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Sol LeWitt’s minimalist installations for synagogues and Jewish institutions have given the late conceptual artist an afterlife he’d approve of

Robin Cembalest
February 01, 2012
The ark of Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Ct., designed by Sol LeWitt with architect Stephen Lloyd.(Lon Seidman)
The ark of Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Ct., designed by Sol LeWitt with architect Stephen Lloyd.(Lon Seidman)

“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” Sol LeWitt wrote in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” the genre-defining manifesto he published in Artforum in 1967.

In practice, the machine wasn’t always up to the task. That was the case when Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek, the Connecticut synagogue that LeWitt co-designed with architect Stephen Lloyd in 2001, tried repeatedly to translate the radiant, geometric design the artist made for the ark doors into the convex form of a yarmulke. It was only last year that a Boro Park firm, A1 skullcap, finally did the trick, using sophisticated digital printing technology to render LeWitt’s pulsating Star of David on a four-panel leather kippah. The synagogue ordered 100, offering them for $36 in a 10th-anniversary fundraising initiative.

The president of the synagogue, Bruce Josephy, hadn’t been sure they’d sell, but he realized he had a hit on his hands over the High Holidays, as a constellation of LeWitt stars materialized in the sanctuary. The luscious-hued kippot appealed to an audience beyond the synagogue, too. Art-world machers like Whitney Museum Director Adam Weinberg, gallerist James Cohan, and Pace Prints President Dick Solomon acquired them. Bar mitzvah planners ordered enough for whole families. Others bought extras to present to Jews in places like the Czech Republic and Cuba. The synagogue approved a second edition of 100, then a third, and a fourth, each distinguished by the color of its suede lining and its trim. At the Jewish Museum’s design shop, which started selling the yarmulkes last fall, shoppers have been snapping up the elegant limited edition by the famed conceptual master. Stunning, symbolic, and one-size-fits-all (men, at least), the LeWitt Yarmulke is a wearable work of art, a bargain, and a mitzvah.

LeWitt, who died at 78 in 2007, never saw the yarmulke. But the circumstances of its creation, and its accessible price, are entirely in keeping with the sensibility of the artist, a child of Russian immigrants who was a pivotal figure in the post-Ab-Ex avant-garde. As he explained in his Artforum piece—summoning, in his haimische way, baseball and miniskirts to make his case—the artist was fixated on concept, rather than execution. His “multiple modular method” involved a basic vocabulary of forms, whose iterations he dictated to future fabricators via precise sets of written instructions. This scenario, “usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman,” as LeWitt put it, might seem commonplace in this era of Damien Hirst spot paintings, but it was pretty radical at the time.

These days, LeWitt’s work is continuously re-created around the globe, including a spectacular wall-drawing retrospective that’s at MASS MoCA for a 25-year run, and, currently, two public-art pieces in New York City. On the Lafayette St. wall of a hotel, the Mondrian SoHo, named after another famous modernist, is a grid of blow-ups of LeWitt’s 1979 snapshots of the Lower East Side, near his Hester St. studio. And on the roof of Pace Gallery’s 25th St. venue, visible from the High Line elevated park, is a large concrete structure, Horizontal Progression, from 1991. (The gallery’s 57th St. space has a concurrent show, through Feb. 11, while Pace Prints is featuring Sol LeWitt: Editions.)

LeWitt also liked designing utilitarian objects, including scarves, a kimono, and dishes for the Ceramica line of majolica created by his wife Carol. But architecture wasn’t part of his repertoire until his Connecticut congregation decided to merge with another local one in a brand new building in Chester. The artist, “a very, very observant nonbeliever,” as Carol puts it, got involved in the planning, mostly because he worried about the prospect of “strip-mall synagogue architecture.” So, partnering with Lloyd, he created the airy, wood-beamed structure, modeled on the synagogues of Poland that had also inspired Louis Kahn’s Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, N.Y. LeWitt also studied congregational churches, says Carol, as well as the mishkan, or tabernacle, that the Lord describes to Moses in elaborate detail in Exodus. LeWitt had to know how much those directives—“two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof”—echo the precise instructions he gave for his own works.

The six-pointed star on the ark, which dramatically splits to the reveal the Torah inside, is a common motif in LeWitt’s work—which, of course, takes on a specific reading in this particular setting. It’s just one example of how LeWitt infused his minimalist geometry with Jewish meaning, when the context called for it. His wall drawing “Consequence,” a series of stark gray rectangles in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, evokes loss and absence. His 1987 “Black Form Dedicated to the Missing Jews,” a cinder-block structure that was too ominous for Münster, Germany, was destroyed after public outcry (and later reconstructed in Hamburg). In 2005, invited to create a piece in the Stommeln Synagogue in Pulheim, Germany, where members had perished in the Holocaust, LeWitt didn’t make any shape at all—rather, he blocked off access to the building with a brick wall. From the other side came a recording of the liturgy on the High Holidays, a conceptual gesture of a different sort. It was a rare use of irony in a long career.

In Chester, meanwhile, the third edition of yarmulkes nearly sold out. So far, synagogue leaders have declined requests from other synagogues to sell the kippot for their own fundraising purposes. But they do feel that to best honor LeWitt’s legacy, those who want a LeWitt yarmulke should have one. That means authorizing a fourth printing—at the very least, Josephy says.

Josephy believes the artist, who wanted his work to be seen by as many people as possible, “would have loved the yarmulkes and would have wanted all the demand to be met.” So, given sustained interest—and the limited color combinations for the lining and the trim—“yes, there will be future editions.”

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor ofARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

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