To see a timelapse film of the installation of Sol LeWitt's wall drawings at the bottom of the page ,
click on the image above.Courtesy of MASS MoCA.
A Wall Drawing Retrospective at MASS MoCA
By Michael Klein
Long after the last hands were outlined on the walls of Lascaux and the frescoes had dried into the walls of the various palaces of renaissance Florence, Sol LeWitt began a contemporary enterprise in words and ideas that would shape a lifetime of art in the 20th century. To manifest his ideas, he invented a unique body of work called wall drawings. LeWitt prepared studies and instructions for these works; initially, he painted them directly onto walls, assisted by other artists and students. In later years, the drawings were often executed by others following his instructions.
During the summer of 2008, a group of us on a retreat in Williamstown, MA had the opportunity to view MASS MoCA's monumental retrospective of LeWitt's wall drawings from 1969 to 2007 in neighboring North Adams as a show in progress. It opened in November of 2008 and will remain on view until 2033, a twenty-five year exhibition! The group I was with was guided by wall after wall to see the forthcoming show in various stages of being drawn and painted by a team of sixty-five artists and students. Fascinated by the enormity of the task at hand, we were also intrigued to peer into a supply closet filled with boxes of blue tape, paints, chalk, pencils, rags and drop clothes--an artist’s dream of seemingly unlimited supplies ready at hand. Each individual wall, or section, was the domain of a small group of artists, volunteers, and students from the local colleges such as Yale and Williams who are the co-sponsors of the exhibition/installation extravaganza. Tacked to the wall or taped to work tables were notes, plans, and diagrams. Their daily progress was revealed in personal notes, sketches, and comments left around as a reminder to those of us who got to sneak a peak at the work under way that this show was to be the culmination of enormous energy, planning, and devotion (LeWitt himself participated in its planning prior to his death in 2007).
Model for LeWitt Wall Drawing Retrospective. Courtesy: MASS MoCA.
I was a graduate student in art history at Williams three decades ago, a time when there were limits to the number of Jews or Blacks admitted each year, gay was a lyric in a Cole Porter song, and contemporary art was certainly not a subject deemed worthy of discussion, let alone a full semester's course, despite the fact that the Williams College Museum of Art had hosted a major retrospective of Jackson Pollock's paintings, organized by Clement Greenberg, in 1952. It is personally rewarding to see such a phenomenally orchestrated and powerful show now at MASS MoCA, a few miles east of the college, and remarkable that the museum dedicated its wall space, re-furbished an old building, and collaborated on such a project in this day and age of "we need a blockbuster to stay alive." The project, therefore, is not only a nod to the ideal of the museum as a place to view and think about art, but equally a nod to the museum as an important classroom for young and old alike. While MASS MoCA has functioned for some time as a laboratory for experimental programs, this classy retrospective of 105 works actually allows visitors to the Berkshires an opportunity to visit and revisit the show over time.
LeWitt’s concept for the wall drawing was simple: a hand drawn plan executed on the wall following the instructions prepared in advance in a diagram. Yet the operational mechanics and execution of these temporal works were fundamental to the movement and beliefs of a generation of minimal and conceptual artists. "The world had too many objects," so why not eliminate the need for an intermediary support, such as paper or canvas, and work directly on the wall? To that end, LeWitt wrote in Arts Magazine in 1970, "I want to do a work of art that is as two dimensional as possible." To this he added, "The physical properties of the wall: height, length, color, material and architectural conditions and intrusions, are a necessary part of the wall drawings."
A wall drawing is just that, a figure of forms, words and instructions drawn out on the wall. Where the wall might be, public arena or living room, didn’t matter: the wall drawing is a democratic form of art that fits the place and space to which it is assigned.
Like many of his generation, LeWitt saw a way to integrate art within architecture, thus suggesting its utter permanence. Others, like Robert Morris, may have seen this in terms of singular geometric sculptural forms; or in land art, where the landscape is the architecture (Michael Heizer); or in the use of painted shapes as the picture on the wall, as illustrated by David Novros's "portable murals," a term he used in the early 1960s to describe his relationship as a painter to architecture. For LeWitt, the wall is the support for the idea, the way a word carries the message and meaning of an idea.
The drawing's scale is defined by the wall or location. Ownership is secured by means of a signed document and related diagram. The instructions are there, and the execution depends on the arms, hands, minds, and eyes of those executing the project. LeWitt’s own teams learned the drill, of course, but the novice also interested Lewitt, the hand and mind of someone new to drawing out and filling in these often very large scale installations.
LeWitt Wall Drawing, Installation View. Courtesy: MASS MoCA.
Every time the drawing is made, the mark of the maker is apparent: thinner lines perhaps, slightly deeper colors, and other varied nuances that allow each iteration of the wall drawing to have its own character –you never step in the same river twice; ergo, you never produce a given wall drawing the same way twice, either. At the root of the work is a firm belief in the honesty of geometry and mathematics. At his best, LeWitt discovered, or perhaps the better word is uncovered, a system by which he could engineer and reengineer a seemingly endless stream of permutations of forms, linear charts, and colors, including occasional decisions to switch to black and white. What is most extraordinary about this extraordinary vision is the nearly inexhaustible range of shapes, forms, colors, and styles that LeWitt was able to derive from this simple idea. At times, the wall drawing is quite austere, in bold primary colors that energize the wall surface, while at other times it can be a sea of wavy lines, or a frenetic jumble of shapes, or precise horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, or even, as in the last series of works before his death, a controlled pattern of scribbles. Here, LeWitt brilliantly took the idea of random doodling and transformed it into a series of renderings that exploit the qualities of black graphite on a white wall. The walls seemingly radiate light. If Barnet Newman and Clyfford Still ventured into the abyss with the scale and saturated colors of their grand Abstract Expressionist canvases, then LeWitt certainly broached the same Herculean scale with his conceptual drawings.
Does MASS MoCA's extended showing of LeWitt represent a new model for exhibitions? One hopes for other mega projects like this, devoted to the work of LeWitt and others of his generation as well as opportunities for younger artists to think big, think long, and think timeless.
The exhibition Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective will remain on view through 2033 at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts.
As former Curator for the Microsoft Art Collection, Michael Klein commissioned a LeWitt wall drawing for the collection in 2001. The finished work, Wall Drawing #1000, is a remarkable 20 x 50 foot work in a large cafeteria enjoyed by employees and visitors in Redmond, WA. He now operates Michael Klein Arts in New York and is an artist’s agent and private dealer.