NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Sanding, duct-taping and painting walls sound more like home improvement than artistry. But last summer, 10 Yale students performed such tedious tasks to carry out the conceptual visions of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings.
Thirty-three students from Yale, Williams College and 15 other Northeastern universities lived at Williams College and collaborated at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art as interns working with other artists and museum directors. These interns had their hands in the entire process creating the “Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective,” an exhibit put together by the Yale University Art Gallery and the Williams College Museum of Art that will remain on display for the next 25 years.
Although the job of putting together an entire exhibit based only on LeWitt’s blueprints was daunting, half a dozen students involved in the project said they found it to be the experience of a lifetime. Even on the isolated grounds of MASS MoCA in North Adams, the Yalies and their co-workers formed a bonded community of artists.
This community is what the student interns remember most about working on the wall drawings. Susan Morrow ’11 said that living with students day in and day out in such an isolated town forged many bonds. Five interns interviewed agreed that part of the pleasure of this project was getting together and making their own fun, whether on- or off-duty.
The blasting music, laptops and ladders that once filled the gallery are now absent, and the expansive space holds the finished project with quiet viewers milling about.
Elyse Nelson ’09, who made an audio guide for the exhibit during the two weeks she spent in North Adams, said the atmosphere in the gallery was incomparable to that in which she spent so many hours this past summer.
“I walked through the exhibit without students and had such a different experience,” she said. “With students everywhere it was such a fun environment and it was always really interesting to see such a camaraderie of artists.”
The students said they followed a collaborative process, a virtue LeWitt espoused in his work. No one focused on one single piece; rather, they each contributed something to a variety of works.
“I got a sense for the way that the works are already sort of collaborative and how it really democratizes artwork by so many different people working on them,” said Morrow. “They don’t have an individual hand working on them, which allows them to function on more of a conceptual level.”
The range of the tasks students carried out varied greatly, from applying ink with rags to sharpening pencils for hours. And at the end of the learning process, the interns walked away understanding different technical aspects of LeWitt’s procedures.
David Kant ’10 noted he was surprised that LeWitt’s drawings allowed for students of all backgrounds to participate. Kant said he is a math major who lacks experience in visual arts, but he worked on acrylic wall drawings, doing everything from taping off sections to actually applying paint on the wall.
Despite the democratic effort of the process, two students interviewed, who never saw the completion of the walls on which they worked, harbored mixed emotions about creating the work of another.
Morrow said she struggled with the idea that the people who own the art own the blueprints: Yale owns the blueprints for some of LeWitt’s works but does not own the wall. For this reason, Morrow said she felt ownership over her wall.
“In the end the wall feels like it belongs to you, though it’s not only someone else’s work but a type of work that doesn’t belong to anyone,” she said.
Regardless, the general consensus among the students who spent eight weeks toiling in the gallery said they felt a great sense of accomplishment.
“Working on the LeWitt retrospective was, in the best way, probably one of the weirdest jobs I’ll ever have,” said Robert Liles ’11. “At the end of the summer, I didn’t want to go back to school.”