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January 1, 2009

Seeing LeWitt, Sounding out the Thoughts

There are several sculptures by conceptual artist Sol LeWitt now on display at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and each piece is a serene geometric construction enclosing space. At the same time the forms seem open - - since each one is brilliant gloss white, it reflects back onto the viewer anything projected onto the surface. Interacting with these familiar yet almost life-sized shapes sets up in the viewer a soft mental vibration, like small lapping waves.

A few miles away in North Adams, Massachusetts, the massive 3-floor retrospective of LeWitt’s wall drawings is now open at MassMOCA, and here the intensity of color and force of the forms are anything but soft.

You encounter his wall drawings intellectually at first, because they present design challenges. And all of the paintings are examples of collective action; LeWitt stated the rules of the image-making, and other painters created the work itself, which gives the viewer pause.

I struck up a conversation with two other visitors who were engaged by the technique used to create specific, repeated line shapes on one of the wall drawings. The background of the drawing, which spanned 4 huge walls, was architect-blueprint blue. The collection of lines (some curved, some straight, some dashed, some bent) floating across the intense blue background were chalk white. And there was perfect uniformity of each line; the curves on one wall matched all other curves, the dashes matched all other dashes. But these seemed to be painted freehand. We deliberated about what tools were used to achieve the uniformity - - perhaps exact templates of the space around each line?

And then we turned the corner and saw, on the fifth wall, LeWitt’s primer. He had constructed, in the same blue and white, a detailed map of line shapes, sizes, and arcs to be used in the wall drawing, with lengths specified down to a fraction of a fraction of an inch. By this example he had set out the shapes we put on a space, just like those we put on time, and on thought. He had provided a primer for a visual language conveying the parts of a conversation, or a memory, or a song…the arcs and curves like the exact repetition of moments within that song.

In fact, it was impossible to look at the work in this exhibition without hearing it; the images on the walls pulsated and sang. And they were borderless. A few especially vibrant wall drawings on the third floor (his most recent work) seemed to span the entire gallery space, shoot out the eastern windows across Massachusetts, continue out over the Atlantic, and straight on into space.

This is a collection of thoughts by a man who was seemingly always thinking about thinking, and who operated as if we all are too. Being around his work gives the viewer a sense of deep relief. He was unabashedly conscious of the constant flow of thought and feeling, of geometry and music, happening at all times, coming from whatever distant past and into whatever distant future.

Over the holidays, a relative and I were discussing the idea of infinity, and that even though this relative was a philosophy major, he could not believe in the concept. Grasping what is meant by infinity stumped him as a college student and still does 40 years later. Happily for him, recent research in astrophysics has found that dark energy is acting as a gravity-killer on distant galaxy clusters, retarding their growth, and eventually could stop their development altogether…which means that, in a manner of speaking, our universe may have an expiration date. Which also means that the idea of infinity may no longer be such a stumper.

But in truth, an answer to this problem exists much closer to home - - and it is in the engaging, vibrant, and wonderfully vast collection of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings that MassMOCA has now presented to the world. The infinity LeWitt reveled in is that of thoughts, looping and arcing, pulsing and soaring on, forever.

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