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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The artist Sol LeWitt has died. LeWitt was known for his cubes, lines and installations that covered the floors and walls of museums. He died yesterday in New York from complications of cancer. Sol LeWitt was 78 years old.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: At the Sculpture Garden at Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art, a concrete pyramid tucked in a corner looms high above the heads of four students from Maryland.

NORRIS: I think it's actually really cool because all of this is just little cubes.

ULABY: An art historian might relate the blocky geometric structure of this piece, called "Four-Sided Pyramid," to the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia and to New York City skyscrapers.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's really neat how there so many amazing colors that come from just the one color of white and how, like, the shadows kind of create depth and stuff.

ULABY: Somewhere, Sol LeWitt is smiling. He worked in simple shapes and simple colors. He was a sculptor and painter inspired in part by a photographer. Eadweard Muybridge worked in the late 19th century. You may have seen his famous black-and-white sequential pictures of a horse running, or human beings in motion. LeWitt spoke to NPR in 1991.

SOL LEWITT: I've long had a strong affinity toward Muybridge, and a lot of his ideas appear in my work.

ULABY: LeWitt's work reflected the poetry of repeated patterns and their occasional variations, and the solid rationality of geometric systems. Independent curator Andrea Miller Keller knew LeWitt for decades. She says LeWitt challenged art's very nature by de-emphasizing by who and how it was made.

ANDREA MILLER KELLER: For him, it was the quality of the thinking that was paramount.

ULABY: So LeWitt came up with ideas, wrote down very specific instructions, and had others build his pyramids or paint his massive wall drawings. And LeWitt's lines and grids stepped away from the spontaneous passion of the paint-flinging abstract expressionists who preceded him. But Miller Keller says LeWitt's work is not cold.

MILLER KELLER: Thinking for LeWitt was not a brain-twisting or intellectual endeavor but quite the contrary. In fact, one of the things he said that's a favorite of mine is he said one should be intelligent enough to know when not to be too intellectual. Another one of his sentences of conceptual art was conceptual artists are mystics.

JOHN BALDESSARI: (Singing) Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalist...

ULABY: That's artist John Baldessari in a conceptual moment, singing Sol LeWitt's "Sentences on Conceptual Art." LeWitt published 35 of them in 1969.

BALDESSARI: Number three: Illogical judgments lead to new experience. Number four: Formal art is essentially rational.

ULABY: LeWitt's sentences are quoted often, but he hated the trappings of fame. He preferred helping young artists by showing his works with theirs in small galleries, says curator Andrea Miller Keller.

MILLER KELLER: He really loved artists. He loved the artist more than he loved museum directors or curators or collectors. He never would have used the word a noble calling but he had respect for all artists.

ULABY: It took some time for that respect to flow from critics who, for years, assailed LeWitt's work as harsh, dry and joyless. At the National Sculpture Garden, Lou Morrow, visiting from Las Vegas, says that's hard to believe. He thinks "Four-Sided Pyramid" is terrific.

LOU MORROW: I was just telling my granddaughter that's the way to stack your blocks, you see.

ULABY: Who knows, maybe she'll grow up to be one of the many young artists who continue to be influenced by the legacy of Sol LeWitt.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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