Color Me Real
Sol LeWitt: 100 Views

MASS MoCA Catalog
Yale University Press

Essay by Ellen Carey

Sol LeWitt  Wall Drawing #1131, Whirls and twirls,  2004  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art Hartford, CT  Image © 2015 Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. All Rights Reserved. ––

Sol LeWitt
Wall Drawing #1131, Whirls and twirls, 2004
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
Hartford, CT

Image © 2015 Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. All Rights Reserved.

In 2004 the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford commissioned its final site-specific wall drawing by Sol LeWitt: Wall Drawing #1131: Whirls and twirls. Situated at the entrance to the Great Hall, this vivid room-encompassing work is flanked by white marble staircases, with a stained-glass skylight overhead. LeWitt’s drawing transforms these walls, replacing the formerly pale architectural planes with bright, intense color. Large segmented bands of primary colors coexist happily with segments of purple, green, and orange.[1]

The drawing presents a seemingly incomprehensible puzzle. Yet like proportional harmonies found in architecture (the golden mean), nature (the logarithmic spiral), science (DNA), and mathematics (fractal geometry), it employs parallel systems in a seamless visual logic that blends those complexities with elegant simplicity. The entranceway opens up several f-stops in luminance: the colors are radiant; the figure-ground relationships are pulsing. They command your attention, exulting: “I am here! Color me real!”

The museum’s historic second-floor galleries are catapulted into the present, Back to the Future–style, with LeWitt’s aesthetic boldness, visual intelligence, and a fierce commitment to color. The end result is both optical dance and coloristic surround sound, a monumental pattern poured into asymmetrical shapes and orchestrated with larger-than-life hues and full-out saturation.

LeWitt’s installation served as the entry point for an exhibition called Contemporary Art: Floor to Ceiling, Wall to Wall. In this company the MATRIX series mounted an exhibition, Photography Degree Zero, devoted to my large-format Polaroid work.[2] The coincidence of MATRIX 153, the contemporary art exhibition, and LeWitt’s glorious installation was an extraordinary event for me.

Sol and Carol LeWitt came to visit me, and together we viewed the exhibitions. His wall drawing was “totally brilliant!” (as I later overheard a British visitor to the exhibition say), both literally and figuratively, not only for its bouncing-off-the-wall chromatic array, which put color first, but also in its Brobdingnagian scale dwarfing everything else. In Sol’s conception, color is subject and object, material and meaning, process and art. The stately context of the grand staircase met its match in Sol’s flamboyant, no-holds-barred, artist-takes-all occupation of what might otherwise have served as a setting for a scene in Brideshead Revisited.

Robert Smithson once noted that, “Size determines an object, but scale determines art. A crack in the wall if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon. A room could be made to take on the immensity of the solar system. Scale depends on one’s capacity to be conscious of the actualities of perception.”[3]

The fates smiled on me: I had the opportunity to witness the progress of LeWitt’s installation in situ. I could never quite get over its enormity, and the arrangement and assortment of colors comprised a symphony in concert with its surroundings. But most of all it was the experience of color that impressed me. It was so real, up-front, and personal.

LeWitt often employed geometry based on the circle and the square: two ubiquitous structures and visual codes. Yet despite that universality, his work always retains a “wow” factor. He was always pushing the parameters, challenging how art was made and what it could be, questioning its meaning.

When the sky is a wall of blue and a huge rainbow appears after a thundershower, I think: “It’s nature’s wall drawing, why not?” Robert Thurman, the Buddhist scholar at Columbia University (New York, New York) has stated: “The rainbow body is very common, mentioned frequently in Indo-Tibetan Tantric literature. It is a demonstration performed by an enlightened being to show humans that an enlightened spirit can transcend material elements (yellow earth, white water, red fire, green air, dark blue space) and shape them at will into whatever thing of beauty liberates its viewers.”[4]  The rainbow’s colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet—are formed when the sun’s rays are reflected and refracted by drops of rain and mist. Forming the basis for LeWitt’s work, this palette acts as a connection between his affinities for nature in general and this phenomenon, specifically.

Sol’s work generously gave me artistic license to move forward, to dig deeper into color’s mother lode. By journeying through uncharted territories along a path full of discoveries and surprises, new possibilities and arrangements, I found that my need to rely on traditional photographic colors faded away. They were displaced by imagined, chemically created colors, which I conjured by using gel-colored light (or no light at all), instead of exposing my lens to a view in front of my eyes. In my Polaroid 20 X 24 work called Pulls, a process I began in 1996, I mixed and mismatched conventional practices with experimental abandon. What evolved was a menu of inventive techniques and methods that[4] brought to life colors and combinations of colors never before seen. For me, LeWitt’s use of color gained momentum over time, evolving to an ever brighter, bigger, and bolder blowup, to use a photographic term. It was my good fortune to be a witness to this, in essence, to stand under his rainbow.

Ellen Carey

Special thanks are extended to Carol LeWitt and the LeWitt family for allowing me the opportunity to write this essay. I offer additional thanks to Ethan Boisvert, Gene Gaddis, Janice LaMotta, Robert Lang, Stephen Persing, Patricia Rosoff, and Krystian von Speidel for their patience, editorial skills, and support.

[1]  Stephen Persing, “Climbing the Walls for Art,” Art in America 93, no. 9 (October 2005), pp. 146–51, 215.

[2] Joanna Marsh, EllenCarey/MATRIX 153: Photography Degree Zero, exh. brochure (Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum, 2004). MATRIX was the first program to showcase contemporary art in a museum setting. It was initiated more than thirty years ago by the Wadsworth Atheneum under the leadership of the highly respected curator, Andrea Miller-Keller.] Joanna Marsh, EllenCarey/MATRIX 153: Photography Degree Zero, exh. brochure (Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum, 2004).

[3] Robert Smithson, “The Spiral Jetty,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 147.

[4] Robert Thurman in an email to the author on 12/17/08. See also “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinopoche and “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” by Padma Sambhava, translated and introduced by RAF Thurman.