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Sol Lewitt

“Strict Beauty,” at the New Britain Museum of American Art through Jan. 9, is “the largest exhibit of prints by Sol Lewitt ever mounted,” says its curator David Areford. The famous conceptual artist worked in many mediums and may be best known for his wall drawings. He was also known for creating many of his works through a set of rules and instructions that allowed other people to actually execute the final pieces.

“His prints range from him doing his own hands-on works to ones where he did a little working drawing,” Areford says. “I could go on and on. People really don’t know much about his prints.”

“Strict Beauty” takes over most of the NBMAA’s second-floor gallery spaces with hundreds of prints. Large and small areas are saturated with the vibrant colors and dynamic, geometrically intricate designs of Lewitt’s work, which Areford has arranged under such intriguing headings as “Lines, Arcs, Circles and Grids,” “Bands and Colors,” “From Geometric Figures to Complex Forms” and “Wavy, Curvy, Loopy Doopy and in All Directions.”

Even the kid-friendly Maker Space on the ground floor offers a hands-on Lewitt-inspired activity. The museum also supplements the Lewitt show with a couple of large glass cases which provide a general introduction to the printmaking process.

A Lewitt expert

Areford, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston, initiated this project unexpectedly when he visited the New Britain Museum six years ago for an article he was doing on printmaking.

“I never finished that article,” Areford says. Instead he was inspired to delve into the museum’s unparalleled collection of Lewitt prints. Then he suggested this mammoth retrospective exhibit. “It took some convincing but not much. They knew they were sitting on a gold mine.”

Previously known as an expert in devotional art of the late Middle Ages and Northern Renaissance, he is now also known as as one of the foremost authorities on the prints of Sol LeWitt. Areford wrote the lavish art book, also titled “Strict Beauty,” which accompanies the exhibit and is available in the museum’s gift shop.

The exhibit begins with dozens of prints from Lewitt’s student artist days at Syracuse University in the 1940s. His prints from this time are unrelated to the geometric designs he was later associated with — they are drawings of people and places, with social realism themes. One of them is of a group of tired, crowded commuters riding “The Hartford Bus.”

One of Lewitt’s student prints, Areford explains, won an award from the Tiffany Foundation. “He used the money to regroup and travel. He moved to New York and, while working as a designer at Seventeen magazine, among other jobs, began to find his own artistic voice. Areford argues that printmaking was an extension of the political themes in his earlier work. “Printmaking was considered democratic. It was accessible, not unique. More people could see the art.”

Lewitt continued making prints for the rest of his long career even after he became best known for his conceptual wall drawings. “One point of this show,” Areford says, “is to let people know he worked in different mediums simultaneously — prints, photographs, books, works on paper — from the very beginning.” Lewitt died in 2007 at the age of 78.

Areford is able to chart how events in Lewitt’s life affected his art. A move to Italy “has an impact on his work,” the curator says, which began to “look more graphic, more impersonal.” There is unexpected warmth to some of the images, however, even in how they are labeled. The print “Vertical lines, not touching” is dedicated to the sculptor Eva Hesse, an old friend of Lewitt’s who had recently died. Such a dedication, Areford says, “is antithetical to the way we think of Lewitt. He was always challenging perceptions.”

A poster image commissioned by Lincoln Center in 1998 for its Mostly Mozart Festival was another turning point, Areford suggests. The piece jumps with energy, blending straight and wavy patterns with an array of colors in a layered yet loose fashion that leads the eye in a numerous directions at once.

Always rules

Some of the prints play with the very nature of the artform. For one series of prints, Lewitt rotated the image one-quarter turn for each layer, yielding new underlying shapes. Before they are printed, prints have to be prepared so that their image is reversed, and there’s one in “Strict Beauty” where lines of handwritten text are seen backwards intentionally in the final print. Areford thinks the inspiration for this might have been the “mirror writing” technique of Leonardo DaVinci, and makes other comparisons between Lewitt and DaVinci in the exhibit and book. Other prints indulge in comically long sections of text.

One series is of stars, each of which has more points than the one before it. Some of his later works resemble popular optical illusion puzzles. “He was a fan of games and jokes,” Areford says. This is shown even in the titles of Lewitt’s works — like the 2000 woodcut “Loopy Doopy and in All Directions.”

“Strict Beauty: Sol Lewitt Prints” is on view at the New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain, through Jan. 9. Special events include a conversation with David Areford on Oct. 24 at 3 p.m.; gallery talks and book signings with Areford on Nov. 4 and Dec. 9, “Counterpoint and Line in Art and Music: Sol Lewitt and the Interplay of Forms” concerts by the West End String Quartet on Nov. 7 at 3 p.m. and Neely Bruce on Jan. 9 at 3 p.m., and guided tours of the exhibit Sundays at 1 p.m. and Thursdays at 6 p.m. Regular hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours through 8 p.m. on Thursday. Admissio is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and free for museum members and children under 18.

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