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Drawing on walls

Your Humble Blogger has been trying to figure out what to write about the fabulous Sol LeWitt Exhibit at MassMoca, which I visited last week. Some of y’all may be familiar with Mr. LeWitt, Greater Hartford’s greatest artist, and some of y’all not so much. I have been a big fan for, well, for quite some time. I don’t remember if it goes back before an exhibit at MFA, Boston in the fall of 1994, or whether that was my first introduction. I do remember being amazed by the works I saw then, both the large scale and small scale stuff (although the structures didn’t really move me, and still don’t). I took a long time at that exhibition, which I could do, because I had no children, and because my Best Reader also was blown away, although by somewhat different things.

What knocked me out? I’ll try to explain it, but I doubt I’ll convince anybody who hasn’t seen the stuff. You know, it occurs to me that I’ve been saying for some time that people (in my experience) seem to not be knocked out by Mark Rothko’s stuff, and then some of them have what I have taken to calling a Rothko Moment, a sort of epiphany where they stand in front of his stuff, and suddenly they find it so emotionally moving that their entire experience of modern art changes entirely. I’ve never had a Rothko Moment, but perhaps half-a-dozen people have described to me their Rothko Moments whilst I have nodded and shrugged and envied them. What I’m saying, people are different one to another, and that’s what makes the world interesting and fun. But with art, and particularly (I think) with non-representative modern art, that means that some of y’all will have already had your Sol LeWitt moment, some of you will never have it, and some will have it someday, and nothing I say is going to really change that, nor should it. But still.

What enthralled me, from the beginning, about Mr. LeWitt’s stuff, is a combination of a rigorous and austere mathematical conceptualism with a stunning, visceral almost frighteningly dominant beauty. Works that are (seemingly) generated from an arbitrary set of rules turn out to be breathtakingly fabulous. Works that stunned me with their visual drama turned out to be the result of obsessive repetition guided by meticulous instruction. Oh, not everything works for me, but again and again I find myself having a multiple-level reaction: first knocked over by the sheer look of the thing, the sumptuousness or the clarity or the… well, the beauty of the thing, one way or another. Then, on close inspection, discovering the pattern or the rule. Then, stepping back again, finding new patterns—or attempting to find them and being frustrated or dazzled out of them.

A few years later, I saw a piece in the Tate Modern, I believe it was A Wall Divided Vertically into Fifteen Equal Parts, Each with a Different Line Direction and Colour, and All Combinations, and I was knocked out again. I don’t have a picture of it to link to, and I don’t think that a photograph would give you any sense of the piece itself. All it is, really, is a wall, divided vertically into fifteen equal parts, the leftmost part (looking at it) having very fine vertical lines in black pencil, the next part having very fine horizontal lines in yellow pencil, the next having very fine diagonal lines in red pencil going from upper right to lower left, and the next having very fine diagonal lines in blue pencil going from upper left to lower right. That’s four parts. The fifth (counting from your left while looking at it) has both vertical black lines and horizontal yellow lines; the sixth has vertical black lines and diagonal red lines, the seventh has vertical black lines and diagonal blue lines. We are now at the middle of the wall, right? Proceeding, the eighth panel from the left (or the right) has horizontal yellow lines and diagonal red lines, the ninth has horizontal yellow lines and diagonal blue lines, the tenth has diagonal red and diagonal blue lines. We’re two-thirds of the way to the end. The next part, eleventh from the left, fifth from the right, has vertical black lines, horizontal yellow lines, and diagonal red lines. The twelfth has vertical black, horizontal yellow and diagonal blue lines. The thirteenth has a naked lady. No, just wanted to see if you had nodded off there, the thirteenth has vertical black, diagonal red and diagonal blue lines, and the fourteenth has horizontal yellow, diagonal red and diagonal blue lines. And the last, the rightmost panel, has all four.

Boy, that doesn’t sound pretty at all, does it?

But it was. It was gorgeous. The wall starts out (viewing it from left to right from across the room) very delicate and pale grey, yellow, red (pink, really) and blue, and then darkens, changes hue and intensity. Toward the middle, the colors combine with the patters to hit a serene beauty; toward the right, an ominous complexity. As you walk closer to the wall, you see the different colors that combine; from very close, you can finally see the lines, crossing in patterns. The edges where the panels meet were fascinating as well; from a distance, they seem almost blurry, particularly toward the right side, while when you get your nose up almost to the wall, they are crisp and mechanical.

And I want to emphasize this part of the experience—when you are close enough to see the individual lines on one part, you can see the lines on perhaps the panels just on either side, but when you turn your head a bit to see the panels further down the wall, your eyes can’t make out the individual lines and you begin to mix the colors together in your head. To see the piece, to really look at it, you need to look from a distance, look from the middle, then put your nose an inch away, walk the length of the wall, weave back and forth across the room, attempt to stand in two or three places at once, and finally, both frustrated and satiated, walk away from it.

I could have happily spent twenty minutes in that room, just looking at the wall.

That drawing was not, alas, one of the works included in the retrospective at MassMoca. There were similar works, and works that I had a similar response to, but not that one.

And then, when we moved here, there was a visit to the Atheneum, where not only were there two lovely wall drawings of swooping vibrant colors, but also (at the moment of the visit) a delicate wall drawing of colored pencil lines and four smallish drawings-on-paper in a series called Scribbles that I hadn’t seen before. Or seen anything like them, really. There are a few at MassMOCA, but those first works I saw and the magnificent one at the New Britain Museum of American Art are not there.

The Scribbles (and here I will describe them in a way that makes them sound utterly boring and devoid of beauty) as a series all involve fine-point graphite lines, black ones on most of the works (the ones I like, anyway), drawn on the wall in, well, scribbles, to a density that is defined according to rules Mr. LeWitt has set out. Those rules create large images that are visible from across the room: a cross, a square, a horizontal bar, a vertical line. Sometimes the large figure appears to be shaded, with a gradation of dark to light; sometimes the line is abrupt. When you go close, you can see the tangle of individual pencil lines, invisible from the distance. When you go close, the large figures become invisible, too, lost in the tangle of individual pencil lines. In the darkest parts of the drawing, the scribbling is so dense that you can’t make out the individual pencil lines at all.

There are no straight lines in these works; the impression of straight lines comes from the aggregate made by scribbles turning on themselves rather than heading out (or in). But that impression is there. Looking carefully at the border between regions of different density gives an impression of movement contrasted with solidity, freedom and license, order and randomness. When the darkest level of density gives way to gray, I get the impression of lines breaking free, emerging into open space. Or returning to the dark. And I step toward the wall and away from it myself, exchanging one view for another, each step toward the wall or away from it changing the entire piece.

I have already gone on much too long, particularly as Gentle Readers who have no experience with Sol LeWitt will not get that from this note. Photographs of his work can be lovely, but they don’t convey the experience of seeing them in person. In particular, since part of what I love about his stuff is the tension between large-scale beauty, viewed from a distance, and small-scale rigor, viewed up close, there is no good way to duplicate that experience with photographs (even a video of the Scribbling, while a terrific video in itself, doesn’t do that). But I hope I’ve conveyed that my experience over a decade or so has been tremendous, and that I have had several experiences of seeing new Sol LeWitt works, new to me at any rate, that looked utterly different from the works I had seen before, but that were clearly connected with the same concepts he had been interested in all along. And which I found breathtaking.

Sol LeWitt is the only visual artist that I have had that experience with over the years. I’m not sure if I have really had that with musicians. David Byrne, perhaps, would put out an album (Rei Momo, f’r’ex) that expressed fundamental David-Byrne-ness-osity in a different musical vocabulary. Or Paul Simon. There are playwrights and perhaps filmmakers, too, although I can’t off the top of my head think of any. Novelists? Well, anyway, I hope you have such an experience with some artist of some kind, Gentle Reader, because it is terrific.

Because, you see, there I was, going through the exhibit. Which is, I must say, a really remarkable achievement, and I think in itself justifies the entire existence of MassMoca. There is nowhere else capable of displaying a retrospective of this size, and they came into existence to do precisely that, and they have done it, and done it extraordinarily well. The exhibit is wonderful, and I can’t think of any way they could have improved on it, and I hope that everybody who is interested at all gets up to North Adams to see it. Y’all have plenty of time. I’ll be back in ten years, if I don’t go sooner. Anyway, there I was going through the exhibit, and I went in on the second floor, which is more or less how you go in to it. The floors go up by chronology, so the first floor is the earliest stuff, the second floor in the middle, and the top floor the most recent, including the Scribbles and all. And as I say, I went in on the second floor. And there were some pieces that worked really well ( including Wall Drawing 343 and a stunningly fabulous corridor of Wall Drawing 413 and Wall Drawing 414), together with a bunch of stuff that didn’t work as well for me. And we went up to the third floor, where the Scribble are, and that was wonderful. And then we went around a corner and saw Wall Drawing 821A, which was cool, and Wall Drawing 822, which was absolutely incredible, and also Wall Drawing 824 which was just luscious.

I’ve put links there to things with photographs, mostly as identifiers, so that if you get a chance to go, you will know which ones absolutely melted Your Humble Blogger. I see no reason for anyone to be melted by the photographs. Although, if you look at the time lapse for Wall Drawing 822, toward the end (after they’ve taken the brown paper off), you can get some sense of the way the piece interacts with the light. But the richness of the thing, no. But you can, I suppose, see in the photographs that they don’t look like his other pieces, and yet they are fundamentally Sol LeWitt works. And I can’t tell you that you would like them, Gentle Reader, because people are different one to another, but I can tell you that I was transfixed.

And then I went down to the first floor and saw some of the earlier, funnier wall drawings, which was also a terrific experience. And then my eyes were full and I had to go and sit down and drink iced tea.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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