Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective

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Sol Lewitt at Mass MoCA, North Adams. Photo Michael Miller. (Click on image for photo gallery.)
Sol Lewitt at Mass MoCA, North Adams. Photo Michael Miller. (Click on image for photo gallery.)

Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective
A collaboration between Yale University Art Gallery, MASS MoCA, and the Williams College Museum of Art

Mass MoCA, North Adams; 11:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. closed Tuesday and Christmas: details.

See also:
LEWITT II: Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective

LEWITT III: The ABCDs of Sol Lewitt

This is intended as no more than a preliminary reflection on the retrospective installations which just opened at Mass MoCA and the Williams College Museum of Art—a first impression gathered when the galleries were full of people, some of whom I see all the time and others not in years. Amidst all the champagne, the personalities, and the excitement, the wall drawings still made their presence felt, rather powerfully, I thought. His measured forms and resonating colors were able to make their Platonic statement above all that mundane human static.

In the past I always thought of Lewitt as a something of an itinerant artist. Travelling from one museum to another, usually as the chaperone of some work of art on its way to an exhibition, I occasionally found walls painted with his distinctive patterns. Since they were temporary installations, I didn’t encounter them all that often. Timing was of the essence. Finding a Lewitt wall drawing was something like random repeated encounters with an acquaintance or colleague in distant airports. My own most vivid experience was my unexpected discovery of one of the most handsome of his wall drawings in the breakfast room in a hotel in Spoleto. In the half-lit, empty room, I sat alone in silence with coffee and a cornetto. Like that itinerant artist, Lewitt would appear, leaving behind not a portrait of grandfather, which would be preserved in the family generation after generation, until someone found it just too unbearably ugly to look at, but a transitory event in institutional history. In fact, however, entirely unlike the itinerant artist, Lewitt never appeared in person to do the work. He remained aloof in his studio, having provided a diagram of his concept and trained the executants. In other words the works were itinerant, but not the artist.

The wall drawings are anti-decoration. Painted on a surface which is customarily decorated in most human societies, going back to cave painting, they negate their decorative function by the rigor of their logic, which in communicating leads the viewer out of the cave and into the light of pure concept. We haven’t truly experienced the wall drawing until we have seen it with our mind’s eye. Rather than providing ornament for the wall, cutting an illusory window, or concealing it, a Lewitt wall drawing makes the wall disappear to our consciousness entirely.

Knowing that death was not far, Lewitt decided to compromise his modus operandi in allowing the wall drawings to be shown for a much longer period—twenty five years—but still not permanently. Having participated in the selection and layout—having conceptualized the walls—he died, leaving behind something uncharacteristically permanent, a legacy, principally in the care of Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, who had the excellent idea of approaching Mass MoCA for space which was lacking in Louis Kahn’s building in New Haven.

When is a drawing not a drawing? One of the most pretentious gestures an artist can make is to call a work a drawing, when it is patently not a drawing. While many of Lewitt’s “drawings” consist of fields of color, the necessary definition of the object’s contours can and does function as line. (A drawing without a line is not the most common kind of drawing, but it is hardly rare, for example, the drawings in pure wash by Raphael and Goya.) In a Lewitt drawing explicit and implicit lines some of the basic tasks they perform in a drawing by Dürer or G. B. Tiepolo: they separate and define surfaces; they lead the eye; but they do not evoke light and shade or texture, becaus they belong to a conceptual world of ideas. In a Lewitt wall drawing, everything counts, literally. He makes us see number and proportion, just as Bach or Mozart make us hear it. On the other hand the wall drawings don’t entirely behave like drawings. From different angles a drawing will produce a different effect, as if it were a sculpture in the round, for example wall drawings 413 and 414, which transform from a coolly measured field to a rush of energy and movement as one moves from the center of the opposite wall to the end of the drawing. Not only does the design change, but its emotional effect as well.

The crowds of local and out of town visitors were less of a distraction than might have been expected, but I was not the only one who vowed to come back on quiet weekday. On the other hand the renovated galleries seemed to call for a crowd, as if they were a natural gathering-place, most emphatically unlike the Sistine Chapel as it is today during museum hours: an airport is a more likely place to encounter an acquaintance, especially if you are an art historian. It became more apparent than ever that Lewitt made these works for people, and that they belong in lobbies and galleries.

The celebratory atmosphere in Building 7 seemed just about right, at least for a start. Seeing so many of the wall-paintings together, most long-effaced, is an uncharacteristic, but extremely valuable opportunity to understand Lewitt’s work. It is not just an invaluable resource for study, it changes entirely the way we relate to his work. Lewitt’s intellectual power has never been so clear. North Adams now has an artistic monument, and Mass MoCA has an addition of unquestionable importance. A new flow of visitors from around the world is expected. Between the core points of North Adams and Williamstown, as everyone here knows, there is a dense population of artists and art historians, each with his or her own opinion. Some continue to scoff, while others are breathless with the shock of discovery. There is an expectant group humming that it will be good for business. Very few are so alienated that they will deny that it changes things significantly.

There will be more about the shows at Mass MoCA and WCMA soon. Mass MoCA provides a helpful online guide, fully illustrated and glossed, to the installation, and WCMA’s ABCDs of Sol Lewitt provides an excellent survey of his basic premises and working methods.

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