Do: Sol LeWitt’s Electrifying Letter of Advice on Self-Doubt, Overcoming Creative Block, and Being an Artist
By Maria Popova
“The great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together,” Vincent van Gogh wrote in contemplating principles, talking vs. doing, and the human pursuit of greatness in a beautiful letter to his brother Theo. “Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in her memorable letter to Sherwood Anderson about success, public opinion, and what it really means to be an artist. But how does one keep a solid center of principled conviction while at the same time expanding outward into widening circles of growth-impulses, always reaching for the unknown without letting competence fester into complacency or perfectionism become an anchor of stagnation?
The answer to that, and to other elemental perplexities of the creative life, is what the artist Sol LeWitt (September 9, 1928–April 8, 2007) offers in a spectacular 1965 letter to the trailblazing sculptor Eva Hesse, whom he had befriended five years earlier. Hesse, a disciple of Josef Albers and a pioneer of the postminimalist art movement of the 1960s, began suffering from creative block and self-doubt shortly after moving from New York to Germany with her husband. She reached out to her friend for counsel and consolation.
The masterpiece of a response LeWitt wrote on April 14, 1965 was later included in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the magnificent anthology edited by Shaun Usher, which gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life, E.B. White’s luminous assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity, and Hemingway’s tough-love advice on writing and life to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In his impassioned five-page missive, which remains the closest thing to a personal creative credo LeWitt ever committed to words, the 41-year-old artist writes to Hesse:
It will be almost a month since you wrote to me and you have possibly forgotten your state of mind (I doubt it though). You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say “Fuck You” to the world once in a while. You have every right to. Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rambling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just
In a sentiment that calls to mind the central Buddhist notion of shunyata [emptiness] as a wellspring of wisdom, LeWitt urges Hesse to cease overthinking her art and abandon her attachments to what it must be:
From your description, and from what I know of your previous work and your ability; the work you are doing sounds very good “Drawing — clean — clear but crazy like machines, larger and bolder… real nonsense.” That sounds fine, wonderful — real nonsense. Do more. More nonsensical, more crazy, more machines, more breasts, penises, cunts, whatever — make them abound with nonsense. Try and tickle something inside you, your “weird humor.” You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you — draw & paint your fear & anxiety. And stop worrying about big, deep things such as “to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistant [sic] approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end.” You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to
LeWitt reminds Hesse that perfectionism kills creativity and, in a parallel to Jennifer Egan’s assertion that bad writing is “a way of priming the pump” for great writing, urges her to surrender the addiction to good work and use the bad as a springboard into the great:
I have much confidence in you and even though you are tormenting yourself, the work you do is very good. Try to do some BAD work — the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell — you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be. But if life would be easier for you if you stopped working — then stop. Don’t punish yourself. However, I think that it is so deeply engrained in you that it would be easier to
Echoing O’Keeffe’s insistence that the discipline of being an artist is about “catching crystallizing your simpler clearer version of life,” LeWitt concludes:
It seems I do understand your attitude somewhat, anyway, because I go through a similar process every so often. I have an “Agonizing Reappraisal” of my work and change everything as much as possible — and hate everything I’ve done, and try to do something entirely different and better. Maybe that kind of process is necessary to me, pushing me on and on. The feeling that I can do better than that shit I just did. Maybe you need your agony to accomplish what you do. And maybe it goads you on to do better. But it is very painful I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do the stuff and not even think about it. Can’t you leave the “world” and “ART” alone and also quit fondling your ego. I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty your mind and concentrate on what you are doing. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going. I’m sure you know all that. You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work — not even to yourself. Well, you know I admire your work greatly and can’t understand why you are so bothered by it. But you can see the next ones & I can’t. You also must believe in your ability. I think you do. So try the most outrageous things you can — shock yourself. You have at your power the ability to do anything.
Much love to you both.
The following year, Hesse created “Hang-Up” — one of her most acclaimed and admired sculptures, of which she reflected:
It was the first time my idea of absurdity or extreme feeling came through… It is the most ridiculous structure that I ever made and that is why it is really good.
This was LeWitt’s advice, made tangible and given form.
The two artists remained close friends and creative kindred spirits, exchanging ideas and influencing each other’s work, for the remainder of Hesse’s short life. She was slain by a brain tumor in 1970, at only thirty-four. Two days after her death, LeWitt created “Wall Drawing 46,” which he dedicated to his friend. With its minimalist multitude of textured non-straight lines — a graphic element he had never used before — the piece was a significant aesthetic shift for LeWitt, who would go on to incorporate non-straight lines in his subsequent work, crediting Hesse’s influence.
Complement this particular fragment of the endlessly rewarding Letters of Note with Brian Eno’s “oblique strategies” for overcoming creative block, John Steinbeck’s disciplined cure for self-doubt, and some of today’s most celebrated artists on creative courage and what it takes to be an artist.
Published September 9, 2016