Deconstructing the Hidden Wit of Sol LeWitt
story David Chia, Arts Editor
Twenty-six layers of ink and acrylic washes. Six artists including Parag Bhatnagar ’17. 20 days of labor. Two scaffold towers and one ladder. That’s what it took to complete the unassuming and minimalistic mural Wall Drawing #442 at the Performance Hall Foyer by Connecticut artist Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), first drawn by David Higginbotham and Joe Watanabe.
Wall Drawing #442 is a geometrical combination of right angle and irregular triangles converging into an asymmetrical pyramid from three corners of the wall. (David Chia)
Inspired by conceptual artists Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, Sol LeWitt emphasizes idea over execution. “It’s not like drawing with pen, you don’t start and finish one by one . . . It takes a certain brain power,” Mr. Watanabe, Sol LeWitt master printer, said in an Artsy interview in September 2013, about the construction process. Similar to a Quantitative Reasoning problem or a philosophical issue, the mural is a product of a set of visual challenges and rules. LeWitt art is instructional: a group of artists, hired by the LeWitt Foundation, is given a set of plans, drawings and instructions on how to execute the artwork. Given the same instruction, no two Sol LeWitts will ever look the same.
The collaborative and exploratory quality of a LeWitt echoes the Yale-NUS philosophy. (David Zhang)
In the making of Wall Drawing #442, the challenge involved the geometrical arrangements of right angle and irregular triangles converging into a focus point from three corners of the wall. “It was pretty tedious … getting these points marked on the wall … making sure the lines are straight,” Parag Bhatnagar ’17 said after helping out during a few sessions.
Peering through a glass curvature into the teak-bound foyer, we are welcomed by Wall Drawing #442. Upon entering, a sea of blue pigments is interrupted by oblique lines that are converged on by a series of non-judgmental triangles. Professor Mark Joyce, Director of Arts and Humanities, who coordinated the construction of the wall painting, described the mural intersect as being “a world of human intellect, invention and creation” engaging in Common Curriculum fashion with “architecture, math, science, music and theatre.”
Mr. Joyce likens the mural’s labor to that of an “Italian Renaissance fresco.” According to Mr. Watanabe, LeWitt wall drawings only use aged Sistine Chapel-like fresco colors—red, yellow, blue and gray. Each of these colors are prescribed a systematic number of coats, and dabbed on by pantone shades of rags. Yet grandiosely precise as it is, Wall Drawing#442 captures the child-like possibilities like that of a kindergarten mural. Its process straddles the democratic balance of being prescriptive and descriptive. Mr. Watanabe said: “The hands don’t have to belong to the artist himself, because we share emotions that are more or less similar. If you can use somebody else’s hand, you can do lots of work.”
In many ways, the collaborative and exploratory quality of a LeWitt echoes the Yale-NUS College philosophy. “The spirit of having everyone involved gives it a kind of democratic quality we like,” President Pericles Lewis said. The mural is—as Mark Joyce described—“pushing its dimensionality.” It is aware of itself as existing within a two-dimensional space, yet “opening the possibility of three dimensions.” 1+1=3? Indeed, it is a puzzle.
At present, the only other place in Singapore aside from Yale-NUS that carries a Sol LeWitt is Marina Bay Sands. When asked why Sol LeWitt, Mr. Lewis said: “[Yale University] has a number of Sol LeWitts so there’s a bit of an echo there and a bit of Yale here in Singapore.” The Yale School of Management’s Edward P. Evans Hall carries three wall drawings by Sol LeWitt. Wall Drawing #422 was painted by artists from Singapore and the USA, and it was donated by three founding members of the Yale-NUS Governing Board: Richard C. Levin, 22nd president of Yale University, Linda Koch Lorimer, former Fellow and Vice President of Yale University, and Roland W. Betts, former Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporation.
The cost of the mural is undisclosed. According to Executive Vice President Doris Sohmen-Pao, the value of donations is usually not made public. Additionally, the LeWitt wall painting’s direct engagement with the architectural structure makes it difficult to price. LeWitt’s auction record was set in 2014 at Sotheby’s New York for his gouache on paperboard piece Wavy Brushstroke (1995) for 749,000 USD.
Beyond this price, however, lies a priceless wit. Despite its simple unfolding, the mural captures the arresting tensions of diplomacy, identity and dimensionality. But perhaps the asymmetrical pyramid is just what is—an asymmetrical pyramid.