More Talk With: Joe Thompson

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Sol LeWitt at MASS MoCA/Photos: Lacayo

Let’s continue that talk with MASS MoCA Director Joe Thompson about how the giant Sol LeWitt installation was accomplished. Yesterday we talked about how LeWitt had come up to MASS MoCA in 2004 and picked out an empty building on the museum campus that he thought would be suitable for the show, which is going to remain on the walls for 25 years.

LACAYO: After that first visit, how often did Sol come up to supervise the installation?

THOMPSON: That was it. Jock [Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery] and I agreed that our institutions would collaborate in raising the for the books and the installation. Our architects, Bruner/Cott and Associates, volunteered to build a model and we sent it off to Sol. He kept it for six or nine months. Then Jock got a call that Sol had completed the installation. Then Bruner/Cott took that model and made it into a real plan, up to code. They did a really wonderful job. Later Sol told us that this was one of the few times in his career he had actually been given the chance to design walls. Usually he was given walls and had to react to that.


LACAYO: How many people did it take to do the drawings?

THOMPSON: It ended up being at its peak 65. There were 19 Sol LeWitt professionals, full time studio assistants or artists who had done a lot of work with Sol. They all arrived on April 1 of this year. To those we added 8 recent graduates from fine arts programs all around the country and four local artists. Then we added a third group of college undergraduates, plus a mathmetician.


LACAYO: What do you think this installation will do to change the impression of Sol’s work?

THOMPSON: For one, there’s a rather narrow view of his work now. On the one hand that’s been determined by his sculptures, which are rigorous, geometrical — you feel as though you’re looking at the structure of thought itself. And then there’s his writings, particularly his very important writings in the ’60s and early ’70s, in which he defined himself as what we now think of as one of the pioneers of conceptual art, this idea of separating the idea from the execution. Again, that can seem a rather cool idea. And in much of his writing he wrote almost against the idea of “looks”, formal rightness. He talked frequently about how, if his drawings were executed correctly — and correctly meant simply following his rules — then they were LeWitt drawings. The question of whether the lines were beautiful and the shapes and textures added up to an overall impression, that was seemingly of little interest to him.

What the show reveals is that both those ideas — the one given by his sculpture and the other by his writings — are belied by the fact that the drawings are simply beautiful from the very first works to the vivid, potent eye searing work at the top floor. And that’s not what you think of with Sol — that sense of beauty and control, that exquisite sense of line and touch.



LACAYO: I agree. One thing you learn from this installation is that there’s a human touch to Sol’s work. There are drawings where the outcome has a lot to do with individual decisions by the person who draws them, about how exactly to make “a wavy line”, or drawings that explicitly depend on how tall the person is and how far their arms can reach.

THOMPSON: In an early phase of this project they were sanding the skim coat of plaster on one of the walls to prepare it for the drawing. At one point they had like 20 people in there sanding by hand. I came through and said “If you want some vibrating sanders we’ve got ’em in the shop, you’ll cover this territory a lot faster. ” But they said “We would but it would be too smooth. You’ll see, when we’re done with this they’ll be a sense of imperfection. Some people sand in a certain way and some people don’t. We want that quality. If we used an electric sander it would be like a beautifully finished plaster wall, as if it were done by a perfect machine and that’s not what we’re looking for.”