Sunday’s opening of Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective to the general public marks the beginning of a widely anticipated 25-year exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). The collection, a collaboration conceived between the artist before his death in April 2007 and the Yale University Art Gallery, was undertaken as a project between the Gallery, MASS MoCA and the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). It promises to be both a cultural draw and an educational tool located in the heart of the Berkshire community.
The collection, comprised of 105 large-scale wall drawings, follows the path of LeWitt’s career from 1969 to his death in 2007. It was originally intended as a gift from the artist to the Yale Gallery, but because the Gallery realized its installation limitations in the face of so many works, it suggested MASS MoCA as a prime location.
“Sol’s gift to this community is extraordinary. There are only a few places in the world where you can see more than one of his pieces in the same place, which makes this exhibition very unique,” said Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery. “The process has created a special relationship between Williams and Yale and will put MASS MoCA much higher on the scale.”
Occupying nearly an acre of specially remodeled interiors within a historic mill building at the heart of MASS MoCA’s site, the exhibition is extended over three stories located just off of the museum’s main circulation plan. Each story is organized chronologically: the first contains works from LeWitt’s earlier periods in which he used fine markings, soft gradation of hues and a range of basic linear formations; the second, his mid-career during the ’80s and early ’90s, where he further pushed this notion of using simple lines, grids, geometric shapes and expressive colors; the third, his late period, which showcases many of the exhibition’s highlighted works.
The organization and design of the installation space establishes a clear connection between the art and its location. “This retrospective was the one time in Sol’s career where he had such control and he showed that he had a great understanding of the relation between geometric form, texture and exhibition space,” Reynolds said. “The preserved walls and the soft light relate the history of the original factory, rather than the usual sheer white walls in many galleries.”
This personal and unique touch is characteristic of LeWitt’s attitude towards art: his first wall drawing was created in 1968, a year after he published his then radical belief that “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” His emphasis on the idea behind a work over its execution established LeWitt as one of the reigning champions of both minimalism and conceptual art and led him to create the deceivingly simple geometric and scribble drawings now on display.
As shown in the 12-minute video in the collection’s entrance hall, these creations were executed not by the artist himself, but rather by a group of 65 individual artists. Each drawing begins as a set of instructions accompanied by a diagram illustrating how the trained artist should perform the work. This basic method creates a surprising variety of art that, while intended to be ephemeral, strikes a concrete balance between face-value simplicity and layered complexity in the here and now. The results on display range from meticulously placed lines in pencil-drawn mathematical planes to expressive forays into color and shape.
These outwardly basic depictions have gained what seems to be a generally enthusiastic reception. The lack of ropes or barriers in conjunction with the relaxed and bright gallery space create an atmosphere that encourages a personal viewing of the art and spectators are free to look closely without having to worry about the distanced feel of a work behind protective glass. Observations from passersby included comparisons to fractals and Dr. Seuss; as Rose Alessio, a resident of Pittsfield, phrased it, “The art is fascinating, like you can see his mind working; it makes you seasick and dizzy, but very curious to look at more.”
Others responded more to the technique. “I think it’s interesting that the work is not by his own hand – the fact that other people helped in the creation stage makes the art more accessible,” said Amanda Esteves-Kraus ’12. “There’s this idea that art has to be black or white, that there is a definite meaning behind every piece, but this collection encourages you to have your own interpretation.”
Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective will remain on display at MASS MoCA for the next 25 years, after which the drawings will be painted over and the rights to LeWitt’s instructions will return to the original owners. During the next quarter century, however, the exhibit will serve as a source of cultural and educational engagement, one that will hopefully be enjoyed by the North Adams community and beyond.
As President Schapiro said during remarks at the opening of WCMA’s companion exhibition, The ABCDs of Sol LeWitt, “There’s something in the work of LeWitt that everyone can appreciate.”