Soul of LeWitt | Art in retrospective

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Sol LeWitt once said: “When artists make art, they shouldn’t question whether it is permissible to do one thing or another.” But the artists who created Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s new retrospective of his work questioned their moves during each step of the creative process.

The three-story “Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective,” which is a collaboration between the Yale University Art Gallery and the Williams College Museum of Art, displays LeWitt’s original designs transformed into full works of art. These designs were executed with painstaking detail to LeWitt’s carefully laid-out plans by 65 student, interns and young artists. The final product is a mesmerizing and sometimes overwhelming achievement. And though the exhibit will remain for 25 years, it is difficult to imagine ever tearing down this visual wonderland.

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.

LeWitt’s art appears daringly bold, featuring geometric forms and colors that range from subdued grey tones to strikingly loud primary colors. The exhibit need not be viewed in chronological order, but it is fascinating to witness the steady progression of LeWitt’s designs from the ground floor up.

The first floor, which showcases his earliest works from the 1960s and ’70s, is a maze of lead and colored-pencil wall drawings. Several of the walls themselves feature LeWitt’s blueprints for their construction, making the artistic process a visible element of the finished work.

Playing with simple forms and color, Lewitt created a visually striking “Drawing 51: All architectural points connected by strait lines.” In this piece, hundreds of straight lines connect each point of a long wall of the museum and converge in different places.

Although this concept is seemingly simple, the effect is dramatic, as it calls attention to the drawing’s structure. This design required the use of a contractor’s blue snap line, a subtle medium that is surprisingly pronounced, making the architecture of the room immediately apparent. One onlooker summed it up nicely when she gasped, “Wild.”

Four expansive electric blue walls with two-piece combinations of arcs and different types of lines arranged in a grid pattern were equally mesmerizing. The interaction between each of the segments demonstrates the range of possibility and appears to shift depending on from how close or far away they are viewed.

The second floor builds upon the first. It illustrates LeWitt’s further manipulation of forms and novel experimentation with color. Colors such as yellow, red and blue come together to create geometric designs, and the juxtaposition of black and white demonstrates the complexity of color and form. His experimentation with rich textures and colors is remarkably easy on the eyes, despite the overwhelming boldness of his shapes.

Stepping onto the third floor of the exhibit is a bit like entering a funhouse. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the swirl of bright colors, sometimes shockingly displayed side by side. The strict geometric forms, however, bring each wall together in a new and innovative way. LeWitt also creates 3-D spaces that work well within the spacious architecture of the gallery, a converted factory.

Still, the paralyzing colors are somewhat devoid of emotion. LeWitt’s intent is not to excite sensual emotion, but the effects of fluorescent color and rigid shapes can be far too jarring to experience in a meaningful way. It becomes obvious he is no Rothko — not that he is trying to be.

His black-and-white scribble drawings, though a stark contrast to the loud colors, are powerful. Simple lead pencil scribbles create ethereal forms playing on light and shadow as they beckon the eye to take a closer look.

LeWitt’s vision aside, it is evident that the time it took to paint and assemble the exhibit is an impressive feat in and of itself. Although LeWitt left detailed blueprints for how each work should be executed, the minute details that are an integral part of many of the drawings must have left many a hand numb from the work. A video at the entrance of the exhibit features student interns who worked on the project using a wide array of artistic mediums and body contortions to get the job done.

It is a shame that LeWitt, who died only a year and a half before the completion of the exhibit, is not able to see this retelling of his work. Each floor is like a journey through his artistic life as we see the concepts and “machine” that enables others to recreate one man’s captivating designs.

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