meet Wonderland: one of Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings
LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective
MoCA, through 2033
This is a mind-bogglingly vast exhibition on three floors
of a massive brick industrial building (Building No. 7, which
was renovated for the purpose) consuming almost an acre of
space. Its installation was a feat requiring the collaboration
of three art institutions (Yale University Art Gallery, Williams
College Museum of Art, and MASS MoCA) plus the sweat labor
of 65 artists and students who drew and painted Sol LeWitt’s
minimal conceptualist designs over a period of six months
in 2008. The project, dreamed up by Jock Reynolds, Yale Gallery
director, in consultation with the artist, required who-knows-how-many
hundreds of gallons of paint, boxes of pencils and miles of
tape, not to mention more than ten million dollars.
The result is that one can now wander for what seems like
forever in a two- dimensional forest of designs by LeWitt,
who died in 2007. Whether the aesthetic experience is a good
or poor one is beside the point: It is a monument. Like it
or not, it’s going to stay up for 25 years; a generation will
grow up in the shadow of LeWitt’s lines and squares, marveling
at (or rebelling against) his mathematical formulas.
The 105 drawings here, organized mostly chronologically by
floor, amount to a standing tribute to conceptualism—art as
idea, the seed of the brain. LeWitt came up with geometric
schemes and mathematical patterns of primary colors (or primary
colors blended with grey) and then had other people execute
his designs. His directions can be maddeningly simple yet
oracular: “A wall divided horizontally by a curvy line. The
top is flat black; the bottom is glossy black,” describes
Wall Drawing 822 (1997). LeWitt wrote, in 1967 in ArtForum:
“The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” This factory-like
vision is perfectly situated to MASS MoCA’s former mill building—a
space designed for mass production.
But LeWitt, who also stated, “conceptual artists are mystics
rather than rationalists”
best experienced in retrospective style with multiple works
rubbing elbows like this (Wall Drawing #260, currently
at the Museum of Modern Art, by itself is pretty blah), and
designs are best in person (as opposed to in a book). Designs
are set up on parallel and perpendicular walls per LeWitt’s
specifications; this positioning creates long hallways of
pattern and provocative juxtapositions of isometric forms
and colors. For an example of the experientiality of LeWitt’s
work, walk slowly into the corner of Wall Drawing 462 (1986)—stripey
arcs in black and white—and you’ll feel that you are getting
smaller and smaller, like Alice in Wonderland.
Migraine-inducing kaleidoscopic patterns from his later period
(such as Wall Drawing 880—Loopy Doopy (orange and green)
(1998), stand in contrast to earlier designs, such as
the quieter Wall Drawing 86, in graphite (1971), whose
description reads: “Ten-Thousand lines, about ten inches long,
covering the wall evenly.” With these Zen-like directives
it was good that he usually provided diagrams. The
scheme for Wall Drawing 335 reads like a word problem:
“On four black walls, white vertical parallel lines, and in
the center of the walls, eight geometric figures (including
cross, X) within which are white horizontal parallel lines.
The vertical lines do not enter the figures.” He intended
to make his ideas accessible, so formulas are part of some
drawings, as with Wall Drawing 1211: Drawing Series—Part
I-IV #1-24, A + B (2006) where a color-by-numbers map
is in the actual drawing.
LeWitt’s art has been likened to a composer’s score: meant
to be replayed by others in time, it’s impermanent but ever-recurring.
His friend Mel Bochner described his obsessively repeated
forms (squares within squares, triangles, loops) as “the serial
attitude.” LeWitt’s seriality and his love of pure, massed
shapes can be read as influences on any number of artists
working today (think of Olafur Eliasson or Rachel Whiteread—or
for that matter, Ikea).
There are some ironies here: For all LeWitt’s belief in art
for the masses, this retrospective heralds him as a kind of
brand. Downstairs in the store you can buy LeWitt dinnerware
(handmade in Italy) and T-shirts. There’s even the LeWitt
elevator with “Early LeWitt” “Mid-Career LeWitt” and “Late
LeWitt” in raised lettering by the buttons.
Still, viewing these murals prepares the ground for discussions
we need to have about art in an increasingly corporate, mass-produced
world. Can art be accessible on a mass scale without becoming
a consumer product? What happens when ideas are separated
from physical reality? Whatever the conclusions, LeWitt’s
concepts are sure to be part of our conversation.