Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective

The Sol LeWitt show at Mass-MoCA was less of a museum exhibit, and more of a circus. I admit, my first priority was to see the Anselm Keifer pieces in the adjacent building where I was able to spend the first hour of my visit sitting and contemplating A.E.I.O.U. and turning around to breathe in the space surrounding Narrow Are the Vessels in peace and quiet. Walking through the next room and into the Sol LeWitt exhibit was like walking out of a church and onto a city street.

I was immediately swarmed by children, with one particular little girl running between the bright walls screaming, “Colors! Colors! Colors!” I glanced over the first predictably geometric wall and came around the corner to the next where two middle-aged women turned to me and flashed peace signs with cheesy grins and tie-dye shirts. One woman rambled something off to me about the meaning of life which I don’t quite remember as being anything more than gibberish, but it ended with, “I don’t know what it means, but it means something, right? Ah, you didn’t grow up in the seventies, you wouldn’t understand.” And I didn’t. But I smiled as she turned away, dancing a dance that I’ve seen before which I commonly refer to as “The Hippie Shuffle.” Her friend then shouted joyously, “I didn’t go to work today, I went to MoCA!” I didn’t like the paintings any better, but I suddenly felt like I was a part of something really exciting, and glad to be there.

In LeWitt’s defense, I don’t believe that he intended his work to be a mystical journey into the unknown, leading us to a higher plane of existence to discover the meaning of life. I think his ideas were more influenced by mathematical logic, and finding any way of making some sense of the big, flat, open spaces we call “walls.” They’re not much more than simple geometric experiments, finding all possible ways of combining vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines, or blocks of color. These ideas, I’m sure, have been discussed and illustrated in mathematical literature dating well before LeWitt’s time. I suppose that taking those ideas and combining them with the tradition of mural painting is the original idea. It definitely has its place in the broader scope of art history as a response to abstract expressionism in the minimalist tradition. 

Their value may also lie in the simple pleasure of communicating a set of instructions, and seeing how well those instructions are carried out by others. In my mind, LeWitt lies parallel to my ideas about the programmers of the first computers, creating codes for execution that can be used anywhere. But these codes are awfully simple. Early computers and Sol LeWitts seem dated in a world of high-definition video games and intricate paint-by-numbers. And that seems like a terribly sick pleasure. I imagine LeWitt getting the same satisfaction and sense of power that Jim Jones had as he watched his followers carry out his idea of revolutionary suicide. Better to paint it on the wall, I suppose. I would have been more interested in a show of the first personal computers. (I actually saw a shop along the road on the way to the museum that had many very old computers in the storefront window, aptly named, “Computers.” I should have stopped.)

As I worked my way through the second floor, I decided to follow discreetly behind some fellow viewers and eavesdrop on their reactions, which became the most enjoyable experience of the show. Two distinct reactions prevailed. In all cases, people seemed lost, either in joy or in fear. Expressions of childlike glee were contrasted with awkward attempts to find something intelligent to say for fear of losing their reputation as an intellectual.  

I stopped to watch the film in the second floor reading room, which documented the process of creating the retrospective. Two more elderly women watched joyously at the craftsmen, draftsmen, painters and scribblers duteously carrying out LeWitt’s master plans. As the film concluded, the ladies seemed enthusiastic and inspired. “That looks like a fun art project!” And it did. I found that LeWitt’s art seems most easily accessible to elderly women, young children, or other subscribers to Arts and Crafts magazine. They seemed to be the only ones who were able to enjoy it for what it is, bright colors painted on a wall, which I say with the highest respect for them as the most honest, unpretentious viewers. 

Continuing through the exhibit, I found myself turning my gaze more and more toward the brick walls of the old mill building instead of the freshly painted walls of LeWitt. At some point I stopped, after a quick glance at a wall covered in pencil lines, and turned my back to it, to stare at the peeling paint and stains on the bricks left from an old staircase no longer there. I began to see the LeWitt walls as mere contrast, the backdrop to the art that is Mass-MoCA Building #7. I was also thankful for the windows. By the time I reached the third floor, my eyes were exhausted, and coming around that last wall in the back corner to finish the show with the bang of Loopy Doopy (orange and green,) it was a relief to turn away from the retina-burning colors, and peer out the window to the gray sky and snow covered grounds of the old mill.

 LeWitt’s work might have been the exception to the rule that one must see a work in person to fully appreciate it. Flat shapes and lines on a wall don’t provide much more to enjoy than a photograph of them, other than mere scale. We don’t even get to leave with the satisfaction that we’ve seen the hand of the artist. I admit, however, that it was a pleasure to be surrounded by them, feeling like a child in a funhouse. Perhaps this is the only way of truly appreciating LeWitt. It was also satisfying to experience the work as a chronological progression which, from the nineteen-sixties to the early twenty-first century, is so consistently steady, that it seems as though his entire artistic career was planned out from beginning to end. And perhaps it was. Maybe one day we’ll find a set of detailed instructions for a lifelong career as an artist that LeWitt brilliantly carried out over the course of his lifetime with exact precision.
 As the museum was about to close and I began making my way for the exit, I crossed paths again with my new hippie friends, flowing gently between two colorful walls. One was still dancing, the other exclaiming freely, “This is groovy! This is Austin Powers!”
 LeWitt’s work is something you’ll either love or hate, and those who love it, REALLY love it. As for myself, I left with the desperation of someone trying to find his way out of a hall of mirrors. My only regret is not having access to the rest of the Mass-MoCA complex. The buildings are easy to fall in love with, and in a show of wall paintings, the time-worn and stained bricks of Building #7 stole the show.

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