The Maximum Minimalist

Columbus Circle, gateway to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has been the subject of a decades long facelift. It began with the demolition of the old Coliseum Bldg., which in its later years was a key site for film production offices. The mammoth Time-Warner Bldg. rose in its place and became the impetus for a total makeover of the signature roundabout itself. This had been completed well before last summer when I photographed night scenes for When in Rome at its northeastern end. Above ground, the Circle has fountains and benches around the central hub—but the labyrinthine subway station below, the pinch point of several heavily trafficked lines, has remained a work in progress, and a nightmare of congestive crush for commuters.

The north entrance has recently become far less onerous. One of the last commissions of the artist Sol LeWitt, “Whirls and Twirls (MTA)” now graces the wall just beyond the entrance turnstiles. About 70,000 commuters pass it daily. In museum terms this would make it more than a blockbuster attraction.

A recent NY Times piece announced its opening. The commissioned mural is 11 feet high and 53 feet long and consists of 250 porcelain tiles. It is the first of several installations that will be placed throughout the station:

New York Times article link

Columbus Circle station is my local subway stop. I walked over there recently to take a look for myself. Here is a photo of the stairway, looking west toward Time-Warner. It is one of the larger entries:

Here’s a photo of the mural seen from above. The opening at edge of left frame leads down to the tracks:

LeWitt died in 2007. He was widely viewed as a quintessential artist of the museum, university, and galleries, not an artist of the plaza or street. The idea of his work being commissioned as “public art” takes some getting used to. A review of his artistic journey makes it all very clear:

Wikipedia link

LeWitt was one of the major artists of the 60-70s dovetailing movements known as Conceptualism and Minimalism. The latter called for artists to be reductive in their work, both in ideas and execution. Very simply put, it was a back to basics movement that emphasized elemental forms to the point of duplication and repetition. Squeezed even further into its essence, the artwork itself became optional, if not problematic. It was the “idea”, the concept that mattered. This was a perfect paradigm for museums and galleries that could display a set of printed guidelines or instructions for creating the work of art—but not the work itself. What could be more minimalist? At one point LeWitt suggested that art objects are perishable; but the ideas are not. For a few years it seemed to many viewers (who read mostly wall-text at his exhibitions) that he preferred the idea to the artifact.

This often made for a cold and impersonal look to the early works. As drawings, they consisted of elaborate grids and mazes in pencil on white walls, the seeming OCD doodles of someone locked inside a geometrician’s head. Not all work, however, was flat, 2D. Expanded into space, these “ideas” became fascinating floor displays, much like a child’s game of blocks, but all in white. MOMA has one such piece—“Serial Project (ABCD) 1966”. The description defines its impersonality “Baked enamel on steel units over baked enamel on aluminum.”

LeWitts “ideas” became ever more elaborate suggestions of how to execute an artwork. Those early works, when actually “installed” on gallery walls, were intricate mazes, site-specific, meant to last only as long as the exhibition. And, they were not (to my perhaps jaundiced eye) very exciting to look at. In principal, the art piece itself could be duplicated machine-like at another venue.

Over time, more and more of these “instructions” were actually executed as artworks by students and acolytes. A perhaps unintended consequence was that ascetic pieces of simple grids in pencil became ever more ambitious and expansive, also more flowing and colorful—as they came into actual being. While the instructions LeWitt dictated never became as aleatory as the music of John Cage, improvisation and spontaneity were introduced. This was partly to break down the rigid specificity of earlier directives but also to give the artists who actually created the work on site a sense of creative joy.

Early in LeWitt’s career a friend left a book in his apartment. It was a volume of the animal motion studies of photographer Edward Muybridge. This work became a defining impetus for LeWitt. Muybridge’s ambitious mission was to document human and animal locomotion through sequential still photographs from multiple angles. A background grid was deployed to graph the motion in a scientific way. The idea of the exterior “set” that Muybridge had constructed spurred LeWitt to consider how to define space and sequence in his own work. Muybridge required a crew of dedicated workers to execute an intricate motion study; LeWitt’s site-specific wall pieces also require intricate collaborative effort.

Over years, the teams that made LeWitt’s pieces became larger as the instructions became more complex. The scale also increased, making normal galleries often inadequate in size. Finally, a perfect venue was found to realize the work—and to preserve it as more than intellectual idea or temporal ephemera. That place was the new MASS MoCA.

This museum of contemporary art is a huge complex of buildings, a renovated textile factory located in North Adams, Mass. Before his death in 2007 LeWitt agreed to the execution of a number of his pieces in Bldg. 7. A history of the project is explained in this article: link

A time-lapse video at the head of the site shows the construction of one wall drawing (LeWitt called them “drawings” though most are painted in acrylic). LeWitt created the “idea” or instructions for thousands of such wall drawings. Over one hundred of them have been created by artists and students at MASS MoCa.

Will Reynolds made a video between April and September of 2008 documenting the drawings as they fill the blank walls with a riot of color, shapes and pencil squiggles. The very appropriate music is by “Minimalist” composer Steve Reich. You will see brown paper appear only to be torn away after painting to reveal the overlapping and intersecting color layers:

The history of western art has pretty much elevated the singular artist, working in isolation, to demigod status. In The Agony and the Ecstasy Charlton Heston as Michelangelo seems to work alone, his studio assistants mere shadow figures. One of the fascinating things about LeWitt’s work as seen in this video is how much it relies on the concept of team— or what we in film call “crew”. The scroll of artists at the end of the video is not unlike—well, the end credit crawl of a feature film.

MOMA does have one of the wall drawings. The location is appropriate— opposite the escalator leading down to the Titus 1 and 2, the main theaters for MOMA film screenings. After the museum’s closing, you pass this wall entering and exiting. Here is a picture of “Wall Drawing #1144-Broken Bands of Color in Four Directions, 2004”.

moma lewitt mural at Titus  Theaters

In video terms, the finished piece looks a bit like a maquette for a very blown-up pixel array. I think LeWitt would have enjoyed that metaphor.

MASS MoCa and the DIA in Beacon, NY seem like perfect repositories for LeWitt’s larger scale late work. It’s a bit hard to take in a wall mural while racing to catch the “A” train at Columbus Circle.

The entire question of “public art” has ever been a contentious one in America. The WPA sponsored murals in public buildings during the Great Depression. Many were by regional artists in the Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood mode, extolling the virtues of the “common man”. Others were by artists such as Philip Guston, who a decade later became a leading Abstract Expressionist before returning to figurative work late in life. (I will look at his work in a future piece) Many of these murals were painted over by a subsequent generation of bureaucrats during the McCarthy period—too “socialist” in theme. And in case you think we live now in a more enlightened age—try this.

Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc,” 120 feet of cor-ten steel, 12 feet high, was removed in the dead of night from Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan in 1989 as an impediment to pedestrian flow. This PBS account of its rendering to scrap steel is jaw-dropping. article link


The photo is of Serra posed, looks to me defiantly, in front of the arc, in the midst of the controversy.

You can evaluate the value of public officials having a say in acquiring (or destroying) public art by simply driving past the derivative mediocrity lining the median of Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood.

As for the longevity of “public art” today, here is a photo of the LeWitt Columbus Circle mural two weeks after it’s “unveiling”. So much for “ars longa, vita brevis.”

covered le witt subway mural

Now finished, the installation of Sol LeWitt at MASS MoCA fills a three-story building, 105 “drawings” covering more than 27,000 sq. ft. of wall space. And it won’t close in a few weeks like a film. You don’t have to hurry to see it this weekend. Sol LeWitt will be “hanging” until 2033. Or so we can hope.



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