Seven years after his death, Sol LeWitt's art is still being made. His words are quoted often: "I will refer to the kind of art in which I am involved as conceptual art," he wrote in 1967. "When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art."
His machines still run, and raise miniature economies. Over his last 40 years, LeWitt created more than 1,270 "wall drawings." They're murals, but he provided only instructions for making them. Teams of workers paint the murals. The products can be destroyed and remade at will.
This month, six painters are employed for 17 days executing a LeWitt on a wall at Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park Pavilion. But theirs is a strange and special case.
In 1997, Seattle Art Museum curator Trevor Fairbrother commissioned LeWitt to create a wall drawing. Given the option of several locations in the museum, LeWitt chose the most idiosyncratic, complicated, and visible: the snaky, S-curved, 11-by-56-foot wall above the coat check in the lobby.
LeWitt created Wall Drawing 881, Seven Cubes with Color Ink Washes Superimposed. You saw it every time you entered the museum: seven likably stubby yet huge identical-sized cubes hovering in a row. Each cube was suspended in a square of color, and each facet was a different color, conjuring visions of a box of Crayolas. In fact, the only colors mixed were the three primaries—red, blue, yellow—and gray.
LeWitt donated the piece. The cost of installing it in 1998—the paying of the six artists who painted it on the wall, one from his studio and the rest hired locally—was underwritten by the law firm of Preston, Gates & Ellis, in honor of the retirement of Bill Gates's father, William H. Gates. When the museum was renovated in 2007, the wall and mural were destroyed. There is no other wall like that one.
LeWitt stipulated that wall drawings could be transferred to new locations as long as the proportions remained the same. But if the proportions were maintained, seven cubes would not fit on the pavilion wall, explained Sarah Heinemann, the LeWitt representative flown out this time.
"One of the choices was to drop one of the cubes to make the proportions more correct," Heinemann told me last week at the pavilion, "but it says Seven Cubes. It would be ridiculous to have six."
So the estate decided to stretch the visual translation of the word "cubes" by stretching their shapes vertically. In the pavilion, they look more elongated than cubes seen straight on, but they could still be cubes if they were imaginary sculptures you were simply seeing from another angle. It's a funny twist. Last week, halfway finished, they were less immediately likable than the old ones—those stubby boxes conjured children's blocks lodged somewhere deep and warm inside—but the translation is intriguing.
I stopped Roy Powell, a local artist on the team, during a long day last week. He was sweating. He said he felt like a dancer doing someone else's choreography. "It's our hands," he said, "but we're doing what we're told." There's a continuous tension between the infinite possibility of slight variation, and the distant ideal of the artist's idea.
Heinemann is an artist, too; she paints abstract landscapes. She met LeWitt before he died, and she was trained to implement his standards. The process is precise, and she watches for consistency.
The painters wear rubber gloves and use only rags. There are four buckets of paint on the floor (acrylic mixed with water): red, yellow, blue, and gray.
A drawing sent by the estate is the map, with exact measurements and color codes. Colors are indicated by initials. "RY," for instance, means red, yellow. Each color is applied in four layers before the next begins (in this case, four layers of red, then four of yellow).
The four layers go on like this: wipe (wait 15 minutes), boom (wait 45 minutes), wipe (wait 10 minutes), boom (wait one hour). There are elaborate progress charts. "Boom" means to take the rag and pound it against the wall, which makes a sound like distant thunder. It creates the rough, dry, fresco look. It's called "boom," I was told, because LeWitt developed the technique while working in Rome with a left-handed assistant nicknamed Boom-Boom Mancini the Left-Handed Italian Boxer.
Supervising at the pavilion last week, Heinemann pointed out this job is particularly difficult because it's a high wall, so painters had to be on scissor lifts. They couldn't get back to see their work. From a vantage point on the floor, she called out, "There's a drip!" and it was corrected, and the booming resumed.