At first blush, Chris Teerink’s film about conceptual artist Sol LeWitt can seem ascetic to a fault—too quiet, too tranquil, too cool-headed. Yet as it’s revealed that LeWitt believed his works could be built from painstaking instructions without his in-person supervision (and, a curator friend claims, hated appearing at his own openings), the doc’s meekness only grows more appropriate to its subject. Teerink and his interviewees betray a nostalgia for LeWitt’s methodology of self-erosion; what first feels like a neurotic avoidance of LeWitt the man instead becomes a kind of mirage of his life, as though he managed to evaporate into his body of work. What remains is LeWitt’s imprint on the people who knew and worked with him, and rather than the kind of posthumous tale-telling that’s endemic to this type of documentary, most strain to bring their anecdotes back around to the art hanging (or, as the case may be, hand-drawn) on the walls.
LeWitt’s interlocking prisms and boundlessly crosshatched ink lines make for full-frame eye candy, and the filmmakers shoot his broad canvases in carefully modulated Steadicam sweeps. Occasionally LeWitt’s voice, taken from a 1974 radio interview, will crackle over these images in an otherworldly cameo—but for the most part, the paintings and pencil drawings are left to speak for themselves. (In a rare moment of self-explication, LeWitt claims that to draw a picture of somebody would be wrong, whereas plotting a line down on a canvas is “an ethical act.”) In other words, the film is less interested in narrativizing or complicating LeWitt’s work than sniffing out the roots of its simplicity—indeed, of simplicity as a subject matter unto itself. Maybe Teerink saw his aim validated by LeWitt’s contemporary Lawrence Weiner, who somewhat embarrassedly proposes in an interview that, without having the work on hand, any discussion of art inevitably sounds pretentious. (Teerink punctuates this aside by cutting to one of the galleries at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.)
Teerink’s focus slowly turns from the world of museums and galleries to a small town in southern Italy where LeWitt and his wife kept a house; the camera begins to pick out checkered patterns in the ossified streets and buildings not dissimilar to LeWitt’s own. An elderly carpenter takes the camera through his shop, discussing the pieces he built from LeWitt’s sketches for the Venice Biennale. Indicating a rare photo of him with LeWitt, he intones, “A lot of a time has passed and many details are forgotten. Beautiful details.” Nary a criticism is offered about LeWitt as an artist which, given the otherwise overriding focus on the work, feels a bit disingenuous. But if Sol LeWitt must be called a hagiography, it’s more humbly reverential than desperate. Too many modern bio-docs thrive on hunting out and deflating the mystery of their subjects; this one celebrates it.