Looking back at LeWitt

All photos by Ashley Klann.

Mass MoCA’s nod to an artist who sometimes never touched his own work

For something so subjective, art has always been a highly debated topic. What constitutes art? How much does artist’s intent affect the work? Is the medium really the message?

For modern artists in the mid to late twentieth century, these questions continued to be stretched. Artists such as Warhol and Pollack tested the boundaries of what was considered art. Their replications of commercial symbols and seemingly haphazard flecks of paint would continue to spark debates for decades, leaving questions still unanswered.

Sol LeWitt was another artist to push the definition of art. His work is a complex geometric system. Bold lines, streaks, perforated waves, shapes, circumlunar patterns, points, and arcs all spread across the wall of the rehabilitated mill factor at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Some of the pieces are brightly colored blocks, some are in grayscale, and others resemble an extreme close up of a piece of graph paper used in a high school geometry class. Often simple in their appearance, it’s not until one beings to think about the system behind the art that the meaning comes off the wall.

Early in his career, LeWitt likened his art to musical or chorographical compositions; individuals, ensembles, or orchestras carry out the original material after it is designed and written. LeWitt took this concept and applied it to his work, allowing other artists to take his compositions and play.

Mass MoCA’s exhibit, Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, features 105 of LeWitt’s designed walls, executed by  The pieces fill the 27,000-square-foot interior with screaming stripes and dynamic pairs of color that push the latex paint, India ink, acrylic, and water colors off the wall. Other wall drawings appear less finished and have been sketched with graphite.

LeWitt’s work took concepts from music, science, and mathematics, tying them together with vibrant designs to create a style ironically unique yet highly formulaic and able to be recreated.

These concepts beg the question of ownership. Although dozens of “executers” (as titled in the exhibit’s pamphlet) were involved in making the art on the walls of the museum, Sol LeWitt’s name is still the only one associated with them. They are his designs. Despite the fact that the original artist was giving up his idea, where does the execution come into play? When does it become the art of a specific individual? LeWitt said in 1967, “The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” We’re just not used to having the individual with the concept be someone other than the individual making the art.

Moving through A Wall Drawing Retrospective, one can see how LeWitt expanded throughout his career. According to the exhibit’s pamphlet, LeWitt initially chose to work with only four colors, yellow, blue, red, and gray. His line were also limited to four basic types, horizontal, vertical, and diagonal left to right, and right to left. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that he began experimenting in their density and application to the wall.

So, how does an artist leave instructions to ensure his assistants reproduce the exact ideal piece every time? LeWitt’s used a system of abbreviated colors in his diagrams. For instance, an intense single color (yellow) would be YYYY, and a mixed hue might be RRBGG (red, red, blue, gray, gray).

Compared to all the trouble some artists will put forth to ensure the security and protection of their art, music, or writing in today’s world of easy access technology, it’s funny to think that LeWitt didn’t try. While some are obsessed with the idea of keeping their work to themselves, LeWitt was willingly giving it away.

A Wall Drawing Retrospective will remain at Mass MoCA for a 25-year period and is broken up into three floors in chronological order, spanning the artist’s career from the 1960s until his death in 2007.

An awesome blog about the preparation that went into the exhibit: http://edwardlifson.blogspot.com/2008/06/do-it-yourself-sol-lewitt-wall-drawings.html

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About Ashley Klann

Clark masters student. Local reporter. Photographer. View all posts by Ashley Klann

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