LeWitt on display

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Sol LeWitt’s famous declaration, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” was emblazoned in bright white letters on shirts worn by staffers here at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art this weekend.

LeWitt was a master of conceptual art, and the retrospective that opened on Sunday at MASS MoCA features 105 of his massive wall drawings. In light of LeWitt’s death in April of 2007, the show’s completion is something of a tribute to his basic philosophy: art is about more than just viewing.

A visitor observes one of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings at the Mass. Museum of Contemporary Art.
Paul Needham
A visitor observes one of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings at the Mass. Museum of Contemporary Art.

Sixty-five artists and art students worked for almost six months to install LeWitt’s historic works in a 27,000-square-foot building that was once an abandoned warehouse. If those 65 were the machine for this show, the idea was born by Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Reynolds spoke with LeWitt in 2004 about the drawings, and the artist ultimately donated his full wall-drawing archive to Yale, along with many of the actual drawings.

On Saturday, Marc Glimcher, president of the Manhattan gallery that represents LeWitt’s estate, PaceWildenstein, explained the notion of owning a wall drawing.

“It’s a little like a deed,” he said. “Sol would give you the right to put the piece up, and the instructions for its installation. If you want to move it one place or another, you paint over the wall and install it again.”

Reynolds was thrilled to have the rights to so many of LeWitt’s pieces, but he knew that Yale did not have enough space to present them all at once.

“What’s remarkable about Sol’s work is that these are really visual scores that, to come to life, need to be played and performed together like music,” Reynolds said on Saturday.

The concert hall that is MASS MoCA’s gallery spaces, Reynolds added, only strengthens the concert of the pieces.

LeWitt agreed with Reynolds’s decision that the pieces would be better shown in the vast spaces of the young Massachusetts museum than in Yale’s overcrowded gallery; until his death in 2007, LeWitt oversaw the design of the show along with the architecture firm Bruner/Cott & Associations.

The scheme they developed presents LeWitt’s work on three floors. Arranged more or less chronologically, the first floor shows his earliest works and the top floors features his oldest.

Speaking to the News in a gallery on the exhibit’s second floor, Joe Thompson, MASS MoCA’s director, said on Saturday that the progression of LeWitt’s work over the years could be seen clearly with so many works in one place.

“The early works are milestone of art history,” Thompson said. “The second floor is fairly polite, and the top floor is more forward.”

LeWitt orchestrated the procession that visitors take to view his art, and the freedom he was given for this assignment is in some ways unique for his work.

Thompson pointed out that many of LeWitt’s pieces were executed under rigid constraints — he was often commissioned for spaces in building lobbies or walls in rooms that were already built. For his retrospective, there were few such limitations.

LeWitt did choose, though, to retain the existing masonry walls and large windows that visually define MASS MoCA’s multibuilding complex.

“There’s such beauty in these historic mill buildings,” Reynolds said. “Sol left all of the exterior walls with all the information on them. He wanted the history to be a part of the show.”

While the brick walls show their imperfections proudly, there was no room for error as the crews followed LeWitt’s explicitly detailed instructions for installing his works. The 65-person team included 33 students from Yale, Williams College and other schools. Williams, located just five miles away from MASS MoCA, will offer a series of companion exhibitions at the Williams College Museum of Art.

MASS MoCA is less than three hours away from Yale by car, but there is no need to rush up Interstate 91. The retrospective will be on display for 25 years.

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