Only fifty years have passed since Artforum published ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, Sol LeWitt’s poetic manifesto. A refined retrospective organized by Fondazione Carriero in Milan proves that he was right. In visual arts ideas are still stronger than objects. Moreover, ‘if word are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature‘ (Sol Lewitt, Sentences on Conceptual Art, Art-Language, 1969). The most persistent sensation we felt while visiting ‘Between the lines’ at Casa Parravicini is in fact that of a fresh, immortal, perhaps spiritual purity.

As the Russian-born artist wrote in the above mentioned article: ‘In conceptual art the idea or 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‘ (Artforum, vol. 5, no. 10, Summer 1967). Nowadays we would call this artist a programmer, thus someone who is in charge of writing the code of his own work. He shouldn’t be also its ‘executor’, for ‘When an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art‘ states LeWitt’s penultimate ‘Sentence’.

Curated by Francesco Stocchi and architect Rem Koolhaas, who collaborated with the Estate of Sol LeWitt, the exhibition presents 7 wall drawings and 15 sculptures, including three rarely-seen pieces from 1965 such as Open cube/Corner piece, Modular wall structure and Modular wall piece with cube. It also includes a famous series of photographs the artist titled Autobiography and published in 1980 as book of images. This latter provides a sort of map of the artist’ working environment and elevates the objects around him to serial icons of his own poetic. Tools, pieces of furniture, books, long playing discs, food, clockworks: the same objects he ‘denied’ with his purely geometric ‘code’ today are the only reliable evidences of the passing of time. The main consequence of detaching the artist from the objecthood, namely the consequence of giving instructions instead of producing solid forms, is the eternal regeneration of the work of art. But it is a mere illusion, and it seems the intuitive Sol LoWitt knew it since the beginning.

The twilight of his artwork’s eternal youth lies in Sol’s last ‘Paragraph’. After he wrote the full code of conceptual art he realized that geometry and, more in general, information, are produced by the same human individuals who in some cases are also good at painting or casting bronze. ‘These paragraphs are not intended as categorical imperatives but the ideas stated are as close as possible to my thinking at this time. These ideas are the result of my work as an artist and are subject to change as my experience changes. […] I do not advocate a conceptual art for all artists. I have found that it has worked well for me while other ways have not. It is one way of making art: other ways suit other artists‘.

That is the key stone of Sol LeWitt’s extraordinary liquid body of two-dimensional wall drawings he started to ‘write’ in 1968 and also the main driver of the artist’s surprising interest in old masters such as Filippo Lippi, Masaccio, Beato Angelico and Giotto. And indeed Sol LeWitt was also an art collector, initially focused on conceptual art but then open to all artistic positions of its time. With the help of his wife, Carol Androccio, he gathered nearly 9,000 works of art by 750 artists, starting from the 1960 and meaningfully including many pieces (non-iconic objects!) from the Arte Povera movement.

Sol LeWitt passed away on 8th April 2007 in New York. The current show at Fondazione Carriero suggests that his cultural legacy has still to be fully understood. From Jeff Koons to Helen Marten, many artists are still successfully practising the separation between the idea and the production of the artwork, and even if today some of them are getting back to traditional techniques we would bet that the LeWitt’s method will last for a long time. Perhaps more than the elitist Andy Warhol, who also played with the idea of the artist as a mere generator of ideas, Sol LeWitt proved to be an healthy source for the future generations, thus someone who can prodigiously entangle ‘words’, experience and matter to generate a genuine piece of art.