I had a conversation yesterday with Jock Reynolds, the director of the Yale University Art Gallery, about the future of Sol LeWitt’s work. Reynolds was in close contact with LeWitt for years, and especially in his last years. It was Reynolds who suggested to LeWitt the idea of MassMoCA as a place for the long term display of his wall drawings, which has now grown into the plan to bring a 25-year installation of 50 of those into a 27,000 sq. ft. building on the MassMoCA campus.
My question had to do with the issue I raised a few days ago — what will be the limits, if any, for producing LeWitt drawings now that the artist is gone? It was inherent to LeWitt’s practice as an artist that other people carried out his drawings, but he also checked in on the execution of many of them and sometimes intervened to tweak them. Which implies that there were parameters of execution quality within which a LeWitt drawing was expected to remain.
Reynolds told me that this is a question that he and other people involved with the Yale/MassMoCA collaboration have given thought to, which is why the drawings at MassMoCA will be executed under the supervision of LeWitt’s most experienced studio assistants. Eventually, the LeWitt project at MassMoCA, which will also involve hiring a full time curator or conservator, could even produce a program to train a future cadre of what you might call LeWitt “expert executors.”
But Reynolds also made the useful point that LeWitt’s wall drawings, which start life simply as written instructions from the artist, are best thought of as musical scores. “When a great composer dies you still have the scores,” he said. “And you have people in symphony orchestras who go on playing them.”
If anything, a score lives through it’s free interpretation by subsequent generations of musicians, and sometimes the freer the better. And as Reynolds pointed out, with many of LeWitt’s wall drawings the people carrying them out get to make decisions on their own about what to do, “much as the dancers in a piece by Cage and Cunningham do.”
So executions that departed from how the drawings were done in the past might be the best thing for them. As an example of how not to produce posthumous LeWitts, think of the airless productions of Wagner, the ones “true” to his intentions, that were mounted at Bayreuth for decades after his death. Or of the limitations that Samuel Beckett put on “impure” stage interpretations of his plays while he was still alive. (When he learned about a production of Endgame that was being re-set in a subway station, he insisted that the text of his statement denouncing the idea — “A complete parody of the play. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted.” — be stapled into the program. And it was.)
Maybe the best model for LeWitt’s legacy is Handel’s. Over this past Easter weekend you could hear community choirs all over New York breathing new life into The Messiah. It would be nice to think of LeWitt’s work that way, as a kind of Hallelujah Chorus, one that goes on for centuries, in new voices all the time.