The Quality Of A Skillfully Executed LeWitt

Yale just held a panel discussion on conservation and artist intention. This kind of thing drives me a little crazy:

Not all work inevitably degrades, though. Some art improves with careful conservation. [Yale University Art Gallery director Jack] Reynolds showed a video of the installation of the massive Sol LeWitt wall drawing show at MASS MoCA. As the audience watched a team wearing paint masks carefully sand a wall, he recalled conditions in Paula Copper's SoHo gallery in 1968, where the artist completed his first wall drawing. "That wall was anything but smooth, unpockmarked, and perfectly sanded," he said. Reynolds also noted that many of LeWitt's draftsmen have specialized in particular techniques, becoming "samurai warriors" in their crafts. A LeWitt skillfully executed today dwarfs the quality of what the artist himself regularly produced. [emphasis added]
Really? I mean, really? I guess if that's the way it is, then that's the way it is. But I have to wonder about the implications of this samurai model for the conceptual essence of LeWitt's work. Here's how Holland Cotter described the wall drawings process in his review of Mass MOCA, which was organized with Yale:
It also stays resolutely impersonal, never sticking for long with any single graphic style, never showcasing a distinctive touch, never carrying a signature.

Although LeWitt came up with the initial designs, his relationship to the work was otherwise hands-off. He wrote instructions for how the work should be done -- firm but easy-to-follow recipes with occasional sweeten-to-taste allowances -- but hired other artists to do it. Some he trained, with the expectation that they would train others, who would in turn train still others, stretching on through generations.

So it's an impersonal priesthood?

For a long time--since the 2000 rerospective at SFMOMA, actually, I've had a secret guerrilla LeWitt show planned in my head, where all the wall drawings are executed by civilians. Just take a catalogue with a bunch of instructions listed in it, and start doing them on the walls. I don't know what that would look like, but for that reason alone, I'm interested to see it.

update: Andrew Russeth, who wrote the original ArtInfo article, just emailed in to claim the "skillful" and "quality" lingo, though I still think he captured the larger point accurately, which is the professionalization and upgraded production values of LeWitt's wall drawings. [Which may be apt for some, especially later bodies of work like the fresco-like geometric shape murals of the 80's and the high-gloss monochromes of the 90's, which were, of course, created in the professionalized era.]

Andrew also mentioned that Dia:Beacon has had a "civilian" LeWitt drawing activity as part of their education program for visiting school groups:

A particular favorite (and one of the most unwieldy titled) with the younger kids was: "3. Wall Drawing #123: Copied lines. The first drafter draws a not straight vertical line as long as possible. The second drafter draws a line next to the first one, trying to copy it. The third drafter does the same, as do as many drafters as possible. Then the first drafter, followed by the others, copies the last line drawn until both ends of the wall are reached. 1972"
Which is great to hear, though I'd be more impressed to hear that they put the resulting drawing on public view. Here is Holland Cotter again on the Mass MOCA LeWitts:
Many of his drawings were done by supervised groups of art students -- those at Mass MoCA included -- in a learning-on-the-job tradition very similar to Renaissance workshop practice. A master artist provides the overarching concept; senior artists oversee production; apprentices do the grunt work and in the process discover and develop ideas of their own.
So LeWitt's Conceptual Art construct is really just a return to guilds and craft.
The Best of Intentions [artinfo via 16miles]

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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greg [at] greg [dot ] org

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first published: October 21, 2009.

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