by Samantha Sigmon, with Rome Font
A drawing painted directly on the wall cannot simply be taken out of a museum, it must be painted over, so, what is a wall drawing when it no longer exists in physical form?
This week a group of artists begin a month-long installation of Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 880: Loopy Doopy on one of the outward-facing walls of the Early Twentieth-Century Art Galleries at Crystal Bridges. This team of artists works together, following Sol LeWitt’s written instructions. You can check out their progress from the windows across the pond at our restaurant, Eleven, before the work opens to the public on November 6.
It may seem unusual for an artist’s work to be created by someone other than the artist, but think of builders erecting a structure by following an architectural plan, or musicians playing a symphony from a score. To conceptual artists, often the original idea is the work of art, more so than the final object.
LeWitt, an early leader in conceptual art, had created wall drawings (he always referred to them as “drawings,” even though later ones are made of acrylic paint) for decades, totaling some 1,200 before his death in 2007. Ever evolving through their different iterations in varying locations, these drawings redefine what an art object is and how it lives in a cultural institution. Painting directly onto a wall is, of course, not new. In response to a description of the artist as the “originator of wall drawings,” Sol LeWitt replied, “I think the cave men came first.” Throughout history, artists have painted on walls, floors, and ceilings—examples include Egyptian tombs or frescos in Roman homes. Many were commissioned with specific religious, political, or decorative purposes.
LeWitt’s wall drawings, in contrast, come out of contemporary art and society. Within the last few hundred years, we have come to champion the individuality and genius of the creative mind. Institutions like museums are erected to protect art and culture. By painting onto a museum wall, Lewitt flips this: he rejects permanence, commercial viability, and the ownership of the creator. Unlike a framed masterwork painting that could never be reproduced by another’s hand and maintain its integrity, a wall drawing by LeWitt can indeed be produced by any number of artists, and can even exist in multiple spaces simultaneously, so long as they are faithfully produced. “Ideas cannot be owned,” LeWitt maintained, “They belong to whomever understands them. The piece takes physical form and becomes an object. The object may be possessed.”
The wall drawing being installed at Crystal Bridges looks very different from LeWitt’s early work. The artist’s first such artwork, in 1968, consisted of straight lines drawn in graphite pencil. A few decades later, he became more playful—forms gave way to waves, swirls, and pulses like in the artwork that is being installed in our galleries.
Though his designs change, the artist’s specification to make the surface as flat as possible is foregrounded in all these projects. LeWitt thought the best display for painted work was to forgo the support, such as canvas or panel, and celebrate the flat qualities of the paint medium on the wall itself. Those producing the work have to execute a detailed, multistep process to smooth out the wall. Also, they must use very specific types of paint, according to LeWitt’s instructions. (View an installation time-lapse video from an installation of one of LeWitt’s wall drawings at Mass MoCA here.)
At Crystal Bridges, LeWitt’s wall drawing is most conceptually tied to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (L.A.), currently residing at the end of our 1940s To Now Gallery. In this work, a layer of wrapped candies lie directly on the floor, inviting the visitor to take a piece with them. Both Gonzalez-Torres and LeWitt are now deceased, but their work continues to live on through their sanctioned instructions.
Ed. Note: You can see lots of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings on this webpage from a retrospective at Mass MoCA.