My relationship to LeWitt's work is a bit unusual. When I was coming up I detested him, along w/ the other Late Minimalists -- or so was he contextually positioned & critically aspected. At that time, the work seemed yet another desperate attempt by one of that flock to reify a movement which had become completely moribund. However as time went by & LeWitt's work developed I found my view changing. -- & do we privilege work which we came to appreciate over time after having responded negatively initially? Perhaps we do, & perhaps we should, as such work has in a sense fought for our appreciaton.
In retrospect, it is easy to see that LeWitt comprehended his relationship to Minimalism & its position on the gallows of art better than anyone. So, while continuing some of the major Minimalist methodologies, he began stripping his work of all references to that movement, its conventions & (numerous) shibboleths. What resulted was a kind of "art basic", remarkably uninflected & existing in a state of almost beautific disdain for what anyone else was bringing to market.
Kimmelman's obit in the New York Times (see annc posted by GH) is o.k. for that sort of thing however there are 2 points made which bear amplification & emendation respectively. First, to continue the gist of my recent comments in re Kosuth & Pollock, LeWitt addressed the issue of the Acts of the Hand in a profound & largely unrecognized way -- esp as relates to that chimera, "public opinion" (i.e. beyond the art world). Homo Sapiens Sapiens are consummate tool-users. In some cases, as pertains to art, these tools have become transparent, no one looks to the tool before its wielder in a critical appraisal (& at some other point I will attempt to speak to why this dispensation should be seen to fail when it comes to electronic media). In others the tool is still paramount, thus the absurd raft of critical terminology which describes kinds of art by how they were made. As I've said before, the term "computer art" is still ubiquitous (& grotesquely inappropriate) yet no one speaks of "brush art" or "chisel art". So while it may be of critical value to discuss how a work was executed, it is folly to use that for any sort of critical classification (there may be cases where it is somewhat apt in curatorial usage). What then is the ultimate tool qua tool that an artist may use? -- & here we are speaking of micro-utilization rather than the heady arena where grand forces of market & media themselves become the agency of realization -- the ultimate tool, extension of eye, hand, & will, is obviously another human being.
Thus LeWitt fought the good & necessary fight in combating the popular idiocy which has it that an artist is defined by their virtuosity, metier, or "touch". As we all know, great works may be created by artists who never physically touch their work nor engage it thus in any way. Just as previous generations needed to update an uninformed public's innate (& inert) preconception that art was somehow still slaved to the function of facsimile (one might think a century of photography would have disabused them of that canard), so LeWitt was a fine champion of the concept that art can be realized by the tools at hand, in this case, other people's. He succinctly pointed out that in the other arts no one expects an architect to lay bricks themself nor a composer to pick up a violin & take their place in an orchestra. At first, the collecting market balked at work in which they could not easily discern a hand, since in that arena, the hand equates to the Signature, & thus the singular, authored i.d. of the work in Q. Despite this, it was easy to spot a LeWitt, no matter how far removed from the process of physical execution he may have been. While this has been accepted from time immemorial (lovely word, that) it was always considered in re the artist's extended "studio" or "workshop", implying a permanent body or creative organ. That an artist could be a studio or workshop _in_being_, w/out regard to any standing social construct is a wonderful reification of the power of the individual artist, their rights & privileges, of which this is one of the chiefest.
The other crucial point regards Kimmelman's (& others) abbreviated disingenuity in speaking of LeWitt's conceptual process. Yes, the artist sought to strip the works of the baggage which is all art's legacy, go "back to basics" as is said; & yet one must ask how many have tried this, how many works or bodies of work created this way have any value whatsoever? It just isn't that simple. Indeed, LeWitt sought to do this & succeeded famously, yet it was not thru any power inherant in the approach or conceptual methodology... it was about _him_. It was his eye that could see the atomic components w/in the obfuscatory & often bewildering assemblage of those elements (conceptual, virtual, & actual) which constitute a given artwork. It was his mind that could take those components & arrange them in such a way as to make good on art's implicit promise & experiential function. & finally it was his hand which could grow & project so that each of his "painter's fingers" could become a human exectutive -- highlighting the essential distinction between executive & executor, the latter status which he appropriately retained for himself. To put it simply, this is an approach many have tried unsuccessfuly, there is no sovereign power in the means itself, it yet requires an artist's mind to have this wired to this & that wired to that; & that mind, & eye, & hand, to constitute a functional unity. Does this mean "hey kids, don't try this at home", perhaps it does.
In this way the comparison of LeWitt's late work w/ Matisse's cutouts is not inapt. Yet this Sumi-style variety of conceptualism is all about the repudiation of Minimalism & nothing about some redemptive, evolutionary transmogrification which could revivify a bankrupt movement & its attendent world-view. The Minimalist restricts, incarcerates, & denies in excusing their failed quest for truth, beauty, or their personal Sublime. In contrast, LeWitt's late work explodes, enables, & affirms the status of art at its basic & best.
To paraphrase a concept from baseball, LeWitt "changes the viewer's eye", not to make an "out" yet rather to deliver a "strike". What the viewer then does w/ the "pitch" is their own personal part of the art process -- as it should be.