Arts: Sol LeWitt at Mass MoCA

Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, an exhibit at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, Massachusetts. This show will  be on view from 2008 to 2033 (yes, 25 years…)

I, Nikitas, have a theory that most of so-called ‘modern art’ is junk, that just a handful of modern artists are true masters, and that the reason that ‘modern art’ has fallen into such disrepute is that industrial prosperity offered big-minded people more opportunity in technological innovation and commerce than in art, and so they took it.

You may disagree that people can cross over into seemingly polar pursuits, but it’s not so far-fetched. After all sculptor Alexander Calder, one of the few real giants of the 20th century, studied engineering, and Leonardo da Vinci was as comfortable designing helicopters as dabbling away at Virgin of the Rocks.

Enter Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), a modernist leviathan who came along in the wake of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism with art that looks almost scientific, breaking art down to its molecular essence of precisely described geometric forms.

In North Adams, Massachusetts, in the far northwest corner of the state in semi-rural Berkshire County, a retrospective of LeWitt’s work is on display until… 2033!?

Yes, for 25 years, there will be an exhibit of Sol LeWitt’s famous wall drawings at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in the old Sprague Electric mill that once housed real manufacturing and now is an avant-garde art exhibition space.

Its copious manufacturing floors  – one looks larger than a football field and has a 40 foot ceiling – are perfect for some of today’s large-scale art, although the LeWitt exhibit, on 3 floors of a smaller L-shaped building in the complex, is relatively more modest in scale. The total wall surface for LeWitt’s drawings, however, is more than one acre.

LeWitt came along at a time when the modern art world was looking beyond the slapdash qualities of expressionism and the lollipop aspirations of Pop. Critic Clement Greenberg called much of modernism "novelty art" and LeWitt wanted to go beyond it with something hefty to think about as well as to look at.

LeWitt began by making reductive drawings on the wall using only lines that were horizontal, vertical and diagonal – very simple and elementary marks that would expand to populate his ideas over almost 40 years. The wall drawings, like Renaissance frescoes, are works that offer the viewer a larger-than-life window on the very origins of form which are the basis of art, geometry, engineering, design, architecture and everything else. LeWitt not only started to build the Conceptual Art movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but he began composing manifestos, line by line, about what art meant. “The idea becomes the machine that makes art,” he famously wrote, along with a slew of other LeWitt-isms.

He had his first major exhibit at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City in 1968 in which he drew on the wall 32 separate squares with all the combinations of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines accounted for. From that time on, LeWitt’s vocabulary exploded in an ongoing and wide-ranging dialogue about rudimentary forms that make up our world. The result is something that is simply a raucous joy to look at. And to ponder.

LeWitt then took the idea another step – he began to further conceptualize his art by authorizing others to make the drawings for him, and that is how his work is posthumously disseminated throughout the world today, like a symphony that can be played by any orchestra in any land.

But the use of artistic assistants is not so unusual. After all, the great artists of history always had assistants who did much of the work after the master had laid down the outlines. But LeWitt was different. He wrote instructions for others to make the entire work in his stead.

In 1971, for instance, LeWitt created Wall Drawing 86, which is reproduced in the MoCA show. It is simply a white wall covered with 10,000 separate pencil lines and, knowing LeWitt’s style, there probably was a precise count kept. Every line is 6 inches long, every one is the same weight and length, and they are spread evenly over the wall, as per his instructions. The effect is mesmerizing, almost like a snowstorm of geometric rightness, these fine lines floating on the surface doing… nothing at all.

It is interesting to think that LeWitt conceived of such discipline and then found the people to execute it so well, people who must certainly have highly disciplined robotic or computer-like qualities because every single inch of every single work in the MoCA exhibit is absolutely perfectly composed and executed, like engineering drawings or fighter jet parts.

 Above is Wall Drawing 289 (detail) (1978) (fourth wall only), which is described by LeWitt in this way:

‘A 6 inch (15 cm) grid covering each of four black walls. White lines to points on the grids. Fourth wall: twenty-four lines from the center, twelve lines from the midpoint of each of the sides, twelve lines from each corner. (The length of the lines and their placement are determined by the drafter.)’

Wall Drawing 289, which like all the work in this show is about 12 feet tall, could be anything, and that is its beauty: A fireworks display, an architectural drawing of Heaven, a sketch for the basis of atomic power, a schematic for a war attack. It has the universality that LeWitt was seeking to express in his art.

Is it art? Sure. Is it enjoyable? You bet. Is it cool? Uh-huh. Are we moved by its dynamic nature and its brilliance of execution? Yes.

Above, in Wall Drawing 1112 (2003) Square with broken bands of color, (left side) and Wall Drawing 1152 (2005) Whirls and twirls, (right side) LeWitt uses varying blocks of bold color in a rectangular format, and then in a wavelike format, to give two contradictory but similar takes on color and movement. They are child-like in their vigor and their brightness, as are many of LeWitt’s works, as if an adult has re-discovered what kids already know.

Above in Wall Drawing 999, Parallel curves (2005), right, and Wall Drawing 1005, Isometric form, (2001) left, we see two sides of LeWitt – his use of fanciful organic forms in simple black and white, and then at the opposite end of the spectrum, bright colors and rigid geometry.

Throughout the exhibit there are signs asking visitors not to touch the art. Obviously people are not supposed to touch the art in any museum, but LeWitt’s work really offers a challenge. First, since the exhibit will be in place until 2033, it needs to maintain its cleanliness and integrity. And second, every work is so perfectly executed that any mark – even the slightest remains from a clean hand – can upset the perfection. In visiting the show, one gets the feeling of something wound up tight, like a spring, that must not be unleashed.

If indeed “art is something that you look at,” as modernist sculptor Donald Judd once said, then LeWitt fills the bill. But like good art, he really goes beyond, giving us something to ponder as well.

What is the ultimate power of the work?

LeWitt seems to straddle the worlds of art and science. He wants to make us think about the very nature of art, like a theoretical cosmologist wants us to think about the origins of the universe. And LeWitt’s work really is some of the most vital of the 20th century, leaving artists like Warhol in the class of ‘entertainer’.

LeWitt’s art truly has meat on its bones but not everyone is going to agree. Traditionalists are going to see LeWitt’s ideas as more sign of the decline of art. But the opposite is true. Artistic imagery and painterly mastery are taking a century-long hiatus and they will be back in due course. What LeWitt does is introduce us to a new form of art that lies at the heart of all that we know, from architecture to engineering, to the forms of classical Greek building to the compositional integrity of Jacques Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon on a rearing horse. In that genuine artists are supposed to inform us of things we really should know, LeWitt succeeds and purely on his own terms.

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