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Whose Drawings Are They Anyway?

Whose Drawings Are They Anyway?
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The history of art has long legitimized the practice of apprentices, assistants, and technicians helping to create the works of master artists, preparing and stretching canvases, applying preliminary coats of paint, working under the master’s direction. A great many prints are made by master printers from artists’ paintings and drawings. Large-scale sculpture is often fabricated by artisans working from models or maquettes. Personally, I prefer to see the hand of the artist at work in something more than his/her signature, but concept trumps execution in the canon of contemporary art.

Pop Artist Andy Warhol, of course, was famous for subverting the idea of authorship and embracing mass production by turning over the entire production of some of his art to workers in his studio, appropriately named The Factory. Sol LeWitt followed suit, delegating art students and assistants to create his colorful geometric wall drawings from detailed instructions.

Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), a native of Hartford, CT, was a protean Conceptual artist with a Minimalist bent. Most serious art museums during his lifetime commissioned one of his signature Wall Drawings, sometimes painted by LeWitt with help from others, sometimes painted by others. Highly decorative and accessible, LeWitt’s Wall Drawings ranged from simple stripes to complex patterns of grids, cubes, arcs, curves, and lines, usually in bright primary colors.

One of the beauties of LeWitt’s Wall Drawings is that, since they are designed to be temporary and applied by hands other than the artist’s, museums, galleries, and collectors can always paint over them if they need the wall and then have them re-painted at another time without destroying their authenticity. One of the limitations of LeWitt’s Wall Drawings, until now, is that, since they were designed for specific sites and institutions, you had to travel all over Creation to see them. Enter Yale University Art Gallery and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA).

Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective features 105 of LeWitt’s Wall Drawings installed in a three-story former mill building at MassMoCA in North Adams, MA. No reason to hurry over to the Berkshires however. The retrospective, which opened in November, is scheduled to be in place for 25 years, through the year 2033.

In many ways, this most unusual retrospective is Sol LeWitt’s crowning creation. Back in 2004, LeWitt gave his entire Wall Drawing archive to the Yale University Art Galley, but the Yale didn’t have space to create and display so many large-scale pieces. MassMoCA, with its sprawling mill complex, did. Over the course of six months in 2008, a team of 22 former LeWitt assistants, 33 students interns from Yale, Williams, and 15 other colleges and universities, and 13 local artists transformed MassMoCA’s 27,000 square foot Building # 7 into a Sol LeWitt showcase. It’s just a shame that LeWitt never got to see it.

To celebrate and document Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, MassMoCA and Yale University Press are publishing Sol LeWitt: 100 Views, a collection of 100 essays on LeWitt by critics, scholars, and fellow artists scheduled for release in 2009; and, in 2010, the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale University Press will publish Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings: A Catalogue Raisonne.

The nexus of MassMoCA, Williams College Museum of Art (which is programming smaller LeWitt exhibitions in conjunction with the retrospective) and the Clark Art Institute already make the northwest corner of the Bay State an art Mecca, but this long-running, landmark Sol LeWitt show should draw even a wider audience to the Berkshires.

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, MA. 413-662-2111.

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