A Perfunctory Affair

Blockbusters v. Great Art Pilgrimages, Foam Core, Zen Koans, Butter, Extreme Discomfort as a Sure Sign of Success, Sonic Youth, The Unreality of Certain Idea-Based Lines, Mio’s Grid Dilemma, Leonard Nimoy, The Sense of Loss Conveyed by Streaming Hair, Cubes of Paper, Solitude
by Chris Cobb
Julia Isenberg drawing random lines to maximum density on Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #343. Photograph by Chris Cobb.

A Perfunctory Affair

Chris Cobb
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When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

—“Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” by Sol LeWitt, Artforum, June 1967

Lines of Human Convergence

When conceptual artist Sol Le­Witt died, in 2007, at the age of seventy-eight, he was in the process of planning the last, and biggest, exhibition of his career—a wall-drawing retrospective at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). The scale of the intended exhibition was humongous by any measure. One entire 27,000-square-foot Industrial Revolution–era factory building (MASS MoCA’s Building 7) would house wall drawings spanning LeWitt’s entire career, from 1968 until 2007. The final result would be an important scholarly resource, a reference point for all future LeWitt installations, and a major tourist draw to the small corner of Western Massachusetts where MASS MoCA is located. Given its size, scope, and durability, what might have been just another blockbuster show would likely become one of the great art pilgrimages in the United States.

It was LeWitt’s wish that the MASS MoCA team be made up of crew members who’d worked on his previous installations. So in early April 2008, about thirteen professional artists (of which I am one), nine apprentices, fourteen interns, and LeWitt’s eight closest assistants converged on the town of North Adams. We’d all abandoned our jobs and our home lives in order to spend five months installing a total of one hundred wall drawings.

To give a broader sense of the installation’s scale: the drawings we’d come to install would occupy nearly an acre of wall space. The estimated project budget was about 10 million dollars. It would take almost fifty people putting in eight-hour days, six days a week, from April to October, to complete the installation. Thousands of yards of red rosin paper were needed to cover the floors as we painted. Other supplies we required: hundreds of rolls of white receipt paper; brown roll paper in one-foot and half-foot lengths; dozens of rulers; dozens of boxes of drafting tape in one-inch and half-inch lengths; dozens of boxes of blue masking tape, ­paper towels, and thin green tape; rolls of ­plastic sheeting; gallons and gallons of Benjamin Moore house paint in white, black, and gray; dozens of bottles of Lascaux acrylic paint in black, white, red, yellow, and blue; dozens of gallons of distilled water (for mixing with the Lascaux paint); more than a thousand water-soluble ­pastel crayons in white, red, yellow, and blue; dozens of paintbrushes in various sizes; several cases of large foam core board sheets; thousands of razor blades; lots of Spackle; many, many rolls of sheet plastic; dozens of paint trays and liners; paint rollers, stirring sticks, etc., etc., etc.

For the pencil drawings, red, blue, yellow, and graphite pencil leads were ordered (180,000 of each color). Once the project started, there would be up to three people a day doing nothing but sharpening ­pencil leads.


Wall Drawing #343

I’m in the middle of a fifty-seven-foot (and three-quarters-of-an-inch-long) wall, which itself is situated in the middle of a maze of walls on the second floor of Building 7. I am working, alongside my apprentice Julia, on Wall Drawing #343. By “working on” I mean that I am attempting to re-create, from a brief page of written instructions, a work of conceptual art. The instructions, written by LeWitt in 1980 and first drawn by Jo Watanabe at Larry Gagosian’s gallery in Venice that same year, read like a Zen koan or a secret code comprising equal parts precision and mystery. Yet we are only the most recent people to follow these instructions—over the past twenty years or so, #343 and variations of it have been installed at galleries from Rome to Los Angeles. Some variants have the drawing as being black on white, or colored shapes on a white background.

The exact instructions, in their entirety, are as follows:

343. On a black wall, nine geometric figures (including right triangle, cross, X) in squares. The backgrounds are filled in solid white.

At the moment, we’re using water-soluble crayon pastels that have the consistency of frozen butter; if held in the hand long enough, they will indeed begin to melt. We are supposed to scribble in random directions until our hands hurt and the layers of lines look almost opaque. If our hands don’t hurt, according to one of LeWitt’s most senior assistants, we’re not doing a good job.

My hands hurt. Especially my right hand. It alternates between numbness and soreness. So I guess I’m doing a good job. We are told that the drawing should start looking right after two weeks—two weeks—of scribbling in all directions, layers upon layers of scribbles. After a while I notice that the older crayon layers are beginning to physically change, becoming more solid and brittle, in some cases flaking off when we draw over them. What started as a series of vague written instructions begins, over time, to take on a tactile, and evolving, physical presence.

Visitors constantly interrupt us as we work. Giving tours to groups during the installation of shows is part of what makes MASS MoCA unique among American art museums. It considers the installation process as valuable, and as worthy of observation, as the finished installation—it is part of its postmodern worldview. We, Julia and I, are, in effect, an interactive part of the installation. (Among the visitors who come by: artists Julie Mehretu, Simon Starling,  Jenny Holzer, Chuck Close, Tara Donovan, Ed Burtynsky, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo and his wife, artist Leah Singer, composer Terry Riley, many school and donor groups, and Leonard Nimoy.)

When a visitor asks us what we’re doing, I explain how, despite our adherence to written-­out, formulaic instructions, LeWitt’s wall drawings are “performed” as much as they are drawn to his specifications.

I also tell them what Anthony, LeWitt’s draftsman of almost thirty years, told me with respect to #343: “Remember to draw, not color in.” With #343, the drawing begins as a kind of random scribble, which is then gradually built up until it is the texture of compressed cottage cheese, if you can imagine that.

But often it’s not enough to read the instructions or even to explain them—you have to be enacting them to understand.


A Line is Not A Line But An Idea.

To fully grasp the work of Sol LeWitt, one must first accept that the lines we draw are not real. Meaning, the lines made in the service of conceptual art aren’t as sacrosanct as the lines used to create, say, a single original work of representational art. In the case of a LeWitt wall drawing, there is no such thing as an original, since every work can be created and re-created over and over again, per his instructions. (Of course, the commercial side of the art world dictates that access to the instructions is limited; for this particular retrospective, works such as #343 are “on loan,” which means that the owner has given MASS MoCA permission to have them executed for the show.) The line is a way of mapping out or navigating the artistic gesture; it is just an approximation of an idea that might be written, for example, as “from this place to that place.” LeWitt prized the idea over the execution; still, it is my business to make sure I’m successfully conveying LeWitt’s idea, which for me means obsessing over the execution. As musicians well know, there are a lot of different ways to play a note, a chord, or a song, but to make it sound good—that’s where the training comes in. Similarly, when a six-foot-wide circle must be drawn—in this case, by me—there are a million ways to do it, but there is only one way that LeWitt wanted it done.

Anyone familiar with LeWitt’s wall drawings can tell you they all share a certain look and feel. That’s because a handful of people have worked for LeWitt for much of their adult lives; they know how he wanted a given drawing to look, based on his written instructions. Early in LeWitt’s career he made the drawings himself, but as demand for them grew it became necessary for him to rely on a small group of draftsmen who could faithfully carry out his instructions, developing techniques specific to each wall drawing. Those people then trained others like myself. (I first worked for LeWitt on his retro­spective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2000. For that show I was instructed in how to paint walls, mask drawings off, cut tape the correct way, make steady lines, sharpen pencil leads, minimize errors as much as humanly possible, and do extraordinarily repetitive tasks without messing things up too much.)

For example, I know that when we mask off shapes we must use a single piece of tape that can sometimes be as long as sixty feet; likewise, we must sometimes use very long lengths of paper so that when the paint is dry or the scribbling is done and the paper or tape is removed, a perfectly straight line is revealed. We are also instructed on the proper way to scribble—always in large, random strokes, never ­little intense strokes. Little intense strokes make an area too dark and too dense too fast.

When in doubt, I ask Anthony to check our work. The result we’re going for is this: when you stand back from the drawing it’s supposed to look almost solid but with all sorts of very discernible wispy lines running underneath it.


Wall Drawing #289

After completing my work on #343, I start on a crayon drawing dating back to 1977 (titled #289) that LeWitt referred to as Star Wars. The instructions read, “Lines From Four Corners, Four Sides and the Center of a Wall to Points on a Grid.”

We begin with a long rectangular black wall on which a pencil­ grid must be drawn (1,008 six-inch squares, to be exact). Then long white crayon lines must originate from the corners, midpoints, and center of the wall to places on the grid. The lines have to be almost perfect—but not too perfect. The lines can’t be too grainy or too straight. They also can’t make patterns (like a star or railroad tracks). But, strangely, the biggest dilemma we face is whether or not the edges of the wall should be considered the boundary lines of the grid—a fine distinction, to be sure, but an important one, since these drawings will become archetypal ex­amples for future installations of LeWitt’s work.

Mio is in charge of this drawing, and I’m assisting her, along with an apprentice named Jordan. A slight panic arises when Mio comes across a photograph of an earlier version of the drawing in which a crayon line touched the edge of the wall. She’s unsure whether it was correct to do that or not, so she consults the principal LeWitt people—Jo Wata­nabe, Sachi Cho, John ­Hogan, Tomas Ramberg, Takeshi Akita, and finally Anthony, who has final say as to whether a drawing is being done correctly. The consensus seems to be that as the one in charge of the drawing, Mio has the right to decide whether the edge of the wall is part of the grid. In the end she decides it is.



Not long after we finish #289 (it takes the three of us an entire month to complete), Leonard Nimoy visits the museum. He is part of a group looking at some of LeWitt’s wall drawings from the 1970s, also recently completed. I don’t notice him at first, but when I return from a Dumpster run my coworkers gush about how great it is to have just met Leonard Nimoy.
I feel just a ­little ripped off. After all, it seems safe to assume that I am the only member of the Sol LeWitt crew who has read both of his auto­biographical books, I Am Not Spock and the more reflective and postmodern I Am Spock.

It also occurs to me that Nimoy, like LeWitt, had a fictional self—for Nimoy it was the dispassionate and logical Spock, for LeWitt it was his somewhat impersonal and abstract geometric wall drawings. Everything he made was based on the grid or the space of the grid and was often done in a series. His work was not per­sonality driven in the way that the works of Andy Warhol, Keith ­Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Matthew Barney, or Julian Schnabel are. LeWitt, like Nimoy, is an unknown person buried deep within an abstraction.

Our paths, Nimoy’s and mine, cross once again, at lunch. He glances at me as he’s going out the door. He seems to be considering whether or not to smile at me, but then he decides not to.


Occasionally Emotional Geometries

Most of LeWitt’s wall drawings have numbered titles bestowed in the order of their making. Despite the emphasis on numbers and geometry, LeWitt’s line drawings, because of the number of people required to realize them, are as humanly complex as they are (seemingly) mechanically simplistic. By having so many people put so much energy into the pieces, a certain psychological intensity can be discerned from close examination. If his wall drawings create an intense phenomenological experience, it’s because their scale is a by-product of his logical approach and his insistence on making variations of his works—not because of any preoccupation with trying to make work that is phenomenological on its own.

So it should come as no surprise that his wall drawings of shapes and lines aren’t inherently emotional or sentimental. That is, except for a work from 1970 known as:

#46. Vertical lines, not straight, not touching, covering the wall evenly.

This drawing gives the impression of long streaming hair, of waves on the sea, or of a river flowing past. It conveys a sense of loss. This work was supposedly for or inspired by the artist Eva Hesse, who died of a brain tumor in 1970, at the age of thirty-four. The first installation of this drawing was done in Paris the year Hesse died, and LeWitt himself was the one who installed it.

#46 also recalls a woodblock print by Edvard Munch, which is sentimental. It’s called simply Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair:

One of the few times I actually got to talk with LeWitt was at SFMOMA in 2000. It was at the party celebrating the end of the installation of his first retrospective there, which I had worked on as well. While he was pouring champagne for people, I asked him about #46. I remember he was a little vague but acknowledged its association with Hesse, whom he’d known in New York in the 1960s.

Later at the party I remember asking him if he would pose for a picture with me and a cube I’d made of paper (a symbol of human logic). He smiled, amused, and told me he’d made a lot of paper cubes in his time but that now other ­people made them for him.


The Geographically Apt Thoreau Connection

On April 8, approximately a week after we’d begun work on the MASS MoCA installation, our team assembled near several enormous blank walls for a moment of silence. It had been exactly one year since LeWitt had died. Anthony said that LeWitt wouldn’t have wanted us to make much fuss about the anniversary. Nonetheless it was his work that had brought all of us together, and it seemed important to acknowledge his absence. In life he had always been very generous and frequently gave his art to his friends and his assistants. He also employed many people over the years and helped other artists with their ­careers.

When the retrospective opens in November 2008 it will be an art show as much as it is a tribute to the tension between the individual and ­society—a tribute located, not so coincidentally, in the same state where Henry David ­Thoreau’s cabin still sits on Walden pond. LeWitt’s is art that Thoreau perhaps would have enjoyed. Thoreau, who strove to simplify his life to its bare, essential elements, might have seen LeWitt’s instruction-based drawings as on par with his handmade cabin, chairs, and tables.

In Walden, he wrote, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” 

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