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ART AND IDEA
by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy
 
An exhilarating acre of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings now fills a 19th-century brick factory building at Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass. It’s one thing to encounter a LeWitt wall drawing in a public space like Christie’s Rockefeller Center lobby, the New School’s 13th Street lobby, or the Museum of Modern Art’s fourth-floor Dannheisser Gallery. But to be immersed in three floors of LeWitt works offers an experience of an altogether different magnitude.

"Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective" opened on Nov. 16, 2008, and remains on view through 2033 -- a nice long run! Out of the more than 1,200 drawings the late artist designed in his lifetime, the show includes 105 works conceived between 1969 and 2007. The museum website maps out the individual works in a grid, locates them in a floor plan, and even offers time-lapse vids of the installation of many of the drawings.

The pioneering Minimalist exerted meticulous control over this mammoth project, which is the result of an unusual collaboration that began in 2004 among the Williams College Museum of Art, Mass MoCA and the Yale University Art Gallery. (Yale owns the entire archive of LeWitt’s wall drawings and provided major funding for this project). Before he died in April 2007, LeWitt planned the layout of all the interior walls and indicated precisely where each wall drawing should go. He also designed several new ones expressly for the old Sprague mill building, which had been renovated by the architectural firm Bruner/Cott and Associates. With its huge windows and flanking courtyards, it is gorgeous.

During the mid-November opening, crowds of art-world insiders and civilians eddied happily through the building for hours, buoyed by the high energy of the installation. Outside, the gritty streets of the dark old mill town could stand as the emblem of late industrial decline; inside, LeWitt’s skeins of lines and his exuberant grids, squares, cubes and circles provided a microcosm of order and beauty that was positively Apollonian.

Earlier in the day, at the Williams College symposium examining LeWitt’s creative trajectory, his longtime friend and colleague Mel Bochner stole the show when he described the influence on LeWitt of Warhol’s 1966 exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery on East 77th Street. Entirely papering the front room in his pink and yellow cow wallpaper, Andy had introduced a serial image directly on the walls, abolished the stretcher /object and flaunted the idea of the decorative, while in Leo’s back room his fleet of floating silver Mylar pillows, engineered by Billy Kluver, dismissed the precious object in favor of the ephemeral, reproducible multiple.

Bochner also talked about the impact of "The Great Age of Frescoes," the exhibition mounted at the Metropolitan Museum in 1966 after the Florentine floods. The abstract synopia, or geometric preparatory drawings, revealed when the Renaissance frescoes were peeled off for restoration hit home with LeWitt, as did the slogans student protesters had defiantly scrawled directly on the city buildings during the 1968 Paris street riots.

In the 1950s, LeWitt worked briefly as paste-up artist for Seventeen Magazine and then spent a year as a graphic designer in I.M. Pei’s architectural office. This grounding in graphic design helped establish his interest in visual structures and systems. Later he was influenced by the ideas of sequence explored by Edweard Muybridge in his history-making, late-19th-century motion studies. During the ‘60s, LeWitt’s clean abstract works effectively destabilized the status quo, negating the third dimension and banishing pictorial time. Using strict visual mathematical systems, his wall drawings succeeded in transforming architecture by merging image and wall and creating pure surfaces that eliminate the traditional distance between art and life. While increasingly focused on playing with three-dimensional forms, the wall works also resist spatial deception. They are an encounter with geometries rather than a passageway to illusion.

LeWitt’s wall drawings negotiate a delicate balance between the actual work and the idea. In 1969 he wrote, "A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist's mind to the viewer's. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist's mind." Since his plans always make it possible to replicate them on order, the wall works are indifferent to destruction. He once wrote that a wall drawing is permanent "until it is destroyed."

But how did this huge Mass MoCA feast of drawings actually get done? Each drawing begins with a series of mathematical calculations laid out on paper, developed into precise yet somewhat flexible instructions that can be executed by a team of collaborators. Realizing each work requires patience, logic, excellent small motor skills and the ability to follow detailed directions. It’s a slow job of systematic layering, using hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of pencil lines, brushstrokes and other marking techniques as well as precise color palettes. It took six months for 65 artists organized into teams to execute LeWitt’s instructions. Twenty-two experienced senior artist-installers directed 33 art school and college student interns, who worked in ten-week shifts. Such time-consuming teamwork formed an essential part of the artist’s philosophy as well as providing a flexible atelier not unlike musicians in an orchestra.

LeWitt, whose mantra came to be "The Idea is the Machine that Makes the Art," often compared himself to a composer. His plans are equivalent to musical scores. For him, a unit of space was like a unit of time in music. He used varying structures as a kind of visual beat or pulse. A highly systematic thinker, he was dedicated to exploring serial and modular systems, combinations and process and to standardizing mathematical and proportional formulas and categories. His unusually orderly mind was unmoved by the romantic concept of artistic genius. He banished subjectivity through reductive formulas that limited actions and colors, and strictly limited the number of elements in a given work. Skeptical of the supremacy of the handmade individual object, he purposely delegated manufacture to others. Nevertheless, in rejecting illusionism and expressionist traditions, he never shed the conviction that in the end conceptual artists were mystics.

The Mass MOCA celebration shows that over almost four decades, LeWitt’s strict formulas produced an amazing variety of forms and color combinations as he evolved from the earlier delicate linear wall works to the often eccentric, much bolder, geometric configurations of three-dimensional forms and brilliant colors or the stark blacks and whites of more recent pieces.

The best way to see everything is to begin on the ground floor with LeWitt’s earliest wall drawings, where thousands of spidery lines in pencil or marker, in black and white or in whispery colors, make up delicate, obsessive yet impressive works. Things get much bolder on the second and then the third floors, where the works proceed chronologically. Sometimes, though, the lofty impersonality of the grand surfaces can get a little overwhelming.

"The ABCDs of Sol LeWitt," Nov. 14, 2008-May 17, 2009, a small, fascinating show at the Williams College Museum of Art, offers an antidote and a prelude to the Mass MoCA extravaganza as well as providing an intimate introduction to his early forays into Conceptual Art. What’s best are more than a dozen drawings, borrowed largely from the family’s private collection. It’s strangely moving to see the modesty of the artist’s own hand as he charts his ideas in pieces such as the Ten Thousand Lines About 5 Inches Long (1971) and From the Word "Art": Blue Lines to Four Corners, Green Lines to Four Sides and Red Lines Between the Words "Art" On the Printed Page (1972). There, using colored ink and pencil, he isolated each mention of the word "art" in a text from Art and Technology: The New Combine, an abstruse article Douglas Davis wrote in 1968 for Art In America’s January-February issue, and drew straight red lines to connect them all. Installed in the circular atrium, almost as an afterthought, are also a few pristine white structures from the ‘70s and other complex pyramidal forms from the ‘80s that resemble 3D models of graphs.

As a composer of contemporary murals, LeWitt had no equal. For he managed to transform the idea and practice of drawing and alter the relationship between an idea and the art it can produce. The Mass MoCA retrospective makes it clear that the seemingly rigid restrictions of his pre-set plans add up to a form of inspired and prolific artistic playfulness. If his early works can be compared to pieces of chamber music, the later ones are full blown orchestral compositions. Ranging from the simple to the highly complex, his formulas result in visual products joyful in their intricate clarity. If you can’t get to North Adams in the next few months, don’t panic. The installation will be there for the next 25 years.

[For "Focus: Sol LeWitt," Dec. 5, 2008-June 29, 2009, the Museum of Modern Art has reinstalled LeWitt’s 1975 Wall Drawing #260: On Black Walls, All Two-Part Combinations of White Arcs from Corners and Sides, and White Straight, Not-Straight, and Broken Lines in the Dannheisser Gallery. LeWitt’s large structure Serial Project, I (ABCD) (1966), based on squares and cubes, is in MoMA’s fourth floor galleries. His 2004, six-color Wall Drawing #1144: Broken Bands of Color in Four Directions, is in the lobby of the Museum’s Ronald S. and Jo Carole Lauder Building.]


ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a critic and art historian living in New York.