Genius, Explained: Masterpieces-by-the-Numbers

No, he isn’t a household name like Picasso, but MASS MoCA’s just-opened retrospective, scheduled to remain on display at the North Adams museum for the next quarter-century, is doing wonders for Sol LeWitt’s Q rating. Over the past months, the international press has worked itself into a lather over the late American artist’s curious MO—intricate "instructions" that professional installers transform into sprawling panoramas of colors, shapes, and lines. The fawning is justified. Unlike the aseptic, theory-burdened oeuvre of other conceptual artists (think William Pope.L or Jenny Holzer), LeWitt’s masterpieces are long on sumptuous immediacy and sheer visual pleasure.


Amid so much shimmering psychedelia, though, there’s a tendency to ignore perhaps the most brilliant aspect of all: LeWitt’s knack for micromanagement. Unlike other famous "supervisors," such as Rubens and Warhol, LeWitt took pains to codify the marching orders to ensure his pieces can be reinstalled ad infinitum.

Here’s a look at what went into the landmark Mass MoCA exhibit:

In a LeWitt creation, even a single crayon line requires a specific look. "It can’t be too opaque or too grainy," says installer Chris Cobb, shown above. 

INCLUSION LeWitt wasn’t a total control freak, however. He wanted his team to engage in the process, not just put up wallpaper. The instructions read like brainteasers and often leave at least one element to the installer’s discretion.

PRESENCE Though each work is enormous, look closely and you’ll see that every line and swath of color is clearly handmade. LeWitt intended for the human effort to be visible, and the effect is surprisingly moving. 

AMBITION Four decades of LeWitt requires serious sprawl. Luckily, Mass MoCA had a half-acre warehouse to spare for the 25-year show. A 65-person team slaved for six months to install 105 of his wall drawings. Not even Picasso got this royal treatment.