Late this past summer and into fall, a team of fifteen draftspersons labored seven hours a day behind air-purified plastic-swathed scaffolding spanning the interior staircase and adjoining room of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It was like a scene out of a Dan Brown novel, except not absurd. This team was working on the largest and most ambitious Scribble Drawing ever produced by Sol LeWitt, the renowned Minimalist and Conceptual Art pioneer who passed away in 2007. A visit to the site during installation found the monumental task in progress under the guidance of the Sol LeWitt studio.
Photo courtesy of the LeWitt Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Photo by Ellen Labenski, courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York.
Spanning the vertical walls of the staircase and the gallery above, the work is a complex geometric composition comprised totally of seemingly random squiggly marks drawn with standard graphic art pencils. The scribbles are layered to create six graduated value densities. The scribblers work directly on walls that are prepared with five coats of white paint to achieve a particular “orange peel” texture, and which have been partitioned with thread guidelines into twenty rectangular sections. Everything is mapped out by the artist with diagrams and instructions that allow for limited interpretation by the installation team, many of whom worked with the late artist for years. The planned composition, commissioned specifically by the museum for this site, poses something of a visual conundrum. It’s a flat design whose gradated segments flirt with three-dimensional illusionism that suggests vertical and horizontal tubular ductwork.
“I think the word awesome is what will come to mind when you see this work,” enthuses Ilana Chlebowski, curatorial assistant and point person for the gallery. “Everyone has held a pencil in their life, so it’s accessible.”
As the artists scribble, Chlebowski points to a section where the gradation is very narrow, then compares it to another area where project supervisor Takeshi Aria is working. “See how the range of gradation is much broader there? That’s the challenge they have,” Chlebowski continues, “to try to feel that out. It’s about feel at this point, and less about one, two, three.”
I ask Chlebowski about the plastic enclosure the artists work behind, and she explains that “you have fifteen people scribbling for forty or fifty days and there’s a large amount of graphite dust in the air. We need to contain that graphite, and also allow them fresh air, so we created this structure that has the air filtered out, catching all the dust, and then air conditioning going in so they can breathe while they scribble.”
To those unfamiliar with LeWitt’s art it may seem odd that a work by the artist should be initiated after his death. However, in every other respect, this drawing is no different than most of the roughly 1,200 other wall drawings the prolific artist produced during his life. LeWitt is credited with coining the term Conceptual Art to describe work in which the concepts or ideas behind the art take precedence over its execution. He challenged the nature of art by deemphasizing how, or by whom, a work was made; he once wrote, “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.”
Perfunctory maybe, but the people working at the Albright-Knox are skilled artists in their own rights. One is Buffalo artist Ani Hoover, widely known for her geometric-based abstract paintings. “I’ve realized that my ownUp Down Around series and the scribble drawing do have one thing in common,” says Hoover during a break from scribbling. “They both deal with gradations from light to dark or transitions from one thing to another.”
What does all that scribbling feel like; do you lapse into a trance? Does your arm become exhausted? “I haven’t become meditative yet, but there are occasions when the time has passed quickly. It’s a little tiny pencil lead and a lot of scribbling, so there is a lot of physical labor. It’s not like scribbling on a piece of paper; it’s totally different,” explains Hoover. “I feel sort of the same way I would with my own art. You want to make sure it’s done right and that your work goes with the rest of the artists.’”
Many of the scribblers bring up the democratic nature of the project. “There’s no higher-ups here; we are all equal,” says project supervisor Aria. He explains that each artist works in every segment in rotation, so no section looks different from any other, and no single artist’s work is visible in the finished piece. Says Hoover, “Even though I am a bit older than most of the apprentices, we are all equals, all doing the same job, and none of our hands are more important than anyone else’s. Fifteen people are working every square inch of the drawing; there won’t be any spot where just one person drew.”
Viewers might wonder if this is but one interpretation of a Sol LeWitt concept. How can we know this is what the artist had in mind? Gabriel Hurier has worked for the LeWitt studio for six years. He describes the work as a collaboration between the scribblers and LeWitt. “We’re all artists and we all have our own vision and interpretation. Sol really didn’t work on his own drawings very much past 1972, so for us to be out here working on this is not any different than if he were still alive,” he explains. “He would still be in his studio in Chester, Connecticut, and we’d be here.”
But of course, it’s LeWitt’s name that goes on the work. According to the Albright-Knox, the completed work will remain on display “indefinitely,” which isn’t necessarily forever. If the museum does ever take it down, it owns the rights to draw it all over again. “It will be here so long,” says Hoover, “and I’ll get to walk by it and see it, and know that I worked on it, so that’s pretty good. There are only fifteen of us who can say that.”