Sol LeWitt (1928-2007)

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Arcs in Four Directions/Sol LeWitt, 1999 — San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

I was very sorry to hear the news yesterday about the death of Sol LeWitt, who proved that even Conceptualism could be luscious, that the most parsimonious and disembodied of artistic practices could be a means to arrive at a whole fund of sensual pleasures. Three years ago, in a review of the big, simultaneous surveys of Minimalism at LAMOCA and the Guggenheim, I described one of his completely mesmerizing wall drawings as….

madly fastidious decorative art presented in the disguise of high-minded conceptualism. (LeWitt conceives them but leaves it to studio assistants to carry out the actual drawing, removing the taint of the artist’s hand.) In their orderly way, the best of them are laugh-out-loud gorgeous. His Wall Drawing 271 at the Guggenheim is one of those, a force field of pale color produced by laying a red square gridwork over a pattern of radiating black circles and yellow and blue arcs. Your eyes could play in that web work all day.

As I mentioned in that passage, LeWitt was famous for minimizing the artist’s personal stamp by producing his wall drawings as a set of instructions to be carried out by his assistants. Or for that matter, by anyone — though as Michael Kimmelman pointed out in his obit in today’s New York Times, LeWitt frequently looked over and adjusted the results.

For that reason I find myself wondering what limits, if any, there will be on future production of LeWitt’s work. Posthumous output in nothing new in the artworld. New prints are made from old negatives, new impressions from old etching plates. There are Rodins at the Metropolitan that were cast in the 1970s — though some people insist that as a consequence those should not be considered real Rodins, even if his estate sanctioned the castings. But LeWitt’s use of others to produce his work as a matter of principle, as something inherent to his working method, brings the issue to an entirely new level of complication.

This reminded me that Mass MoCA, in collaboration with the Yale University Art Gallery, is about to embark on a massive and enduring installation of 50 of LeWitt’s wall drawings made — or would it be better to say “conceived”? — between 1968 and 2007. So I rang up Joseph Thompson, the director of Mass MoCA, who told me that until just last week LeWitt was working with a scale model of the immense 27,000 sq. ft. gallery space on the MoCA campus, an old factory building where renovation work begins in a few weeks, with work on the first wall drawings expected to commence about a year from now. “Sol continued to tweak the model until last Wednesday or Thursday,” Thompson said.

Though LeWitt is no longer here to supervise the drawing, experts from his studio will be taking up residence at Mass MoCA to direct the apprentices and art students who will execute the works, which will remain on view for 25 years. Interestingly, some of the drawings will be “loans” from other institutions of an unusual kind. The original drawing will remain on view at the lender institution while the duplicate — or near duplicate; LeWitt was not fussy about exact reproduction — is exhibited at Mass MoCA.

So long as there are people who worked directly with LeWitt to carry out his drawings, a living link to his intentions, these first posthumous LeWitts will have a strong claim to being, well, LeWitts. But a century from now, when all of his collaborators are gone too, will it still be possible to produce LeWitts? Or will it matter not at all that there will be no one left who worked with him, since letting go of the work, welcoming the small interventions of his assistants, was all part of LeWitt’s concept. In that sense, his intentions can never decay over time. Because even decay was one of his intentions all along.