Sol LeWitt

I spent last weekend in Williamstown, MA, with my family for my sister’s Williams Dance Company performance and the super-swanky Mother’s Day brunch at the Williams Inn. (I’m allergic to chicken and turkey, so I passed over the roast duck; but I made sure to grab some brunch swordfish!)

We also went to the Sol LeWitt retrospective exhibition at Mass MoCA. LeWitt is really interesting; first, because he drew his artwork directly on gallery walls, and second, because the artwork consists mainly of a detailed set of instructions describing how to create the drawing. If one museum sells a Sol LeWitt wall drawing to another museum, then they erase the wall, give the new museum the instructions, and that museum carefully follows the plan to reconstruct the wall drawing in a new space. I found this whole process to be quite interesting. (All the images here are from the Mass MoCA web site; click to see them on the original pages.)

Wall Drawing 289 (Mass MoCA)
Wall Drawing 289, Fourth wall: twenty-four lines from the center, twelve lines from the midpoint of each of the sides, twelve lines from each corner. (Mass MoCA)

The precision and care that went into each wall drawing (some on walls that were, maybe, thirty feet wide by eight feet tall) are amazing. Each drawing is the product of work by a number of drafters, some of whom are interns and some of whom are dedicated to Sol LeWitt wall drawing. They develop methods for interpreting LeWitt’s instructions. Some of those instructions even leave parts of the implementation wholly up to the drafters.

Detail from Wall Drawing 305 (Mass MoCA)
Detail from Wall Drawing 305, the location of one hundred random specific points (Mass MoCA)

LeWitt’s method seems to revolve around abstraction – taking something observable and representing it in a symbolic way. The descriptions at Mass MoCA describe how LeWitt was interested in removing the artist from the artwork. This concept resonates for me: here I am, trained as a physicist and engineer, with my livelihood based on constructing, manipulating, and extracting results from mathematical models. Those models are based on the theories that govern physical phenomena; but they never are a full, complete description. Still, we use them to great effect in making predictions or developing new theories. The philosophy of science question here is, are the models conceptually different from the theories they describe? Or are they just a different representation of the same thing? In the same vein, is Sol LeWitt’s art the wall drawing, or the instructions? His opinion seemed to be the latter.

The other thing I ended up thinking about while strolling through the wall drawings was how the implementation of the drawings corresponded to realizations of models in the science and engineering world. We can come up with incredibly complex models for how the universe works, but when constructing a simulation or making a prediction, we often choose to use only a small part of the model. For instance, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity describes how objects move under the influence of gravity (or, equivalently, how they move through curved spacetime). But for a great many applications, Newton’s single equation for gravitational attraction between two bodies is enough: The force is attractive, proportional to the product of the masses of the bodies, and inversely proportional to the square of their separation. Then for yet another large subset of applications, the simple high-school physics expression F = -mg is quite sufficient. In a sense, both of these simplifications are realizations of General Relativity, in the presence of certain simplifications that let us “zoom in” on part of the model. When the drafters have a LeWitt wall drawing instruction sheet, they must match the instructions up to the wall space they have to work with. The instructions seems to be written in reference to relative measurements on the wall (the midpoint of the left side, the corner, the center of the wall, etc), which means that the same instructions – the same idea, the same “theory” can produce very different realizations on different walls. (And, speaking of relativity, I wonder if LeWitt ever took a look at the math behind Einstein’s theories. It would have been neat to see something like this wall drawing as viewed by an observer traveling at 0.5c!)

Not only do the spaces shape the wall drawings, but the drafters themselves may be left with choices in how to interpret and then implement LeWitt’s instructions. Take this wall drawing:

Wall Drawing 386 (Mass MoCA)
Wall Drawing 386, stars with three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine points, drawn with a light tone India ink wash inside, an India ink wash outside, separated by a 6-inch (15 cm) white band. (Mass MoCA)

I spent a little while thinking about that three-pointed star. Without that, it’s obvious how the progression works: the nth star is centered in the middle of each square, its points are evenly spaced about a circle, they all extend to the same radius, and the border of the star comes in between each point so that the shape is concave. But that three-pointed star breaks all those rules! It need not have – it could have been just like the four-pointed star, only with three points. Instead, it is a triangle with one concave side. Here, I do not know: was this in LeWitt’s instructions, or did a drafter determine how to construct this three-pointed star?

Some of the wall drawings definitely did have ambiguity built in. My favorite of MoCA’s drawings was 146A:

Wall Drawing 146A (Mass MoCA)
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. (Mass MoCA)

The instructions for this drawing specify that the drafters make “not straight” lines. Okay…so we define the line by what it isn’t, and leave a still-infinite space of possible lines that meet this description. The drafter can make “not straight” lines as un-straight as they like. They can make lines that wander as much as they want. They can choose to tie their “not straight” lines in to the “not straight” lines in the rest of the drawing or not. If you take a look at the timelapse video of this wall drawing being drafted, you can see how each drafter does each “not straight” line differently.

Were I Sol LeWitt, I think it would have been interesting to create a set of wall drawing instructions that contained intentional contradictions. Some drawings might have tiny contradictions, some might seem like egregious errors. What would the drafters do? Would they prioritize the instructions, and satisfy the most important ones first? Would they try to satisfy both constraints equally? Would they push back at all the instructions for the wall drawing, going for the most “average” level of meeting the instructions? That would sure be an interesting way to comment on our artistic, geometric, scientific, or philosophical methodologies. In an exhibition with many drafters and many walls, giving them all the same set of contradictory instructions would likely turn up some very interesting results!

Wall Drawing 692 (Mass MoCA)
Wall Drawing 692, continuous forms with color ink washes superimposed. (Mass MoCA)

Some of LeWitt’s later wall drawings were just plain fun. Drawing 692, above, was also one of my favorites – I liked how it gave the impression of different planes, and how the vibrant colors made the painting stand out as if with its own light. It was like looking through a windowpane onto another stained-glass window. Remember – this image doesn’t convey it, but I stood only a little taller than the second black line from the floor!

Then, of course, there were wall drawings like Splat, the intentionally impossible-to-look-at Loopy Doopy, Whirls and Twirls, and some cool experimentation with glossy and matte paints.

Wall Drawing 824 (Mass MoCA)
Wall Drawing 824, a black square divided in two parts by a wavy line. One part flat; one glossy. (Mass MoCA)

But of course, being a Williams guy, I had to like Wall Drawing 852 best of all.

Wall Drawing 852 (Mass MoCA)
Wall Drawing 852, a wall divided from the upper left to the lower right by a curvy line; left: glossy yellow; right: glossy purple. (Mass MoCA)

The Sol LeWitt Retrospective is a very cool exhibit. I didn’t always like the art at Mass MoCA, but I’ll happily recommend a trip to see this!

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