How an Australian Aboriginal artist ‘surprised’ an American art giant | Art


He was one of the pioneers of 20th century modern American art; she was the Anmatyerre artist who brought Australian desert painting to the world stage.

Sol LeWitt and Emily Kame Kngwarreye never met, but one had a profound effect on the other’s work and led to one of the largest collections of Utopia art outside Australia. LeWitt became a huge fan of Kngwarreye and the distinct style produced by Australian Aboriginal artists working in Utopia in the Northern Territory.

The link between the two artists was prominent Australian art collector and philanthropist John Kaldor, who knew LeWitt personally for five decades. In 2008, Kaldor donated 260 works to the Art Gallery of NSW, valued at the time at $35 million. Among them were dozens of paintings and drawings by LeWitt, known as the father of conceptual art before his death in 2007.

On Saturday, the AGNSW, in collaboration with Kaldor Public Art Projects, opens the exhibition Sol LeWitt: affinities and resonances, a project that will see the American artist’s large-scale work, Wall drawing #955: loopy doopy (red and purple), displayed in the gallery’s imposing central courtyard. Opposite, works by two women who greatly influenced him: Kngwarreye and fellow artist Utopia Gloria Tamerre Petyarre.

Untitled by Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1995). Photograph: Estate of Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Sol LeWitt’s career

In a 1967 essay, Sol LeWitt wrote, “The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product.

Sol LeWitt, photographed in 1978.
“He was a changed person”… Sol LeWitt photographed in 1978. Photography: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

It was a concise definition of what was to become the conceptual art movement.

LeWitt began to hire artists, usually young, who could reproduce his works; for him, permanence lies not in the physical iteration of the idea, but in the idea itself. He was aware that the only way many of his works could survive into the 21st century was through artisans who could continue to paint his works for him.

Gabriel Hurier and Andrew Colbert are part of the second generation of these artists, and were personally trained by LeWitt in his methods. In early July, the duo arrived in Australia to begin work on the AGNSW exhibit, recreating loopy doopy according to strict written instructions left by LeWitt.

“The colors are very specific and also the number of coats that should be applied, how many undercoats the wall should have to prepare before starting, and how many times the wall should be rendered to make it absolutely smooth”, Nicholas Chambers , AGNSW’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary International Art, said. “There are very, very strict instructions on how to do it so that it sticks to the original work.”

Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawing #955, Loopy Doopy (Red and Purple)', first drawn here in 2000 by Paolo Arao, Nicole Awai, Hidemi Nomura, Jean Shin, Frankie Woodruff at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing No. 955 Loopy Doopy (Red and Purple), first drawn here in 2000 by Paolo Arao, Nicole Awai, Hidemi Nomura, Jean Shin, Frankie Woodruff at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph: Estate of Sol LeWitt

Kaldor met LeWitt when he saw the artist’s first wall drawing in a New York gallery in 1968. His first impression of the artist, then in his 40s, was that he was alone and slightly repressed, a state apparently reflected in his strict geometric art style. . But after he married his vivacious second wife, artist Carol Androccio, in 1982 and had children with her, LeWitt’s personality and his work became more outgoing, spontaneous and cheerful.

Kaldor recalls meeting him again during a visit to Australia in 1998. “He went from very intense, very intellectual, to calm, very happy, comfortable socializing, going out to dinner and loving Australian wine “, he says. “He was a changed person, he completely changed his style and it was Carol who changed him.”

“I feel a great affinity for Kngwarreye”

2001 work by Sol LeWitt Irregular Grid.
2001 work by Sol LeWitt Irregular Grid. Photograph: Estate of Sol LeWitt

LeWitt first encountered Kngwarreye’s art at the Venice Biennale in 1997, a year after his death at the age of 86. But it was on this trip to Australia the following year that LeWitt really fell in love with her work, during an exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

“He was amazed at [Kngwarreye’s paintings] and immediately asked where he could buy some,” says Kaldor. LeWitt was a prolific collector of other people’s art throughout his life and often traded his own work with promising but unknown young artists in order to support them.

“He was one of the most generous artists I’ve ever met,” says Kaldor.

Kngwarreye, born in Utopia in 1910, did not start painting until late in her life. Nevertheless, she was prolific: it is estimated that she produced more than 3,000 paintings during her eight-year career, averaging one painting a day.

Kaldor began collecting art by Kngwarreye and other Central Desert artists on behalf of LeWitt in the late 1990s. The art would be shipped to LeWitt’s studio in Hartford, Connecticut, and the artist would send his own works back. This would continue for about 15 years, until LeWitt’s death in 2007. Most of the works he had sent in exchange for Utopia art became part of AGNSW’s Kaldor collection.

Sol LeWitt's Tangled Groups (2002).
Sol LeWitt’s Tangled Groups (2002). Photograph: Estate of Sol LeWitt

In a fax sent to Kaldor, LeWitt described the inspiration he found in Kngwarreye’s art. “I feel a great affinity for [Kngwarreye’s] work and learned a lot from his work,” he wrote.

This “great affinity” fueled a series of works known as Tangled Band Drawings. “LeWitt obviously started thinking very deeply about Kngwarreye,” Chambers says. “We’re starting to see these really interesting affinities in one of LeWitt’s later bodies of work and Kngwarreye’s works. There’s some really interesting visual dialogue going on there.


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