How an Indigenous Australian artist ‘astonished’ a giant of American art

Sol LeWitt never met Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who began painting in her 80s, but he was blown away by her work. A new AGNSW show celebrates their unlikely link

He was one of the 20th century’s pioneers of modern American art; she was the Anmatyerre artist who put Australian desert painting on the world stage.

Sol LeWitt and Emily Kame Kngwarreye never met, yet one had a profound effect on the work of the other, and led to one of the largest collections of Utopia art outside Australia. LeWitt became a huge fan of Kngwarreye, and of the distinct style produced by the Indigenous Australian artists working in Utopia – a region that covers Alhalpere, Rreltye, Thelye, Atarrkete and Ingutanka Countries – in the Northern Territory.

The conduit between the two artists was Australia’s pre-eminent art collector and philanthropist John Kaldor, who knew LeWitt personally for five decades. In 2008, Kaldor gifted 260 artworks to the Art Gallery of NSW, valued at the time at $35m. Among them were dozens of paintings and drawings by LeWitt, who was known as the father of conceptual art before he died 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 US artist’s large scale work, Wall drawing #955: loopy doopy (red and purple), displayed in the gallery’s imposing central court. Hanging oppposite will be artworks by two women who greatly influenced him: Kngwarreye and her fellow Utopia artist Gloria Tamerre Petyarre.

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

The career of Sol LeWitt

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

Sol LeWitt, pictured in 1978.
‘He was a changed person’ … Sol LeWitt pictured in 1978. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

It was a concise definition of what would become known as the conceptual art movement.

LeWitt began to hire artists, usually young, who could reproduce his works; for him, permanence lay not in the physical iteration of the idea, but of 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 keep painting his works for him.

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

“The colours are very specific and also the number of coats that have to be applied, how many undercoats the wall has to have to be prepared before they start, and how many times the wall has to be rendered to make it absolutely smooth,” AGNSW’s curator of modern and contemporary international art, Nicholas Chambers, says. “There are very, very strict instructions in 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’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. 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 around 40, was that he was lonely and slightly repressed, a state seemingly reflected in his strict geometric art style. But after he married his vivacious second wife, the artist Carol Androccio, in 1982 and had children with her, LeWitt’s personality, and his work, became more extroverted, spontaneous and joyous.

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

‘I feel a great affinity for Kngwarreye’

Sol LeWitt’s 2001 work Irregular grid.
Sol LeWitt’s 2001 work Irregular grid. Photograph: Estate of Sol LeWitt

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

“He was astonished by [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 as a way of supporting them.

“He was one of the most generous artists I have ever come across,” says Kaldor.

Kngwarreye, who was born in Utopia in 1910, didn’t begin painting until late in her life. Nonetheless, she was prolific: it is estimated that she produced more than 3,000 paintings in her eight-year career, averaging one painting a day.

Kaldor began collecting artworks 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 back new works of his own in return. This would continue for some 15 years, right up until LeWitt’s death in 2007. Most of the works he had sent in exchange for Utopia art became part of the AGNSW’s Kaldor collection.

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

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

That “great affinity” fed into a series of works known as the tangled bands drawings. “LeWitt obviously began thinking about Kngwarreye very deeply,” says Chambers. “We start seeing these really interesting affinities in one of the last bodies of work that LeWitt made, and the works by Kngwarreye. There is there’s a really interesting visual dialogue going on there.”

  • Sol LeWitt: Affinities and Resonances at AGNSW runs from 27 August to 12 February 2023.

  • This article has been updated on 26 August 2022, to add the names of the five Indigenous Countries that exist in the Utopia region.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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