Mass MoCA’s once-painted walls vs. Sol Lewitt’s wall paintings

old brick wall at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art2 1/2 hours each way to Mass MoCA for a remarkable Petah Coyne show of gorgeous, morbid huge installations including dead animals, lavish fabric, flowers in candy shells of wax…

Other pieces included hanging tunnel-forest-caves of twisted paper, very popular with Oonagh. In a three-floor Sol Lewitt show I found a lot for my brain, and in early work, much more stimulus for the subtler senses. The museum had video documentation to emphasize the process of making wall after wall from Lewitt’s instructions, with, I think, over 60 assistants working for months. Movies showed scenes like this: One person “draws” a wavy line from a distance with a laser pointer while another person tries to follow the first person’s tremulous, shaking red dot with an actual pen on the wall. Gradually, an area of tone is built up. To some extent, the videos served to demonstrate to the naive viewer that the work deserved more attention and reflection than it would seem to, at “face value.”

Sol Lewitt wall paintings - black & white
While processes were interesting when described, most of the work was laid out in flat, ruled areas of color, masked with care. A lot of elaborate process to write a thesis about or perhaps reflect on, but often the actual, present physical objects (wall after long wall, arranged in rows) had all the visceral impact of a well-executed, complex decorative paint job. To me. I got more from Lewitt’s work than I have in the past, but I kept getting distracted by the textures and colors of the old, corroded, many-times-repainted walls of the former factory that Mass MoCA inhabits. I think I grasped what he was doing, and why it was interesting, but… I feel like the work wasn’t really aimed at people like me. Whatever that means.

“Procedural” works, where complex processes are sequenced and superimposed, can blossom into compelling forms that are fascinating and unpredictable. For me, this kind of heuristic minimalism tends to work better with sound. We can hear simultaneous intermeshed patterns changing shape and interacting over time, while in Lewitt’s wall paintings, we see the end result. One can reflect on process, but only from a distance. For this viewer, it keeps the process in my brain, as an entirely intellectual experience, whereas the complex evolving loops of Steve Reich, or Brian Eno, or Robert Wyatt, take visceral (albeit ephemeral) shape in my ear and in my skull cavity, whether I’ve done the reading or not. In certain ways the encrusted, scraped, resurfaced, many-times-repaired walls of Mass MoCA left me more reflective on time, image, and work process than Lewitt’s work. But that certainly wasn’t their intention, and the people who made them were surely not thinking about art.

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2 replies
  1. carl fuermann
    carl fuermann says:

    Sometimes I miss art like this. I think it is interesting and engaging but much more with the intellect. Most of the time it feels like a fixation on a created reality that seems like it has meaning but this is derived from within the context of the art environment that has evolved over the years.

  2. Eric
    Eric says:

    True, true – it IS interesting, but it requires a lot of background to experience it as compelling. It takes a little while to get into the depths of just about any area, and when you get there, it becomes hard to communicate what’s so great about it to friends who’ve spent their time getting into other things. So, there are cliques of poets (with various subspecies), contemporary art enthusiasts (+subspecies), Buddhists ( & subspecies), cat lovers (obviously, subspecies), …
    Getting into a topic brings one into a community of conversation, but at the same time, it’s isolating. Most writing on contemporary art is virtually unreadable to people who haven’t somehow been initiated. (And often to those who have.) It’s one reason that in some ways we get more alone as we get older – our minds become so sophisticated in the areas we do know that we can’t have much of a conversation about the things we’re most passionate about with old friends. Sometimes. Economists have heated conversations about economic theory, and while it might be interesting to listen in and try to follow, I can’t really contribute much to the discussion. It’s been a while since I’ve been immersed in reading about Lewitt and his circle, so I find it hard to really make contact. Some artwork requires less reading.

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