What we've learned, and have yet to learn, from 10 years with Sol LeWitt
How did a decade go by so fast?
When Mass MoCA announced its 25-year retrospective of Sol LeWitt's wall drawings, the end date seemed impossibly far off. But here we are, 10 years in, and, we have just scratched the surface of what we can learn from the artist.
I thought I knew LeWitt's work, having studied it and worked with him on previous occasions, but there is no substitute for the prolonged engagement with the breadth of work on display at Mass MoCA and the extended time we are afforded to spend with it. Like all great art, the wall drawings reveal their depths with successive viewings. Fifty years after LeWitt made his first wall drawing, his work still challenges entrenched ideas about what art is and how it is made, and the language we use to talk about it — not just for museum visitors, but for museum professionals, as well.
Other artists (draftspeople) make them. The works can exist in two places at once. Yet, there is no object, per se. No crate. No shipping.The works are permanent only in their life as an idea (and as a certificate). And in the memories of those who have seen them. LeWitt noted that "once something is done, it cannot not be undone."
We know that for LeWitt — regarded as one of the leading proponents of conceptual art — the idea was primary. That said, his work seems as much for the eye as the mind. Despite his apparent disinterest in formalism and work that is "perceptual," he made beautiful art. Or, if I were to rephrase that to reflect his oft-quoted statement from his "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art" (1967): "The idea becomes an idea that creates the art," his ideas created beautiful art.
LeWitt acknowledged that people (including himself) had particular tastes, but he also stated: "I want to create universal beauty." While LeWitt is known to have gleefully contradicted himself, I believe he meant a beauty located in the idea. That said, he was an incredible colorist — if not a sensualist. In the gray doldrums of February, a visit to the LeWitt galleries can feel like an escape to Italy, a place important to the artist personally and professionally, its frescoes by the like of Giotto and Piero della Francesco an important influence and inspiration. LeWitt once wrote, when asked by curator Andrea Miller-Keller what he strove for his in art: " I would like to produce something I would not be ashamed to show Giotto."
While such quotes in LeWitt's writings and interviews reveal much about his work and its intentions, spending time in the exhibition at Mass MoCA can also feel like having a conversation with him. Access to the 105 drawings on view allows an unparalleled glimpse into the workings of his rigorous mind over 40 years. We can glean his systematic approach and also his penchant for humor and joy, and for breaking his own rules. LeWitt chose and placed the drawings with thoughtful intent, placing works in proximity to others that could reveal more about them. A web of connections not unlike his "Location Drawings," which map relationships between points on the wall. He intended to be transparent with his art, making clear his working method to viewers. He describes his titles as "the clue to the idea of the piece." Like the drawings themselves, they communicate in a straightforward and succinct manner, much how LeWitt did himself in interviews. His answers — even to the lengthiest and most philosophical of questions — are often humorously short, yet say so much.
On Saturday, Nov, 17, in a celebration of the exhibition's 10-year anniversary, we will add the voices of six scholars and curators, myself included, participating in a symposium, "The Machine that Makes the Art? Interpretation, Collaboration, and Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawings," organized by Mass MoCA Associate Curator Alexandra Foradas.
While I investigate the role of the human body embedded in the conception and execution of LeWitt's work, Lindsay Aveilhe, editor of the recently complete catalogue raisonne of LeWitt's wall drawings, looks at the group of works, which are, in their instructions, in part "determined by the drafter." Veronica Roberts, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, will focus on LeWitt's increased interest in the 1970s in offering more leeway to the drafters, outlining how Eva Hesse's sculptures influenced LeWitt's embrace of variability. Chris Vacchio, director of research for the catalogue raisonne, tracks the increasing professionalization of LeWitt's draftspeople. Anna Lovatt, assistant professor of Art History at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, speaks to what she calls the "ugly factor," arguing that LeWitt modified his instructions to avoid unintended results. Charles W. "Mark" Haxthausen, Robert Sterling Clark Professor of Art History, Emeritus, at Williams College, will close the talks by recounting, in his words, his "deep appreciation for the quiet, humane radicalism" of LeWitt's works.
While no doubt the symposium will reveal so much about LeWitt's work, we are fortunate to have another 15 years to dig even deeper.
Susan Cross is a curator at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
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