like to thank Carol and Sofia LeWitt for generously allowing the Museum to move Sol’s tape collection to its temporary home in Ridgefield. Special appreciation goes to Janet Passehl, curator of the LeWitt Collection, for her detailed help in every aspect of the organization of this exhibition. The Museum is grateful to Farrow & Ball, Westport, for supplying the paint that allowed us to accurately recreate the ambiance of Sol’s music room.

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