Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective occupies nearly an acre of specially built interior walls that are installed—per LeWitt’s own specifications—over three stories of a historic mill building situated at the heart of MASS MoCA’s 19th-century, former factory campus. A landmark collaboration of MASS MoCA, Yale University Art Gallery, the Williams College Museum of Art, and the Sol Lewitt estate, over 60 artists and art students spent six months rendering 105 large-scale wall drawings spanning the artist’s storied career.
From his taut, early graphite wall drawings of the mid-1960s to his swirling, brightly colored drawings of the early 21st century. The artist placed the walls and oversaw both the selection and arrangement of the art. Chosen by Time magazine as the best exhibition of the year and praised by the L.A. Times as “America’s Sistine Chapel,” .
MASS MoCA Director Joseph C. Thompson comments, “With this exhibition, Sol LeWitt has left an amazing gift for us all. Great art draws upon previous artists, but also contradicts and contravenes. And the most essential art argues for new ways of seeing, even as it is almost immediately absorbed into the work that surrounds and supersedes it. As I believe is evident in this landmark exhibition, LeWitt’s wall drawings rise to those highest of standards. This amazing collection of works is on long-term view as a sort of proton at the center of our museum around which our program of changing exhibitions and performances will orbit with even more energy.”
The works in the exhibition are on loan from numerous private and public collections worldwide, including the Yale University Art Gallery, to which LeWitt designated the gift of a major representation of his wall drawings, as well as his wall-drawing archive.
LeWitt—who stressed the idea behind his work over its execution—is widely regarded as one of the leading exponents of Minimalism and Conceptual Art, and is known primarily for his deceptively simple geometric structures and architecturally scaled wall drawings. His experiments with the latter commenced in 1968 and were considered radical, in part because this new form of drawing was purposely temporal and often executed not just by LeWitt but also by other artists and students whom he invited to assist him in the installation of his works.
Each wall drawing begins as a set of instructions or a simple diagram to be followed in executing the work. As the exhibition makes clear, these straightforward instructions yield an astonishing—and stunningly beautiful—variety of work that is at once simple and highly complex, rigorous, and sensual. The drawings in the exhibition range from layers of straight lines meticulously drawn in black graphite pencil lead, to rows of delicately rendered wavy lines in colored pencil; from bold black-and-white geometric forms, to bright planes in acrylic paint arranged like the panels of a folding screen; from sensuous drawings created by dozens of layers of transparent washes, to a tangle of vibratory orange lines on a green wall, and much more. Forms may appear to be flat, to recede in space, or to project into the viewer’s space, while others meld to the structure of the wall itself, like gauze.
Of the installation process, Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, noted, “Watching this grand installation of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings progress over six months has been nothing short of thrilling. In addition to providing an enduring exhibition of great beauty, this retrospective will enable visitors to behold for the first time the full trajectory of a major aspect of Sol’s artistic career. Until today, the only way to view multiple LeWitt wall drawings has been to travel far and wide, pursuing them individually in situ or in temporary museum exhibitions. Now, visitors will be able to return to MASS MoCA again and again to experience this visual feast of Sol’s wall drawings in a single location, doing so at their leisure over twenty-five years.”
The impetus for Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective was a 2004 conversation between Reynolds and LeWitt. As the conversation evolved, the artist committed to giving a substantial number of his wall drawings and his entire wall-drawing archive to the Yale University Art Gallery, which already owned an extensive array of LeWitt’s art in multiple mediums. Realizing that the Gallery did not have enough space to install and maintain a large number of the artist’s wall drawings at any one time, Reynolds suggested to LeWitt that MASS MoCA—with its expansive historic mill complex, growing audience, and history of realizing ambitious new works—might be interested in accommodating an extended retrospective.
Situated at the center of MASS MoCA’s multi-building complex and featuring large banks of windows that open onto two flanking courtyards, the structure appealed to LeWitt as an ideal site for a multi-floor installation of his work. In addition to the new interior walls, which he designed in consultation with Bruner/Cott & Associates—MASS MoCA’s lead architectural firm—his specifications for the space included a plan that would leave nearly all of the existing exterior masonry walls and large windows intact, providing direct side lighting and offering beautiful views to surrounding courtyards and the Berkshire mountains beyond. Bruner/Cott integrated the galleries into MASS MoCA’s existing plan by re-activating existing elevated connector-bridges and adding new ones, and by creating a new three-story lightwell for vertical circulation and the admission of more light.
Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective opened to the public on November 16, 2008, after nearly six months of intensive drafting and painting by a team comprising twenty-two senior and experienced assistants who worked with the artist over many years; thirty-three student interns from Yale University, Williams College, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and fourteen other colleges and universities; and thirteen local artists and recent graduates and postgraduates from many of the nation’s leading studio-art programs.
Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective comprises 105 of LeWitt’s large-scale wall drawings, spanning the artist’s career from 1969 to 2007. These occupy nearly an acre of specially built interior walls that have been installed—per LeWitt’s own specifications—over three stories of a historic mill building situated at the heart of MASS MoCA’s campus. The 27,000-square-foot structure, known as Building #7, has been fully restored for the exhibition by Bruner/Cott & Associates architects, which has closely integrated the building into the museum’s main circulation plan through a series of elevated walkways, a dramatic new vertical lightwell, and new stairways.
Wall Drawing #340
Six-part drawing. The wall is divided horizontally and vertically into six equal parts. First part: On red, blue horizontal parallel lines, and in the center, a circle within which are yellow vertical parallel lines; second part: On yellow, red horizontal parallel lines, and in the center, a square within which are blue vertical parallel lines; third part: On blue, yellow horizontal parallel lines, and in the center, a triangle within which are red vertical parallel lines; fourth part: On red, yellow horizontal parallel lines, and in the center, a rectangle within which are blue vertical parallel lines; fifth part: On yellow, blue horizontal parallel lines, and in the center, a trapezoid within which are red vertical parallel lines; sixth part: On blue, red horizontal parallel lines, and in the center, a parallelogram within which are yellow vertical parallel lines. The horizontal lines do not enter the figures. Red, yellow, blue crayon on red, yellow and blue wall
Wall Drawing #391
Two-part drawing. The two walls are each divided horizontally and vertically into four equal parts. First wall: 12-inch (30 cm) bands of lines in four directions, one direction in each part, drawn in black India ink. Second wall: Same, but with four colors drawn in India ink and color ink washes.
Wall Drawing #146A
All two-part combinations of arcs from corners and sides, and straight, not straight, and broken lines within a 36-inch (90 cm) grid.
Wall Drawing #797
The first drafter has a black marker and makes an irregular horizontal line near the top of the wall. Then the second drafter tries to copy it (without touching it) using a red marker. The third drafter does the same, using a yellow marker. The fourth drafter does the same, using a blue marker. Then the second drafter, followed by the third and fourth, copies the last line drawn until the bottom of the wall is reached.
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
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MASS MoCA exhibits art by both well-known and emerging artists, focusing on large-scale, immersive installations that would be impossible to realize in conventional museums. The broad-shouldered, raw industrial character of our soaring galleries (with 250,000 square feet of open and often naturally lit space) has proven both inspiring and liberating to artists.
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