Refreshing Sol LeWitt’s Vision

March 22, 2019
Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #830 (detail), 1997. Colored ink wash on the Arthur M. Sackler Building (Harvard University) lobby wall. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund and through the generosity of The Beal Family Foundation, Gabriella De Ferrari, The Hale Foundation, Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, Peter Soriano, and two anonymous donors, 1997.201. © Sol LeWitt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

When pioneering American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt first planned his wall drawings, he envisioned that they would need to be re-executed over time. Years after initial installation, fresh executions of his colorful wall drawings continue, overseen by the artist’s estate following his meticulous specifications.

LeWitt sought to revolutionize the very definition of art with his notion that “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Because his wall drawings lack traditional supports like canvas or paper, the instructions for each of them were created as art forms in and of themselves—thus allowing for multiple installations, with no single execution dubbed “original.” As a result, conservation or restoration of these works does not apply in the traditional sense; a drawing may simply be removed and reinstalled when needs arise. 

One such example was recently rendered for a second time in the lobby of Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Building while the space underwent significant renovation. Two draftspeople from the Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing Study Center, based at Yale University, partnered with three artists hired by the Harvard Art Museums to complete the work. Originally executed in 1997, the red, yellow, and blue Wall Drawing #830 (Four Isometric Figures with Color Ink Washes Superimposed) was faded and in need of attention.

 

  • of 1997.201.6 To reinstall Wall Drawing #830, artists turned to diagrams LeWitt created for the work. LeWitt conceived of his instructions as art forms, which could be used for endless executions of his works, making no one version “original.”
  • of 1997.201.7 Another diagram for Wall Drawing #830.

The task was not without challenges, said Susanna Baker, senior project manager for Harvard Capital Projects. To render the three-story, floor-to-ceiling work, the artists needed a running water source as well as specialized lighting to assure the work’s color quality, intensity, and evenness. The group also required spot coolers, humidity control, and museum-level cleaning of the scaffolding to protect against dust. All the while, construction workers (including electricians and plumbers) needed access to the space for the larger renovation project underway. 

One bit of help came in the form of custom-designed scaffolding. “We realized that the art was the most important factor in this space, so we took the lead in creating scaffolding that would specifically support the artists’ work,” said Baker. She worked closely with Angela Chang, conservator of objects and sculpture, head of the objects lab, and assistant director of the museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, to manage the complicated logistics. “Because of the delicate nature of the work, we also had to place a lot of controls on how people moved through the building,” Baker said. “It took a high level of coordination.”

Specialized scaffolding was created to enable a team of draftspeople from the Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing Study Center, as well as artists hired by the Harvard Art Museums, to re-execute Wall Drawing #830.

Over the course of six weeks, the team painted over the faded earlier Wall Drawing #830 with white. They then spent about a month executing the work from scratch. Using rollers, brushes, and rags, they applied nine or more layers of color. The final product, bright and boldly eye-catching in the Sackler Building lobby, successfully honors LeWitt’s vision for Wall Drawing #830

The endeavor marked one of the first Harvard Capital projects in which artists and contractors were required to work in such proximity. It called for deftness and sensitivity among all the parties involved—not an easy task, but “they found equilibrium,” said Baker.

Today, Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #830 again fills the walls of the Arthur M. Sackler Building lobby with bold geometric forms in vibrant primary colors and shades of gray.