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Sol LeWitt's final public wall-drawing

March 25, 2009 | 10:47 am

When “Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective” opened last November at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA) in the old mill town of North Adams, the reviews were rapturous. Having just returned from there, it's easy to see why. This may be the most perfect union of contemporary art and architecture in the United States. It's our Sistine.

The building -- a 27,000-square-foot, three-story historic factory -- now holds 105 of LeWitt’s signature large-scale wall drawings. They span the artist’s career, from 1969 to his death at 78 in 2007. LeWitt designed the installation, although he did not live to see it finished, and it took my breath away.

While LeWitt was working on the Mass MOCA show, he was also preparing one of his last wall drawings for his final public project -- a mammoth black-and-white work for a new federal office building and courthouse in Springfield, roughly midway between North Adams and the artist's home in Chester, Conn. Running the full length of a curved, 300-foot corridor outside the third-floor courtrooms, it's the largest LeWitt I've seen. I walked the length of it for the video posted above.

“Wall Drawing No. 1259: Loopy Doopy (Springfield)” is a gem. In the last decade or so of his life, LeWitt made a number of drawings by ...

... taping together two pencils and rolling them through his fingers and twisting his wrist as he moved across the page. That became the template for the mural.

The energy of the piece derives from the way it negotiates the crazy play of its linear twists and turns with the strict rationality of the architectural setting. (The building was designed by Boston architect Moshe Safdie.) On a black acrylic ground, the wide white lines seem to emerge from the surrounding white-walled interior, which merges a rectilinear grid with a compound curve. Buildings can be eccentric, but they must also subscribe to the logic of structural codes -- which an artist can happily ignore. The loopy-doopy drawing, flooded with natural light from the building's glass facade and skylights directly above, takes that fundamental difference and runs with it.

Most any pilgrimage route to North Adams from the south or east goes through Springfield, but as far as I can tell this final LeWitt work hasn't been written about before now. Commissioned for the Art in Architecture Program run by the federal General Services Administration and installed last summer, it's worth a detour to see. More pictures follow below.

Meanwhile, the Mass MOCA website also has a terrific array of information about its retrospective exhibition, including time-lapse pictures of the installation in progress. Like the single Springfield work, the show was designed so all the drawings (with one exception) are on interior walls, which leaves the windows exposed around the building's perimeter walls. The LeWitt retrospective is on view until 2033 -- yes, a 25-year run -- which makes sense given the complexity, breadth and expense of what was involved in putting on the show. The museum worked with the art galleries at Williams College and, especially, Yale University on the project, and the partners will evaluate what to do when the quarter-century is up.

Call me loopy-doopy, but I suspect America's Sistine will become a cherished permanent fixture of the artistic landscape.

Loopy_doopy_courthouse Loopy_doopy_001

"Loopy Doopy (Springfield)" is on the third floor of the new federal courthouse.

Loopy_doopy_cathedral Loopy_doopy_hampden

The steeple of St. Michael's Cathedral, built in the 1860s, is seen out one end-window of the new federal building; the wall drawing wraps around the four courtroom entrances.

Loopy_doopy_arcade Loopy_doopy_staircase

For security reasons, the federal offices and courtrooms are separated from the street-side facade by a staircase and hall, but abundant glass allows natural light to flood the secure interior space.

Loopy_doopy_skylight_2 Loopy_doopy_skylight_2_2

Skylights run the full 300-feet of the wall that holds the drawing. Floodlights illuminate the wall at night, making the work visible from the street.

-- Christopher Knight

Photos & video: Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times

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