An Exchange with Sol LeWitt
Cabinet (Brooklyn) and MASS MoCA (North Adams)
Through March 5 and 31
by Veronica Roberts
An Exchange with Sol LeWitt offers an idiosyncratic tribute to LeWitt’s work, a wonderful, intimate complement to the expansive three-floor survey of the artist’s wall drawings on view at MASS MoCA through 2033. Conceived by independent curator Regine Basha, and installed in collaboration with Denise Markonish at MASS MoCA and Sina Najafi at Cabinet Magazine headquarters in Brooklyn, the show was organized around an open call to artists to make work they thought Sol might like. The only restriction was size: the submissions could be no larger than a sheet of binder paper or a 12-inch cube.
Together, the two venues present a mini-retrospective of LeWittian themes, as artists have paid homage to virtually every body of work the artist made. Not surprisingly, dozens of beautiful drawings involving repeated lines and cubes (LeWitt’s artistic bread and butter) are in abundance. A standout is 7-year-old Lucia Harrison’s hot pink wavy line drawing at MASS MoCA. Numerous text-based works additionally pay tribute to LeWitt’s writing. Luis Camnitzer, a friend of LeWitt’s, rewrote the artist’s 1969 “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” adding his own updates. And Tom Melick concocted a “recipe for Sol LeWitt” involving water and a bouillon cube in which “the recipe becomes the machine that makes the meals,” a witty nod to LeWitt’s famed declaration in his 1967 “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” that “the idea becomes the machine that makes the art.”
There were also riffs on specific iconic works. A photograph by Hope Sandrow of her chickens and roosters cavorting around a chicken coop designed to resemble one of LeWitt’s isometric cubes instantly captured my attention. Another highlight was Joe Johnson’s beautiful diagram, Variations of Complete Open Paper Clips, a spin on the paper clips Sol used and meticulously documented when trying to come up with every possible variation of an open cube. Nina Servizzi created a colorful strip resembling Eadweard Muybridge’s photograph of humans in motion, which sparked LeWitt’s interest in seriality. Also among the many sub-genres in the show is work made about LeWitt’s friendship with Eva Hesse. At Cabinet, you can hear the very talented Canadian Cedar Tavern Singers sing the words of Sol’s extraordinary 1965 letter to Hesse, and at MASS MoCA an excerpt from the same letter forms part of Kate Davis’ collage.
At MASS MoCA in particular there are numerous works based on rules and instructions, the generative force behind LeWitt’s wall drawings. Two RISD art students, Corydon Cowansage and Adam Lucas, jointly came up with five rules for making a work of art (limiting themselves to three colors, creating a work in under 30 minutes, etc.) The duo then made very different works using these shared parameters. Lorrie Fredette decided to make a work based on 25 different rules she asked friends and family to invent. Teresita Fernandez created an installation of seven exquisite, irregularly faceted knobs of charcoal with that are attached to a wall, assembled according to her instructions.
Although each venue possesses an eclectic mix of submissions (in terms of off-beat offerings, Cabinet’s stuffed monkey was matched by MASS MoCA’s wisdom tooth), the presentations are quite different. At Cabinet, work is displayed on the walls and ensconced inside stacked cardboard boxes reminiscent of the magazine’s namesake cabinet of curiosities. The larger installation at MASS MoCA is a more customary museum display, with a linear wall hanging, vitrines and work placed atop a continuous shelf. The MASS MoCA experience is enhanced by the conversation between the works in the show and LeWitt’s wall drawings on view upstairs. As if to draw viewers’ attention to these works, Max Goldfarb and Allyson Strafella have bottled the remnants of a brightly colored acrylic wall drawing in a small jar placed outside the group exhibition’s entrance. Inspired by seeing the crew of drafters sharpen thousands of pencils to make the wall drawings at the museum, Hope Ginsburg submitted a felt-covered metal pencil sharpener—a loving overture to their tremendous labor.
As a show, An Exchange with Sol LeWitt is creative, generous, humorous and modest, all qualities Sol possessed. Between his longstanding practice of exchanging work with others, hiring drafters to execute his pieces, loyal commitment to friends and younger artists, and enthusiasm for the less expensive mediums of printmaking and artist’s books (he helped found the artist-run bookstore Printed Matter), LeWitt’s work and his life subverted countless artistic norms, forging community in the process.
This two-part exhibition both embodies and extends the communal character we associate with LeWitt. As I wandered through MASS MoCA, I overheard people finding their own work in the show, looking for the work of friends, and enjoying work by people they didn’t know. There is something particularly thrilling about a museum participating in this project. While open calls are not exceptional in alternative art spaces, it’s a brave move for a museum like MASS MoCA to agree to mount a show where they have no control over the amount or quality of works on view. That ethos of risk-taking and generous spirit couldn’t be a more fitting way to honor Sol LeWitt and his art.
Veronica Roberts worked closely with Sol LeWitt when she coordinated his retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 2000. She is currently the Director of Research for the Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing Catalogue Raisonné, to be published digitally by Artifex Press.