Sol Lewitt and the Gentle Serialism

Wall Drawing 146A

All two-part combinations of arcs from corners and sides, and straight, not straight, and broken lines within a 36-inch (90 cm) grid.
June 2000
White crayon on blue wall

These are the extent of Sol Lewitt’s instructions for this stunning piece, which I saw up at Mass Moca two weeks ago. People talk about Sol Lewitt’s conceptualism, and I even bought a button emblazoned with the Lewittian mantra “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” But Wall Drawing 146A strikes me as a dose of good old fashioned serialism. I suppose serialism, on some level, was as much a concept as anything Lewitt imagined, but it has the reputation of being a rigid and prickly concept, quite the opposite of Lewitt’s gregarious, primary-colored inventions. Since I have never really had an interest in serialism in music, it was with some hesitation that I explored the serial aspects of this artwork. And it turned out what I found was in fact a serial process, but also one with a gentler and more intuitive touch.

Here is the key that the installers drew for the larger work on an outside wall, presumably to grant a behind-the-scenes look:

Wall Drawing 146A Key

Wall Drawing 146A Key

Broken down to this straightforward list of materials, the extended piece around the corner starts to seem much more elemental. Instead of the complex tangle of lines, I saw the finite range of combinations. Instead of something without beginning or end, I saw the slow drift from solid lines through curves to dotted lines. The series of combinations ends up being less a dramatic display of wit and ingenuity and more a straightforward list of possibilities.

The neat thing that got me was the fact that the combinations exhaust themselves before they use up all of the wall space. So there are two blank squares at the end of the horizontal plane. I thought the fact that the math didn’t quite work out exactly was a mysterious and lovely part of the piece. And it was further evidence in my mind of a less obsessive serial approach. What a relief to know that all ideas aren’t quite as perfect as they first seem.