Chester, CT, April 2006
Adachiara Zevi: Let’s talk about the idea of this interview. When did you get it?
Sol LeWitt: I was very sick at the time…I was spending a lot of time just sitting and reading or listening to music. I was thinking, I’m seventy seven years old and I have had a lot of interesting experiences that to me are very important and to other people perhaps too. So I thought that one of the things that would be interesting would be the connection with Italian art and Italian artists over the time. The first time I went to Italy was in 1969 for Sargentini’s show and after that the next year, I was with Sperone in Torino and then in Rome. I came at an interesting time because it was just right after the Kounellis show “Horses” and also of Pascali’s one with “fish tails”. Pascali was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1968 and I was there in March of 1969 and so everybody was talking about that.
AZ: So, Sargentini was the place where you met Italian artists, but there were many other galleries in Rome… “La Tartaruga”, “La Salita”. Did you go to these other places?
SL: No, I didn’t. … What happened was that I was invited to come to Rome to do a show . Over the phone I talked to Fabio and he seemed to me that he said he wanted to do a show in April, so I came in the middle of March and he put me off completely. He said “I have a show now but you could do the next one” and he put me up in a hotel near Campo dei Fiori and I loved that area, I mean I just hung around there all the time, Campo dei Fiori and Piazza Farnese and Via Giulia, and I used to go across the river and walk the streets and I had so much fun.
AZ: How long did you wait for your show?
SL: Five weeks before I could do the show. I did the wall drawings there. I didn’t hang around with the artists at that time because I didn’t know them at all. I had my show and then they all came and I got to meet them. There was Kounellis and Mattiacci. Boetti was still in Torino at that time. The next year I met Mario Merz and and Paolini.
AZ: So, how did it all start? How did Sargentini know your works? Why did he invite you? Where did he see your work?
SL: He could have seen my work in Germany in 1968 at Documenta, I had a piece that…..
AZ: A Wall drawing?
SL: No, it was a sculpture, a large piece.
AZ: But in Rome you exhibited wall drawings, not sculpture.
SL: Yes but I started that same year to do wall drawings, in November of 1968. So, when I went to Rome in March of 1969, I was just beginning to do them.
AZ: How was your wall drawing?
SL: Black and white, lines. The wall was very rough and the drawings were very rough too. It was a nice space anyway, but I was really very blown away by the horses, one of the best shows in the last fifty years. If you could pick a better show, that would be…. you should do it here in some spaces. People don’t even know about that show here! The most impressive show that I didn’t see but that I wanted to see, and you know, here some of the galleries would be perfect for that.
AZ: What was the reaction to your show in Sargentini, what did artists say?
SL: I have no idea, because after the show, I went home, I didn’t stay there, I never knew if somebody said something long after but I don’t know. I mean that the papers never covered the shows at that time.
AZ: And so you went home, and then?
SL: Then I went back next year to Torino for another show with Sperone, and after that with Toselli in the Sperone Gallery. And Marilena Bonomo, I guess, for her first show…
AZ: The artists in these galleries belonged mostly to Arte Povera. Do you think that there is any relationship between your work and their work, how do you see the difference?
SL: I knew you would ask me that… I was trying to…The situation in New York, especially in the 60s, became very narrow because everything was based on ideology and theoretical assets, especially in Minimal art. At school, a lot of the artists had studied philosophy rather than art. Flavin went to a Jesuit school and he had a background in philosophy as well. This really came down through the French. The French are very ideological and they really need to have somebody who is based in philosophy write about the art. I thought that by the end of the 60s it was a very suffocating sort of thing. When I came to Sargentini, so with the horses and everything, I was very impressed by the scope of their thinking: they wouldn’t be ideological, they would be much more sensuous, they had… much more to do with the senses rather than the mind and that was to me the most important. It had nothing to do with subject matter or style or a specific kind of art but it was a kind of liberating force that impressed me and I think the kind of thing that I was dealing was probably different from what they have been doing, but the idea of putting things on the wall was … from going to Italy and seeing the artists of the Quattrocento. You know art doesn’t have to be little, it can be very big, it can be a certain kind of wall, you have the whole wall, you have the all four walls, you have the whole space. I was always impressed with Italian Art from the Quattrocento and from De Chirico and ….
AZ: 1969 was your first time in Rome?
SL: No, it was in 1950, I took a trip after I got out of school and I went to Rome and Florence.
AZ: Did you see anything contemporary at that time?
SL: No. The artists were there, but I had no way of finding out where they were. But the Arte Povera I saw was a big revelation and I was very impressed with it. Also part of the ideology of the 60s was a rejection of French art, you know, people of the art circle like Judd and Flavin and others, were always putting down French Art and they were picking up the Russians for instance. At that time many books about Malevich and Lisitzsky had been published. But if you start to think about the Russians you have to think about Futurism, and you have to think about metaphysics and all these others schools that were Italian and so I got interested in that and then I got interested in Sironi who was a very great artist but he went bad at the end. You know he was the consummate fascist artist, but he…
AZ: He is a great painter.
SL: Yes, I was very impressed with his work when I got to know it around that time too.
AZ: Do you think that Futurism and Metaphysics had an influence on your work in the 60’s?
SL: I don’t know what effect it had but I was really impressed at least intellectually and historically and I liked their work, so I don’t know how long that would have affected my work, my thinking, except that it wasn’t French and that was the main thing.
AZ: But you too were reacting to French art?
SL: It was a little rejection of Duchamp and Dada …. which turned into… Pop Art because it had too much to do with the reaction of the viewer, to make an impression on the viewer in order to turn things inside out. I thought I was interested in the work of art itself not in reaction of the viewer. You know in Dada or in the beginning of Pop Art or Conceptual art the thing was to freak out the viewer, you know that was the main thing for Warhol; rather than the intrinsic they wanted the work to be a new sensation, it was like the fashion industry.
AZ: But the reaction to French art started before, with the Abstract Expressionists.
SL: That’s true because the French schools were getting very bad in the 50s and 60s and I thought that Arte Povera was a really interesting new idea, and it didn’t deal with the French School.
AZ: It’s interesting that you’re the only artist to see a way beyond French art in Italian art and not in Russian art.
SL: Even if nobody talked a lot about Russian art I was interested in that also. But everybody knew, of course, the Futurists,even if nobody was enthusiastic about their works.
AZ: Because they identified Futurism with fascism.
SL: It always ended up with political ideology,..anything but art, you know,…and to me that was all wrong…if you look at the Russians you have to look at that time. I mean Futurism was about 1910, 1912 and it was influenced by Cubism but in a different way, and of course there was the connection with Fascism because it had to do with machinery, and it had to do with speed, and it had to do with various adjectives, you know, modern… modernism….and Modernism was so much part of Cubism. But I don’t know what had precisely impressed me because when I worked at the Museum of Modern Art they have a huge collection of futurist works.
AZ: But your interest in Italian art started even before, when you were a student, with Piero della Francesca, in 1959. It was at that time that you thought about the idea of frescos, or no ?
SL: I never thought about frescos in the way that they have done frescos before, but as I went along they began looking like frescos because first I did walldrawings with the pencil, and then I couldn’t get the black with pencil as I wanted, so I used ink, black ink, and then I used black wash, grey, and then I wanted color and I used colored ink. If you figure out enough coats of water-based paint, the ink would sink into the paint and so at the end it looked like frescos and it didn’t start out trying to look like frescos.
AZ: Can you say something about the use of isometric drawing instead of perspective.
SL: When I was doing structures in early 60s and made drawings it was better to make isometric than a perspective kind of drawing and it explained the work better because it flattened it out and made it easier to make this kind of isometric drawing. I started to do the wall drawing because if I can do isometric drawing on paper I can do it on the wall…
AZ: Anything to do with architecture?
SL: I’ve never studied architecture….
AZ: Yes but you worked at the I.M.Pei office and, you know, architectural drawing is very often isometric.
SL: Yes, sure, if you look at books of architecture you always see the drawings and the isometric and especially I got… well maybe it was later when I got interested in Electa books and architecture literature.
AZ: So, going back to Arte Povera, do you see any relationship between Arte Povera and any other movement in the States, for instance Process art?
SL: Well, I think that eventually Conceptual Art took in Arte Povera. For instance one of the people that I was most impressed with at the time was Salvo. Salvo did very famous things of conceptual art and in fact I traded a lot of pieces with him. He did copy of the “Idiot” by Dostoevsky, and he put his name in wherever there was a name to be put in and he ended up a list of heroes starting with…Then he had the work “This is the ultimo lavoro of Salvo” and it was interesting because it could mean the last work or it could mean the greatest work or …..I still don’t know what it actually meant…It was… before he started doing that kind of realistic painting, he was really an interesting artist.
SL: So when I got to Rome in 1969 Arte Povera was very new, I mean just a couple of years or so. It was something exciting, it was something new and different: A different direction and a different idea.
AZ: Did you become friend with those artists?
SL: Yes, with Boetti, Kounellis, Mario Merz, Paolini and I got to know all of them either in Torino or in Rome, either in 1969 or 70.
AZ: Did you have a gallery in Rome at the time?
SL:: Yes, I used to work with Ugo Ferranti but I also did shows with Mario Pieroni.
AZ: I remember your show with Mario Merz there in 1985.
SL: I remember Mario Merz came to New York, he stayed in my place endlessly and I had to tell him he had to go one day. It was so funny because his schedule and my schedule were so different. He would be coming home and I would be getting up and I get up around six in the morning and he was coming home from being out all night and he’d sleep all day and I worked. We were really opposite but after about four weeks or so I kicked him out and he was very nice about it, he knew it was coming..
AZ: When was it ?
SL: In New York, on Hester Street, it was in the early ‘70s…
AZ: And then you had another show in Torino, and you said that the walldrawing you did was inspired or it had something to do with his Fibonacci series.
SL: I don’t know, I think there was…I had been doing things based on numbers or logic, words or things like that even before I met Mario but maybe… I don’t know when he started to do it but I was very impressed by him….
AZ: Merz started using the Fibonacci series in 1970 but you used the serial system before.
SL: Yes, in the ‘60 I used to do things based on numbers and logic and things, but I didn’t know anything about Fibonacci actually before I saw that.
AZ: But you know that between ’69 and ‘72 there were lot of shows in the European museums where American and European artists were together at the same level, as it happened in the big exhibition “When Attitudes become Form” in ’69 in Bern. So some mutual influences were possible, for instance between Arte Povera and Process Art.
SL: Konrad Fisher was very instrumental in that, I mean he showed Kounellis and Merz, I don’t know who else but I know that he showed those all along with the American artists, so it all ended up in one big idea, you know, toward the end of the 70s. I don’t know how aware of the Italian Arte Povera these people were, I knew they all had a show in Italy, so…
AZ: So I would like to know, what do you think is the American attitude toward Italian art?
SL: They don’t know, they never mention it, I’m sure of it after I talked to the young artists. They have no idea of Italian art, of Arte Povera, of whatever has been happening now. I don’t think American artists are very aware. Did you ever hear people talking about it? That is still the French Academy has a very strong force in New York.
Carol LeWitt: What you keep calling the French Academy is a lineage that descends from Duchamp?
SL: Yes, that’s it! That’s what people were talking about in the 70s all over. That’s why to me it was so refreshing to see the Italian art not involved with this kind of narrow thinking.
CL: When did you see Merz’s work for the first time?
SL: It must be at Sperone’s …it was in 1970.
AZ: And Paolini, what do you think of his works?
SL: I’m only certain that he was my favorite artist, because his thinking was more like mine. I think that I must have seen his works in Turin….Well, there is a sense of irony in his work but it has more to do with metaphysics in a way that it would take the classical: These kinds of ideas have to do with juxtaposition of forms and this is one of the ideas, you know, that grow into irony… you compare one thing to another and there is an ironic difference. I think it was more a formal kind of play ….it had two Greek classical sculptures looking at each other ….it didn’t have too much to do with irony, it had to do with forms, it had more and more to do with art forms interacting with each others.
AZ: Another thing I’d like to ask you is how, in your opinion, the Italian artists used the space.
SL: The idea of using the total space of the gallery or whatever architecture, was something that the Italians were involved in. None of the Americans dealt with the Ambiente the way you are talking. It was all so much more object based…But the effect probably was either…. it was parallel with mine and may have been better influenced by the Italian idea but once I started to do the walldrawings in 1968, I had to think about the whole wall.
AZ: The whole space.
SL: Yes, the whole space, and it was so obvious, you know, one step after the other, that’s what I mean by an organic development. And so in a way my experience with Italian art let me contemplate using the whole space, but I was getting there in my own way…Even before we moved there, I used to go to Italy every year and see all the frescos and there was an ideal movement in New York to get away from easel-painting. So before easel-painting there were the frescos. Easel-painting came in the late 1400s, you know, from Belgium, when they started to use the canvas…..
AZ: But also in the States there’s a tradition with murals, and it was in the 40s.
SL: With W.P.A. Yes but that’s a way that came more from the Mexicans. Mexicans had a big influence, you know, in the 30s.
AZ: Who were in the ‘70 the other American artists active in Italy?
SL: Well, Toselli was showing a lot of the artists from Konrad Fischer, he made a show of Nauman…I think that outside of Carl, myself, Nauman, there weren’t very many Americans who were showing early on in Italy. In Germany much more but in Italy I can’t really ….
AZ: You have been always so popular in Italy….
SL: I never wanted to think about that….. if they invite you to come you come if you want to… and so they would have liked me to come and I would come and then I would go and they would say can you come back again the next year.
AZ: There’s something, maybe this idea of the frescos, that we feel it is in a way a part of our tradition.
SL: Maybe yes, but at the beginning I was doing very small areas, I wasn’t doing the whole space until the end of the 70s, and I wasn’t using color until the middle of 70s, 1975 or so. Obviously there’s a connection with the Italians, and I find it quite liberating and, you know, the first time I used the whole space was when I did this piece, “Arcs and Lines”, I think it was in 1972.
AZ: I want to ask you in what sense being in Italy every year influenced the process of the wall drawings. If there was an influence! For instance the use of colors and …
SL: Space. But, still, it was like a combination of what I was seeing in New York and what I had experienced in Italian art, Arte Povera. But I think I had my way of going from one thing to another, from one idea to the other, and I think that the work in many cases had to do with my experience with other art which had influenced my thinking.
AZ: Can you explain better?
SL: Well, you know, it would enter in your sensibility, whenever you see it, or understand it, it gives something to your thinking. You don’t need to have to think about this thinking, it happens almost miraculously; wherever you see it, it might impress you because it’s part of your thinking.
AZ: Do you think that the passage from black and white to color has something to do with the sense of freedom you felt in Italian art?
SL: Perhaps. But it was going on its own way also, because one idea would lead to another, but in the sense of form there was no connection…the only connection would have been with Fibonacci and Mario Merz; but I think that the way they use objects was more like Process Art than what I was doing. But Process Art had some effect over me too, so maybe it was through Italian art but….
AZ: It was a time of great exchange between American art and Italian art. And what happened afterwards?
SL: I think that mainly it had to do with the art scene in New York which I think was immediately taken over by the French Academy and one thing they hated most of all was Italian art. I mean, that’s why in “Art Since 1900” by Rosalind Krauss and Benjamin Buchloh you have three pages in a thousand page book to do with Italian art, because one thing that French critics were based on… philosophy and the…the whole processes that always started from Duchamp, and everything goes through Paris and the Russians, you know, they barely acknowledged the Italians. They wouldn’t even be acknowledged at all because it didn’t fit into the intellectual skin that they were so interested in …and still today I have all of my problems with that dominant kind of thinking in New York. They love the Germans and I mean that’s not bad. Richter is a very good artist but I always say that… if somebody would have offered me a Kiefer or a Kounellis I would have taken the Kounellis everyday. I think it is much better but if you ask young American artists to name twenty non American artists, in the list there would be no Italian artist; I mean that when they had a show…. and they had one at PS1 and it was badly managed and they had one at the Guggenheim which nobody ever talked about, and they had the Kounellis’ show at ACE which was a really good show, and they had the Boetti show that never even got to New York. It was in Texas in San Antonio, or San Francisco. It’s like a country’s rejection of anything that doesn’t go through the main stream, and the main stream is the French Academy and in a way also the German Expressionism because German Expressionism turned into Abstract Expressionism and it was the mixture of French and of German art and they take seriously but Italian art wasn’t taken seriously at all…they don’t understand that.
AZ: Do you think that way of thinking affected also your work?
SL: Yes, because if you don’t follow the formalism that comes through the French Academy…
AZ: Clement Greenberg’s formalism…
SL: Well, Greenberg was very involved with French Art.
AZ: Yes, and Rosalind Krauss was very Greenberg oriented, at least at the beginning.
SL: But it has a lot to do with these kind of formal art theories by Bucloh and French philosophy, or philosophy in general.
AZ: You said before, that in the 60s your interest in Russian and also in Italian art had also an anti-French connotation. How did it continue in the ’60?
SL: The main stream was still the French formalism and Dada. Dada became Pop Art and you know that it wasn’t easy to make the connection, so don’t ask me what I was thinking because I never could understand it. Pop art was a bigger connection once again through the old school of Abstract Expressionism which in a way was the end of Cubism, the end of that old Modernism really, after that…the way it connected up with the Pop Art came directly out of Duchamp and Conceptual art in a way; even the name came from Fluxus and Duchamp, and I thought that I was not interested in Formalism and I thought that what Judd, for instance, was doing was just another aspect of Formalism and I thought that to me the use of the forms is more like telling a story, like arcs, and lines, you know, and how many combinations there are in cubes. It was like telling a story so…and it had less to do with Formalism. What the critics understand is what they see you do in New York… a big example is Ryman. They know he’s going to do white paintings a little bit different from the other white paintings, but they expect him to do white paintings and he does white paintings. But I think he is a great artist because he does change and the changes are always interesting, but it’s a matter of identification: if you can put the artist in a copyhold then it makes it much easier for the art historians, because then they say: “well Judd ended Minimalism”, they will never say Judd and Carl Andre for instance… they say Judd and Flavin, but Flavin was a formalist but then he did one thing that really influenced me a great deal, and this was what he called the “Nominal Three”, and we have one, two, three, and I thought that it was a telling story…one, two, three and the next would be four but you don’t have to do that, you have already established, you know…
AZ: Yes, You don’t have to choose every time because you choose the system and it goes.
SL: So I mean, they were using systems and also the minimal part he was interested in ….the….. nominalist philosophers… you know, the one we were always talking about…
AZ: William of Ockham.
SL: Yes, Ockham always used a list to tell you a story, you know, not in a big way but in the most economical way and then that was what they called, Ockham and the others, the “one two three”, and I thought I was really very impressed and influenced by that…and when Judd was doing this kind of mathematical, whatever intellectual kind of things he was so arcane, so personal that I could never understand, you know, how he did these things.….and I never could figure out his thinking. But Flavin did this “one two three” which was very illuminating to me, but again it’s critical acceptance of all of these things…if Flavin didn’t do a fluorescent they wouldn’t even notice him….I mean they would pretend he didn’t exist.
CL: What was instead the expectation for the Italian artists? I think the need to develop a signature style must not have existed in the Italian circle of art.
SL: Yes. Because they did things really all different, they do things different from themselves, I mean, Kounellis for instance……
AZ: Yes, also if you can always recognize a work by Kounellis or by Merz, they always offer different versions of the same idea and methodology.
SL: But according with the formalist way of thinking, Merz had to do igloos all the time, if he didn’t do that they wouldn’t understand what he was doing normally and they don’t like his work, it’s not easy….
AZ: Yourwork too is always full of surprises because, for instance, when I saw the wall drawing with “scribbles” at the Merz Foundation in 2006 I was very surprised; then I realized that you used the same methodology as before, but actually from the visual point of view it was a surprise to me. Do you know what I thought immediately? Oh, it looks like a Tirelli!
SL: Yes, it could be.
AZ: Because there’s that kind of illusionism, there was something like a round form, and the darker part of the wall drawing was like a shape.
SL: Yes, that’s what I wanted…and that kind of work of Tirelli I liked a lot …I think it was a very direct development from metaphysical painting, from De Chirico.
AZ: Now let’s say something about Boetti. Because Boetti was a close friend of yours. And I think there’s a strong relationship between his and your work.
SL: Yes, probably there is. His work was much different but I liked most of what he did. I met him in 1970 in Torino and then he actually loaned me his house for a week or so in the Cinque Terre, and he was always a good friend, and then he had other friends and he used to see them in Todi and so we spent a lot of time together….But I don’t see any real connection between my work and his work, I liked his work but I don’t think there is anything in common.
AZ: Did you hear about Maurizio Mochetti?
AZ: Do you know him?
SL: Yes, but I never met him.
AZ: His work is actually very conceptual even if it looks very hi-tech. But he says that also if idea is the main part of the work, it is not enough and it needs the image in order to become a work of art. Do you agree?
SL: Yes. Idea is the starting point and the most important element because, as you see, the work itself can be done by other people.
AZ: How could you define idea? Is it any project can you figure out?
SL: Well, everyone has the concept of what he wants to do.
AZ: But, idea is already an image, or only something intellectual or theoretical?.
SL: There’s always an image in your conceptual eyes just near your head and it’s possible too that you conceive that and think about that, but you don’t have its form that it ends up with and usually that’s the case where the idea’s results are on the forms and on the objects.
AZ: Then the object is important?!
SL: Of course.
AZ: And this aspect, I think is shared by most of the conceptual Italian artists
SL: Sure, I think that Boetti was very involved with that sort of approach.
AZ: Let’s change topic. What do you think of the artists belonging to the “Transavanguardia”?
SL: I think that they probably wanted to do something that was against this conceptual type of art, and physical and motion and….
AZ: Your work instead is always concerned with abstraction.
SL: Not actually, the way I see it if I use lines, or color, or combination of lines and colors, it’s all real, because the line is a real thing, it’s not abstract at all. I think that what I do is Realism and that the use of several lines is more real that a picture of objects or a person. I think that what I do with lines and the basic tools of art, you know, line, color, are all real things so I don’t think it’s abstract.
AZ: What do you mean for real?
SL: For instance a cube is a real object…I mean, I say, what the cube looks like… It’s not Nature, which is something else, but it’s a concept and an idea.
AZ: It sounds something like a paradox, as when Kounellis says he is a painter.
SL: Yes, I think so.
AZ: When I first came to your house I was very surprised by your collection. I expected to find minimalist and conceptual works and instead…I found completely different works.
SL: Well, my perception is not always what I do, it’s also whatever I see, it can be representation, it can be out of Nature, it can be out of Geometry, or things like that. Well, you talked about Kounellis being a painter, well if you think he comes out of painting, he did painting early and he comes out of the history of painting, but what I do doesn’t come out of the history of either painting or sculpture. If I use basic materials like cubes and squares and lines, they are all in the world, to me they are real things.
AZ: Yes, but they too belong to the history of painting…Mondrian, Malevich and all the artists using pure forms.
SL: It’s all right, but it also comes from architecture, because architecture is all based on geometry.
SL: Well, it was coming basically from geometry and geometric forms but it doesn’t come from the history of architecture really, but it’s just as a common beginning.
AZ: Barnett Newman used to say that abstraction is something real.
SL: I agree with that.
AZ: Do you think there’s any difference between the European and the American abstraction? For instance between Minimalism and Constructivism?
SL: I think that American art derives from European art and only after Abstract Expressionism, you know, that came from USA to Europe in the 60s, but by now it is so marginal that I don’t think I can tell the difference, at least, I don’t see it as exclusive…European and American art, it can be very, very interchangeable.
AZ: Do you have many pieces of Italian art in your collection?
SL: We have some, but I don’t think there are a lot. We have a good number of Boetti especially, two or three things of Kounellis, Merz, not very much really; we have several things of Tirelli, but I just kept them by meeting the artists and trading with them or through a dealer who gave me a work of art for one of mine.
AZ: You said that the reason why you wanted to do this interview was because you wanted that this kind of artist, mostly the artists of the Arte Povera, to have much more recognition here in the States.
SL: Well, I think they deserve more here and I’m surprised that they don’t get more, they are not shown regularly and there are several of the artists in galleries but I don’t think that people take it as seriously as it should be.
SL: Well, I think that the base of the thinking here is rooted in the history of French and American art and their connection. And of course Modern Art, Modernism, comes right out from Cézanne, Picasso, from that School of Paris, but I think that in my generation there is a reaction against that which made the history of the Italian art much more important.
AZ: In what sense?
SL: Well, I think that Modernism probably has run up ideas and that….whatever is post modernist really is much more international, I think that the Italian Arte Povera was very much like a lot of the American art of that time too, I mean after the minimalism type of art, you know, post-minimalism… I think that Arte Povera was certainly not coming out from the school of Paris and that’s what made it interesting, knowing that the art of Italy ….and it was, like Russian constructivism, very important.
AZ: And who are the other Italian artists besides Arte Povera you are interested in? Also before the Arte Povera!
SL: De Chirico and…
AZ: And between De Chirico and Arte Povera ?
SL: Sironi. He is totally unknown here.
AZ: And Fontana?
SL: Yes, but less than Burri.
AZ: At the beginning Fontana and Burri were both recognized more in the States than in Italy. That’s not weird because in the 50s there was a strong connection between Italy and United States.
But then… with Pop Art a wall was built against Italian art.
SL: Well, I think it was a wall built against European art and mainly it was against the school of Paris and it took in eventually most of the European art, contemporary and not historically.
AZ: And the wall is still high?
SL: Yes, I think so. Well now it’s more indifference than antagonism: what is unknown is not important.
AZ: Do you think the situation could change?
SL: I don’t know. I think that eventually people could recognize some of the works of that time and I don’t know when and I don’t know how but I think that Kounellis and Merz especially should be much more well known here, Boetti…people like their work individually but they don’t think they are Italian works, they think they are individual works. They don’t know other than one of two of the main body of the Italian work very much.
AZ: Your work is very well accepted in Italy, as you know…
SL: Well, I don’t know, I do the same things there that I am doing here.
AZ: Yes but I think that your work is very connected with the Italian tradition. Not only with the frescos but, in a way, also with Futurism, with the idea that art is something which involves every aspect of life.
SL: Well, of course my work has a lot to do with architecture because it doesn’t exist without architecture. A lot of the ideas come from the same source, which is geometry and therefore I can say that I’m closer to Brunelleschi than to Cézanne…
SL: But I think that American art still derives from the Abstract Expressionists a lot, from the kind of forms that they had. American art really closed itself off to European art after a certain point, like in the 60s. There wasn’t much influence by the European artists in America after the Abstract Expressionists.
AZ: Yes, I think it’s true.I think that Minimalism is rooted in the grid of the American City, nothing to do with Constructivism or European abstraction.
SL: And there wasn’t that much Marxism in American art, I mean as much as there was in Europe.
AZ: Neither in the 30s?
SL: Yes, in the 30s, but then people didn’t take very seriously American art, they thought it was very minor. And to a degree that’s right, there were some individuals that people considered very low but in a way there wasn’t this kind of heavy dogmatism. Even though everyone was Left wing at a certain point in the 30s….40s, it didn’t carry over and I think that the Abstract Expressionism was the mill stone of other kinds of European thinking, although I think it was based on European art, Expressionism and Automatic painting, Surrealism. So even though there was that influence on Abstract Expressionism, the part that remained inside that was much more individualism and a much different inspiration than they say. The Europeans are very anxious about Abstract Expressionism, especially in France where they called it Informal. That you can tell right off the difference between American and European thinking, but after that I don’t think there was much European input in American art, although in the 60s the Russians were much more in regard because, for one thing, they were not French and … but why the Futurists and Metaphysical art didn’t really register later I don’t know, and I don’t think there was very much influence coming from the Italians, much more from the Russians….. Malevich….
AZ: Don’t you think that Post-Minimalist art has some relationship with Europe?
SL: Could be, because after Minimalism there was much more agreement between Europeans and Americans, most of the people for instance that I knew through Konrad Fisher Gallery …really wouldn’t tell the difference between the Europeans and the Americans very much, I don’t think that people let’s say like Dibbets…I don’t think there is anything particularly Dutch, particularly European, but it was accepted as new art at that time. There was Richard Long for instance, Daniel Buren, they could be American artists as well as European artists, I don’t see the difference I see between Mathieu and Pollock, they are very, very different, but between Boetti, Dibbets and Baldassarri, I don’t think there is that much difference in their art; I think that they all had common roots. I think a number of American artists who were doing work in the 60s and especially in the 70s could be either American or European. But the Italians again I think were left out.
AZ: You wrote once “I felt that I had become a prisoner of my own pronouncements or ideas, I found I was compelled by the innate logic of the work to follow a different way whether it was a step forward or a step back or a step sideways. At that point I moved to Italy. The art of 1400 really impressed me and I began to think about how art isn’t an avant-garde game, it has to be something more universal, more important.” When was it?
SL: Well, you know, every time I went to Italy starting in 1969 and then living there in 1980.
AZ: Yes, it seems here that your going to Italy was really a turning point.
SL: I’m sure the work changed a good deal after I was living in Italy and knowing the Italian artists there and seeing the historical art.
AZ: Can we express the change in your sentence: “I reached a point in the evolution of my work at which the ideology and ideas became inhibiting”. When was it? Before walldrawings?
SL: Even when I started the walldrawings…. I don’t know…it changed after 66/67, when I was doing things which you would call more minimal, and it became more like telling stories which was what my ideal conceptualism might be, so I would had to move to Italy in the same year, but even if I didn’t live there I had a lot of contact, and I think through our conversation I was impressed with the Italian artists that I saw and who were too well known but I hadn’t really heard much about them in New York. Leaving New York was for me at that time, I think, a good move because I thought that the American artistic scene was very narrow and so I went away and what I found in Italy was something much more large and bigger.
AZ: What do you mean for too narrow in the American scene?
SL: It was much more ideological and much to do with…everything was narrow in a kind of ideology that had a lot of Calvinism to determine…it was moralistic…. you couldn’t do this you must do that, type of things so….I mean you can’t sit there, start a work of art and say: is it right or wrong or is it good or bad or things like that, I mean if you had that idea you should do it even if it comes out bad, because the next one may come out good. And so I had the example, for instance, of going to Italy and seeing whatever people were doing that I wasn’t too aware of, so it was part of this kind of thing.
AZ: So the walldrawing was a real break from any of those ideologies.
SL: It was an important point because it set out a lot of ideas that I didn’t have before and one of this is that any flat surface was illusionistic, which is probably true but I wouldn’t say so at that time, I would say that… I would have to get rid of illusion.
AZ: So the challenge was to do a walldrawing which was not illusionistic?
SL: No. It was that…. by doing something on the wall I was rejecting the idea that anything on a flat surface is illusionistic… I would say, even if it was so wide.
AZ: But your walldrawings became with time more and more illusionistic.
AZ: Is there a kind of continuity from the first walldrawing at Paula Cooper to the last one in the Merz Foundation?
SL: Yes, because one part of the ideology of Minimalism was that everything on a flat surface had to be flat, it couldn’t break the picture plane. And that sort of thing…Modernism, I suppose, it comes out of Cézanne….but to me almost anything on a flat surface, like a wall, is partly somewhat illusionistic. I think that the flatness idea was layered because even the frescos painters, before they made scientific perspective, all they were doing was flat and it comes from Byzantine art, in a way, it was always flat and so this idea of perspective was really something quite revolutionary…and that gives depth to the picture, so part of Modernism must reject that completely…I do something that has curves and that has the illusion of tubes or round surfaces and it is possible at least for me, it is just that the idea of flatness isn’t important anymore…
AZ: Sowhat are your favorite fresco paintings in Italy? Which ones did you see?
SL: Of course there is the Giotto’s or school of Giotto at Assisi Basilica which was near where I lived and then there is Signorelli at Orvieto, and the other wasn’t so far, in Arezzo, and so they were all two hours by car, they were easy to see…
AZ: What did it impress you mostly?
SL: They had a strong impression because they were very forceful paintings and even at the time they were done with that sort of religious statements, I saw that their aesthetic statements had not much to do with religion and still it has some of that Byzantine frontalism that…even in the Duomo in Spoleto there is…. a Byzantine mosaic and so I mean it was that kind of directness and simplicity that impressed me so much…
AZ: Did you see the baroque architecture in Rome?. And the fresco paintings on the churches’ ceilings?
SL: Yes and actually the architecture was even more interesting than the paintings…well, Bernini’s sculptures and architecture are very interesting.
AZ: They are very scenographic.
SL: Yes, I like them. I like them upward. The Italian Baroque was very luscious, very tuneful, easy to see and then even a filmmaker like Fellini was very baroque in the same way. So I think the filmmakers have more to do with the baroque idea, because Rossellini and De Sica are much more realistic.
AZ: So you define yourself more a Renaissance or a Baroque artist? You said you feel more like Brunelleschi than Cezanne.
SL: I hope so! (laughs)