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PRINT September 2008

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Prudence Peiffer on Sol LeWitt at Mass MoCA

“I THINK THE CAVEMEN CAME first.” So responded Sol LeWitt when once asked if he was indeed the “originator of wall drawings,” as curator Alicia Legg had claimed in a catalogue essay for his 1978 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. LeWitt, who passed away last April at the age of seventy-eight, was a giant of Conceptualism—an artist who obsessively produced work, from cube sculptures to artist’s books, addressing modernism’s systematic irrationality. Yet perhaps richest in historical implication were his wall drawings. Even as LeWitt insisted on the term drawings rather than murals to avoid the “weight of history,” his witty evocations of Lascaux—the name for both the French complex of caves and LeWitt’s preferred brand of acrylic paint—also deliberately emphasized the past. And underlying their making is the fact that some of his earliest drawings were studies of Piero della Francesca’s frescoes, and that LeWitt famously said he would like to produce something he “would not be ashamed to show Giotto.”

Evoking the scale and honor bestowed on the fresco cycles of such masters, an unprecedented retrospective of LeWitt’s wall drawings opens at Mass MoCA this November. Organized in collaboration with the Yale University Art Gallery and the Williams College Museum of Art, the exhibition was, in fact, conceived by LeWitt himself some four years ago with Yale curator Jock Reynolds. (Yale has also endowed a conservatorial position to oversee the LeWitt archives on its premises, and annual programming will accompany the exhibition.) Accordingly, the show’s statistics, as if units in LeWitt’s work, stagger: One hundred drawings made between 1968 and 2007 will be on view for twenty-five years. Housed in a historic mill building on Mass MoCA’s campus, the installation will cover nearly an acre of wall surface.

By now, LeWitt’s artistic formation is well rehearsed. For instance, critics, seeking to explain LeWitt’s interest in precision and belief in the artist’s separation from any Conceptual work’s fabrication, regularly cite his work as a graphic artist for architect I. M. Pei during the 1950s. When it comes to LeWitt’s wall drawings, however, such perspectives often overlook the role of materiality, something the artist repeatedly stressed in his essays throughout the ’70s. The wall drawings emphasize actualization: Artist, draftsman, and plan come together to produce an artwork at a particular place and for a particular time. “Ideas of wall drawings alone are contradictions of the idea of wall drawings,” LeWitt insisted in 1971, suggesting that the personality of the wall is an integral part of the finished piece: “Most walls have holes, cracks, bumps, grease marks, are not level or square, and have various architectural eccentricities.” For him, wall drawings are flat, simple, and direct, a transcription of universal forms—beginning as a written plan of execution, often described in a work’s instructional title—onto such public space. Adding to this contingency, they are installed for a duration, and then whitewashed.

The wall drawings must therefore be viewed in one shot, or in a few sequential viewings, something that seems a departure from the parsed seriality of the numerous artist’s books LeWitt made after the late ’60s. The development is significant, since his drawings emerged from his work with books, which similarly displayed an interest in the interaction between graphic line and white space. In fact, LeWitt’s first realized wall drawings, at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York in 1968, grew directly out of the collaborative Conceptual project The Xerox Book, 1968, a tome in which six artists were allotted twenty-five pages each to do with as they pleased. As an extension of LeWitt’s contribution to the project—a series of photocopied ink permutations—the artist drew two of his designs with graphite directly on the gallery walls. LeWitt clearly sensed a seemingly inexhaustible well of line and perceptual variations in this new conception of wall markings, and soon began experimenting with chalk, crayon, and ink washes. Later he added acrylic, in the bright primary tones used in early book printing. While some of these drawings are minimalist, large-scale geometric shapes, others explore the exchange, interaction, and permutations of drawing fundamentals. Many employ a line repeated until it becomes the “chaotic materialization of a great deal of form.” Among his most enveloping are those that start out as delicate lines only to become wide bands of color in rapid accretion across a wall. Logic and instruction often yield to joy and even whimsy: In their absurdity, the drawings reject overrationalization. We revel instead in the eye’s mind. As LeWitt put it, “The viewer of the lines can see only lines on a wall. They are meaningless. This is art.”

Recognizing the significance of such individualistic vision even while famously relinquishing execution to a team of others, LeWitt imagined each different interpreter’s experience as a new “dialogue” with the wall: “The draftsman becomes bored but later through this meaningless activity finds peace or misery.” At Mass MoCA, among those who will have this experience in implementing the drawings—a function that has taken on new importance since the artist’s death—are twenty-four assistants who worked with LeWitt, as well as students and alumni from Yale, Williams, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and other schools around the country. The generosity and generative potential of LeWitt’s innovation will be experienced firsthand both by those who implement the wall drawings and those who go to see them.

Yet the best justification for this landmark, quarter-century-long presentation comes from LeWitt’s own statement: “The wall drawing is a permanent installation, until destroyed. Once something is done, it cannot be undone.” For this, we should be expectantly grateful.

“Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective” opens at Mass MoCA on November 16.

Prudence Peiffer is an art historian based in Cambridge, MA.