On Italian Walls

Detail of Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #1231: Concentric Arches (Scribble), 2007, black pencil, approx. 8 by 7 feet overall. All photos this article, unless otherwise noted, Anthony Sansotta. All works at the LeWitt residence, Praiano, Italy.


Although Sol LeWitt never learned to speak Italian because of poor hearing, he could read it and write it. According to his widow, Carol, he studied the conjugation of verbs intensely to avoid using an improper formulation. His ties to Italy could not have been stronger. His first Italian journey was to Naples, in 1950, and, beginning in the early ’70s, he traveled the country extensively, familiarizing himself with its historic art and architecture, and meeting artists, collectors and owners of galleries showing contemporary art. His wall drawings are a continuation of the venerable Italian wall-painting tradition. 

A particular blend of his sensibility and the Italian context can be found just over 40 miles south of Naples, along the rugged Amalfi coast, in the small town of Praiano, a near-pueblo of startlingly white dwellings overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. The one that belongs to Carol LeWitt dates from the 1600s, when it was a farmhouse on a vast tract of land. Over the centuries, the house sheltered animals in its lower level and human inhabitants above.

It changed with time from a partly agricultural domicile to a purely domestic one and  was thoroughly renovated in the 1830s.

Last summer, Carol, who inherited the house from her Italian grandmother in 1980, invited my wife, Mickey, and me to spend a few weeks there. Though she would not be able to join us, Carol wanted us to see Sol’s wall drawings. The house is reached by driving along a road marked by dramatic hairpin turns. Off one of those turns is a steep ramp that must be ascended on foot. At the top is a narrow lane, its high, craggy stone walls festooned with intense violet bougainvillea. Along the lane are black-painted iron gates above houses of vaguely Moorish, undulant contours. Steep stairs lead down to their front doors.

Vincenzo Galano greeted us at the bottom of the ramp upon our arrival. An amiable, attentive man in his mid-50s, Vincenzo looks after Carol’s house during her absences. He is also segretario comunale, the town’s manager. Carol describes the Galanos as her adopted Italian family. Vincenzo led the way along the lane and down 50 daunting steps. When he opened the door, we were enthralled: three of Sol’s wall drawings were visible from the entrance. The first was a large, dazzling circle of multicolored bands; the second, to the left of the door, a black and white drawing of nesting tubular arches; the third an atmospheric square floating over a fireplace. Further exploration would reveal two more wall works: a finely drawn network of arcs, circles and grids in a curved alcove in the master bedroom, and four ovoid cartouchelike shapes featuring bands of color, where the four walls meet the vaulted ceiling of the second bedroom.

Carol LeWitt was born Carol Androccio, in Newark, N.J. She met Sol in 1975, just after he bought a house in Spoleto, a town about 80 miles north of Rome; they first went to Italy together the next year, stopping in Praiano, where Carol’s grandmother, Letizia Fusco, was living at the time. Upon being introduced to Sol, she asked him directly, “What does your father do?” Sol and Carol moved to Spoleto in 1980 and married in 1982. “I think he was looking for an Italian girl with a driver’s license. He liked being taken care of,” Carol told me with a laugh.

My wife and I first visited them in Spoleto, site of the well-known annual festival of music, theater and art. The house there is a small, many-windowed tower on a hillside. Sol worked in his studio while Carol started a wine bar and shop in the town below, selling to the locals and the festival’s many visitors. She also embarked on a business exporting to America the traditional richly ornamented ceramic ware of that region. The LeWitts’ connections to Italy deepened.

Spoleto became Sol’s base for frequent expeditions to museums, churches, convents and other sites of artistic significance. He saw Filippo Lippi’s Life of the Virgin frescoes in Spoleto’s cathedral; in Florence, Masaccio’s Old and New Testament scenes in the Brancacci chapel, Fra Angelico’s Annunciationin the convent of San Marco and Benozzo Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi in the Medici palace. In Assisi, he saw Giotto’s St. Francis cycle and in Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel his fresco cycles. He saw Piero della Francesca’s incomparable Legend of the True Cross in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo. Along the Amalfi coast, not far from Praiano, are the ruins of Pompeii, where wall paintings decorated the vacation houses of the Roman elite. Though damaged during the eruption of Vesuvius, some of the paintings survive in situ, while others are preserved in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.

Even the most illusionistic of the wall paintings LeWitt encountered in his Italian travels are strongly formal in composition and execution: they acknowledge the flatness of the wall, a quality that Sol greatly admired. That long tradition of flatness found an echo in his art. He spent little time studying those masterworks but seemed to mentally photograph them, according to Carol. Whether looking at a painting, a sculpture or a facade, he appeared to speed by without analyzing it, but he would later discuss in considerable detail a fresco or architectural element they had seen. He was, she said, an “impatient tourist,” but one who remembered everything. A country forever revisiting its history, Italy has always afforded artists opportunities to absorb that past. One way, Sol’s way, was to make new use of the walls of old buildings, of which there was no shortage.

Carol’s grandmother had inherited the Praiano house from her grandmother in the 1920s. As Carol explains it, southern Italy is a matriarchal culture, not only with respect to how families are run but also in matters of property. After Letizia’s death, the house stood empty, in need of serious repair. The property encompasses two buildings. One now belongs to Carol, the other to a cousin, whose holdings also include considerable farmland nearby. Once the house was officially Carol’s, the LeWitts considered how to make it habitable for themselves and their daughters, Sofia and Eva (born in Spoleto in 1983 and ’85, respectively). It underwent major remodeling, a difficult project involving occasional legal issues and work stoppages. The conversion was designed and overseen by Sol. He drew the plans on the site. The renovation scheme included moving interior walls, converting three levels to two and employing wide arches to connect rooms. Sol went to the house only once after the renovation was completed, in February of 2004. It was then that he decided which drawings would be made for its pristine white walls.
My first encounters with his Italian wall drawings were in the homes of some of his early patrons. Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo and his wife, Giovanna, were pioneer collectors of American art of the 1950s and ’60s who bought numerous works by Rothko, Rauschenberg, Judd, Flavin and Serra. LeWitt’s wall drawings filled the Panzas’ second-floor apartment in their large villa near Varese, northwest of Milan. Like Panza’s, Giuliano Gori’s lifestyle is baronial, but more countrified. For his home in a small town not far from Florence, Gori has commissioned Morris, Abakanowicz, Aycock, Oppenheim, Buren and others to make sculptures for varied outdoor sites, and he has filled his estate’s buildings with contemporary art. A large, two-level barn is now a capacious gallery of Minimalist art. There are ambitiously scaled Richard Long stone pieces on the floor and LeWitt drawings from the 1980s on the walls.

Sol’s wall drawings, at such disparate sites as the Naples subway, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome, il Museo Civico d’Arte Moderna in Spoleto and the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, added to his European renown. Several galleries—l’Attico in Rome, Franco Tosselli in Milan and Marilena Bonomo in Bari—found local collectors for his drawings on paper, prints and three-dimensional cubelike constructions in metal. His wall pieces, both temporary and permanent installations, were executed with punctilious care. Until the early 1980s, he made them, often with the help of assistants. After that, the assistants took over, following his concise directions, but his sensibility permeates the drawings. There is nothing anonymous or impersonal about them.

Sol led a double life as an artist in that he produced two sizable bodies of work: wall drawings and sculptures (which he called structures). Seemingly, these had little to do with one another, but in fact they derived from similar theories of creating form. Sol, especially at the start of his career, was much taken with systems, all of his own devising. Followed through, their step-by-step instructions led to forms that virtually generated themselves. Such was the bias against expressionism that he held along with fellow artists such as Judd, Flavin and Andre. The artist’s hand should not be evident. Willingly or not, Sol became the youthful dean, if not the founder, of Conceptual art. Surely, however, he was the most unpredictable member of that movement. He was never a prisoner of the systems he developed but, like a Houdini, always managed a graceful escape as he moved from one schema to another.

The first wall drawing, made in 1968 for an exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, consisted of two squares divided into quadrants, each further divided into four parts. In keeping with the antiestablishment ethos of the time when he got his start, such work was implicitly anticommercial. Who in his right mind would buy such a thing? History, of course, has proved that many would. The piece bore the cryptic title Drawing series II-14 (A+B). Essentially this was an enlarged version of the black and white line drawings Sol had been making on paper. His titles were as much a form of record-keeping as descriptions of processes. So detailed would some become that they verged on the unwieldy. Poetry was not the objective; factual description was what he had in mind.

Now and then the forms of his three-dimensional pieces coincided with what he put on the wall. The most salient examples are the open-and-closed cube pieces in white-painted metal he began making in the 1970s. Their equivalents were the isometric drawings of cubes, trapezoids and parallelograms in washes of colored india ink, made in the 1980s. Initially, in the mid-’70s, his geometry had been flat and was realized in chalk (and then crayon). No matter how different the drawings—arcs, circles, nontouching lines, stars, bands of color—seemed from his three-dimensional production, the two genres played off each other.

Sol’s wall-drawing process posited an idea fairly revolutionary at the time: to have other hands execute his concepts. While there had been no lack of assistance in the studios of many contemporary painters and sculptors, his approach was unprecedented, consisting as it did of engaging fellow artists and students, as well as recruits with drafting experience, who were capable of following directions to the utmost detail. This required the ability to draw lines precisely as specified and to produce the uniform surface each idea required, and, not incidentally, an understanding of the reasoning behind the process.

It fell to Anthony Sansotta, a New Yorker and a master of Sol’s various processes, to help recruit the teams. In Europe, the first helpers were from Amsterdam, where they worked on an exhibition of Sol’s walls at the Stedelijk Museum in 1984. As Anthony puts it, “We used available local assistants with on-the-job-site training. Some did better than others and were retained.” The LeWitt brigade became more Italian as his commissions in Italy grew frequent. At this writing, Anthony and a crew have just completed work on the vast exhibition of Sol’s walls at Mass MoCA.

A career that began with austere, near-academic permutations of linear and curvilinear patterns in black and white eventually led to flat, geometric shapes in wide bands of high-intensity hues. LeWitt’s art, for all its underlying rigor, took on a sensuousness in proportion to its richer palette. The evolution of the wall drawings was dramatic: from meticulously applied parallel lines so close together that they read as netting to great sweeping curves in vibrant hues. After 2004, illusionistic volume rather than color was the dominant characteristic. The wall drawings assumed sculptural qualities, coming back to black and white in a new way with three-dimensional-looking forms rendered in a technique he called “scribble drawing.” Their monumental cylindrical shapes look like giant rollers. Some are floor-to-ceiling; others are large, white-bordered rectangles.

It was from that extensive, diverse late vocabulary that Sol chose several motifs for the Praiano house, each foreshadowed by countless variations on paper. In mid-February 2007, Anthony arrived in Praiano to produce the drawings Sol wanted there. About a month before Anthony left for Praiano, Sol had phoned me to ask if our apartment had a spare wall for him. He had an idea for a drawing and needed a fairly good-sized space. There was a diagonal wall that might work, I told him. He knew our apartment well, for in 1994 he had sent another artist-assistant, Sachiko Cho, to make a drawing there consisting of three large squares, red, yellow and blue. For the new drawing, Anthony brought along a rough sketch on the back of a postcard Sol had sent him. He had collaborated with Sol for so long that he didn’t need anything more detailed than that. Sol’s plan for our wall was quite a departure from his previous scribble drawings in that it was a single bent cylindrical shape, an arch that looked like a portal. Its rounded form was achieved by varying the pressure and density of the pencil lines. The arch’s darkest areas were the inner and outer edges. A new addition to the LeWitt iconography, this motif would be carried a step further in Praiano by Anthony and his crew. He and three artists from Brescia, Bologna and Naples made all the drawings, living in the house until they completed the project two months later.

The medallionlike drawing there (Wall Drawing #1232: A Circle with Color Arcs in Four Directions), roughly 8 feet high, occupies a shallow setback on the dining room wall. The first view of it is through an archway between the entry hall and dining room. Adorning the top of the archway, following its curve, is a work by the Italian artist Franco Dellerba that consists of 10 highly glazed ceramic cubes, which at first glance might seem to be covering the ends of structural beams. They are in shimmering colors, from silvery white to vibrant yellow to deep red. The big circle, which the archway frames, is outlined in black, as are the circle’s horizontal-vertical axes. Each quadrant contains curved bands of color, in shades of yellow, green, blue and pink verging on red. LeWitt’s fractured, color-filled circle suggests a deconstructed Kandinsky or Delaunay.

The black and white arch drawing, titled Wall Drawing #1231: Concentric Arches (Scribble), could not be more different in form and feeling from the high-intensity circle. It is somber and deeply expressive, reaching well beyond geometry to verge on the symbolic. Composed of meticulously applied linear skeins begun with the light gray of a hard pencil followed by darker grays from softer pencils, the drawing’s powerful shapes and stark chiaroscuro are arresting. The effect is of deep, crowded space. For all Sol’s dismissal of expressionistic method, these nested arches are moody and mysterious.

The third drawing visible from the entrance is the 3-foot-square Wall Drawing #10A: A square with lines in four directions and four colors superimposed over the mantel, using a motif from 1969-71. It is veil-like, both substantive and almost dematerialized. The subject, in fact, could well be perception. What seems a pale gray shape from a distance is, on closer examination, a pulsating field of intersecting lines, graphite verticals, yellow horizontals and red and blue diagonals.

Like the atmospheric mantel square, the alcove drawing in the master bedroom, titled Wall Drawing #1234: Circles, Grid and Arcs from two adjacent corners (yellow circles, black grid, blue arcs from the bottom left, red arcs from the bottom right), is a teeming network of crisscrossing lines. And like its smaller counterpart, the composition is pale—so much so that it is barely visible in low light. The design arose in 1972-73. The differences between the mantel drawing and the one in the master bedroom are subtle. In the latter, the grid cells are larger, and the arcs and circles crossing them create a delicate tracery.

The second bedroom, which Anthony refers to as Sofia and Eva’s, contains a quartet of color drawings in stucco-formed ovoids, Wall Drawing #1233: Four ovals, each with color bands in a different direction. One has horizontal bands, another has vertical ones, and two have diagonals running in different directions. The palette is muted tones of blue, red, yellow and white alternating with stripes of light gray. These incidents of banded color punctuate the otherwise all-white space with verve.

Though Carol is American-born, her respected grandmother assured her a ready acceptance in Praiano. People have long memories there, she told me, and family ties are everything. Not only did the townspeople regard Carol as one of their own, they felt the same way about her not-especially-communicative husband. Sol, whose reserve was well known to his peers, was something of an enigma in Praiano. “I think he never felt at home there,” Anthony told me. “Unlike Spoleto, it was difficult geographically, the house separated from the town by steps and hills. Sol couldn’t just walk to the center of town and pick up a newspaper.” For those in Praiano with knowledge of his work, Sol became a legendary if somewhat remote figure.
A few days after we arrived, Vincenzo reflected on his family’s friendship with Sol and Carol. On the way back from a drive to the medieval town of Ravello, he spoke movingly about the time the wall drawings were being made. The Galano family was aware that Sol had coped with cancer for several years and had little time left. It was also hard going for Anthony and his crew, knowing that Sol would never see the results of their labor. There were a few compensations, Anthony recalled. After one series of storms, the sky was full of rainbows, some so close it seemed you might walk on them. During those few months in Praiano, Anthony was in frequent phone contact with Sol and Carol in New York, keeping them informed about how things were going. Sol died at New York Presbyterian Hospital on Apr. 8, 2007, a day after the drawings were finished.

We were soon familiar with the rainstorms Anthony talked about. One hot and muggy evening, Mickey and I were waiting to be picked up by Vincenzo’s son at the foot of the ramp when the skies suddenly darkened, and it began to rain torrentially. We took refuge along with others caught in the downpour in the local grocery store, known as “Tutto per Tutti.” This was no calm, dry respite, as I was seized by anxiety about what the driving rain might do to the drawings in the house. Had I left the tall doors to the balcony open? What if the fierce rain reached the drawings?
As soon as the rain began, the store’s proprietor and a couple of young men muscled some heavy glass doors into place. So violent was the storm that the ramp turned into a waterfall. All the more reason, I thought, to make my way up to the house. But every time I tried to open the door, someone gently removed my hand from the handle. Instead, we were parked on a couple of vegetable crates.

Mickey and I remained for at least a half hour, during which my dire imaginings increased. The curator in me was having fits, and no amount of shoulder patting or reassurances in fragmentary English from our fellow maroonees made any difference. I fantasized about a hurricane moving through the house and washing away drawing after drawing. Someone finally phoned Vincenzo to tell him there was a madman in the store, and could he come by and do something? After what seemed an eternity, a rain-soaked Vincenzo appeared carrying an umbrella. The house was fine, he assured me, just a little water on the floor that he had wiped up. And no rain had come anywhere near the drawings.
The rain stopped, the sun came out, my anxiety vanished. Sol’s drawings were safe.

Plans call for the house in Praiano to be turned over to the LeWitt Foundation, which will provide for public access.

“Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective” is on view at Mass MoCA, North Adams, Mass. through 2036. “The ABCDs of Sol LeWitt” is at the Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Mass., through May 17.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art is presenting “Focus: Sol LeWitt” through June 29.

Martin Friedman, director emeritus of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, has lived and worked in New York since 1990. His most recent book is Close Reading: Chuck Close and the Artist Portrait (Abrams, 2005).