“The draftsman and the wall enter a dialogue. The draftsman becomes bored but later through this meaningless activity finds peace or misery. The lines on the wall are the residue of this process. Each line is as important as each other line. All of the lines become one thing. The viewer of the lines can see only lines on a wall. They are meaningless. That is art.”
—Sol LeWitt, 1971
Over the years, Sol LeWitt developed relationships with a cadre of assistants that he trusted to create his wall drawings — or more precisely, to carry out his legendary instructions for making them. Among them are Sachi Cho and Chip Allen, who cane to the Walker last November to install three wall drawings in the Walker collection; they’re part of the exhibition Sol LeWitt: 2D+3D, on view through April 24. Working with them were two members of the Walker’s installation crew, John Vogt and Loren Smith. Over several weeks, the quartet clocked some 525 hours in the Friedman Gallery, drawing lines, holding a straight edge while someone else drew lines, cleaning up drawn lines, sharpening leads for to draw more lines, and once in a while taking breaks from drawing lines.
Recently, John and Loren reviewed images below showing the installation of two of the drawings, taken by Walker photographer Gene Pittman. Here they weigh in on the whole process from start to finish: interpreting LeWitt’s directives, working with his master draftspersons, dealing with the aforementioned ”peace or misery,” and more.
Loren: Sachi and John worked on Wall Drawing #9 A [at left above], which was made with all graphite. For Wall Drawing #9 B [at right], Chip and I drew one layer of graphite and then drew primary colors over it. This subtle difference in materials made a huge difference in our working conditions. The colored leads are more forgiving than the dark graphite ones, so lines made with those required more going back.
John: It’s also important to note how these wall drawings really don’t register in pictures— you have to be in the gallery to see them.
Loren: Up close you can see the tiny imbalances in the lines, further back things look even and precise, and at the distance in this photo they kind of merge into a single, very subtle color.
John: This was on the end of one of the walls where we were drawing. It’s not part of the artwork, but is a practice area. We needed a place to practice how to shift from one draftsperson to another in drawing the same line, to see how that transition would look. You need to get the weight of the line right so there’s no apparent difference.
Loren: This testing space was also important because each wall is different, depending on how it’s prepped: what kind of paint was used, and how much it was diluted.
Primary materials: Staedtler two-millimeter drafting leads, both colored and plain graphite. (above and below)
John: This is the supply table and work area. We also used this green paper to protect the wall after it’s been drawn on. Drafting tape was also used extensively, because it doesn’t leave a residue. You’ll also notice the bundles of red leads: We created drawing tools by taping together three leads with two shorter leads as spacers in between them. It makes the process more efficient, as you can draw three lines at once. Sachi and Chip have fine-tuned this with years of practice—they found that if you use any more than three leads it becomes hard to apply the right amount of pressure. Other technicians have developed their own methods over the years.
Above: Chip Allen and Loren Smith
John: After the wall was prepped, we used drafting tape to mark off the edges for the drawing are, and the cash-register receipt paper on the outside edge was used for marking measurements. It took us a day just to do those measurements, which are like mile-markers to help in checking on your work. The idea was to get approximately nine lines in an inch, but it was amazing to see how far off course you could get with measurements this small.
Loren: You get a regular rhythm going in doing this work, and it involves regular breaks. Resting is as important as drawing; this work becomes physically intense, and your body needs a break.
John: But it’s not like we were totally resting – most of the time, during breaks you’re sharpening leads at the work table.
Loren: So much of what LeWitt was after was not the finished piece, but the concept of the piece. So looking at these pictures of us working, seeing his concept for a wall drawing being carried out, is in some ways closer to his intention. Chip has worked on hundreds of these pieces, and he said that the instructions are really the art—and the act of carrying them out. Apparently LeWitt never actually saw all results of all of his instructions carried out. And he knew people could do them in their own homes, or on a wall anywhere – they just wouldn’t have the original instructions.
Above: Sachi Cho and John Vogt
John: This work becomes intense. Keeping everything mathematically precise required constant adjustments, because even being slightly off over the expanse of the wall would create lines that went way off track. You also try to avoid major accidents, like dropping the straight edge, which could do a lot of damage to lines on the wall.
Loren: I found it interesting that at the top of the wall for Wall Drawing #9 B, there is a visible fracture line, a seam in the sheetrock. The decision was made that this was part of wall’s nature, and we should leave it as is — as evidence of reality, as opposed to perfection.
John: There is no erasing with these wall drawings. Using an eraser would leave a sheen on the wall. Instead, if a line went astray we would ease out imperfections by using drafting tape to lift graphite off the wall, or scrape it off with a razor blade. We could also use paint to cover mistakes, usually as they were made but sometimes later.
John: Each wall is about 16 feet tall by 13 feet wide, and obviously, you can’t draw lines across that entire expanse. So we broke up the wall into several sections, and single lines were often drawn by two different people.
Loren: The lines we would all draw would be different in part depending on our “wingspan” – how far your arm extends, or how close to your body you can draw. If you try to stretch and draw farther than your hands and arms can comfortably reach, it creates an inconsistent line. So we needed to avoid patterns emerging in all these lines, and also to avoid any sense of character in the line—you don’t want it to look, say, crisp or authoritative.
Loren: We saw how the size of a draftsperson was a factor in other ways, too. Sachi drew faster but stopped more often, while Chip, who is considerably taller, was more of a slow-and-steady type. You might think that being taller would be an advantage, but it’s not necessarily so. Chip worked with a longer straight edge, but then he had to deal with it bowing out from the wall, and we would be checking on a line the whole time as we drew it.
John: I would get frustrated if things went off course in making the lines, but Sachi was always very calm and reassuring. We’d talk about Sol LeWitt’s ideal of the “not straight straight line” and debates among draftserpersons about how far that can be taken.
John: Here, Sachi is going back over lines to touch up.
Loren: I think one reason Sachi would return to kind of touch up lines already drawn has to do with something she told us often: it’s always important to have a human feel to the drawings. You don’t want it too perfect, because the evidence of the human hand is key.
In his earlier work, LeWitt was more into man-on-the-street instructions – things anybody could do – but over time, the nature of work changed. He began to make pieces that on some level would be affected by the personality of the person making them, so he wanted those people to have training in how to carry out the instructions. The kind of patience and dedication required to make this work isn’t something that everyone has. So in some sense it’s how he’s made personality a factor in his later work.
John: “Fresh” leads are sharp and ready to be bundled into the 3-lead drawing tool. We used the rags to wipe dust from leads, in order to prevent smudges on the wall.
John: Here, Sachi is marking the center of the wall – one of many reference points we’d make using blue tape and sharpies. The red line on either side of her hand comes from a laser level to make sure things are plumb, or level. With that tool, you quickly find out that even the smoothest-looking floors have lots of undulation.
Loren: We introduced Sachi and Chip to the laser level; before, they had been using old-fashioned levels and plumb lines. In most ways this whole process of measuring and mark-making is very hands-on; it’s kind of retaining a craft tradition, one that in LeWitt’s case goes back to the 1960s. In preparing to draw, there was an emphasis on making tools. John cut down masonite boards for a hand-made version of a straight edge, which had advantages over the manufactured metal kind. They could be longer and were definitely lighter, which is important considering how long you’re holding them against the wall.
John: We also got them to use the scissor lifts instead of building scaffolding. They were a little unsure of these new tools at first, but they came to like them. There was a kind of a balance between finding new, easier ways to doing things and trusting in Sachi and Chip’s experience and the methods they’ve developed over the years – such as that 3-lead drawing tool. You might be tempted to think there could be different or quicker ways to do something, but in most cases you come to understand the reasons for doing it the way it’s been done for years.
John: Ultimately you just have to accept that it’s a long process, and there’s no way for it to go quicker. It was definitely a marathon, with a pace to it. I couldn’t do it over and over again—my patience doesn’t go that far. When you start it’s a daunting task, and you quickly realize that it doesn’t go as fast as you might imagine. So you see how it’s going to take time, and you can try to enjoy the ride—you have to—but you also have to focus on what you’re doing all the time. It’s not one of those monotonous, tedious jobs where you’re just going through the motions and trying to use your brain for other things. You have to keep track of measurements, stay focused on making sure your line doesn’t go off course.
Loren: Chip and I ended up talking a lot, and we kind of got into a pattern of measuring, drawing, measuring, drawing. Initially I wanted to fight it but if you don’t, it becomes more peaceful actually. Still, if you’re having a day where you felt like you just wanted to be done, it could be agonizing. Your experience depended on what you were bringing to the job on any given day.
John: I’m really glad we did it. It’s an amazing end to all this work. You can imagine what a grid on a wall might look like, but I had no clue as to how gorgeous it would be in the end.
Loren: Taking off the green paper and the tape was like unwrapping a present.
John: I kind of wanted to smash a bottle of champagne on it.
Links to more on Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings and the people who make them:
Video footage of the installation in progress at Mass MOCA’s Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, a monumental exhibition of 105 works, which opened in 2008 and remains on view until 2033
A video with Takeshi Arita, one of the most experienced of LeWitt’s technicians, installing a piece at The Art Institute of Chicago
Blog post about the making of LeWitt’s “scribble” wall drawing in a stairwell at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which was completed last October and is, at 2,200-square-feet, the largest ever conceived by the artist
Also on the Walker blogs: an interview with an eight-year-old math-and-geometry whiz who made his own version of Wall Drawing #224, also on view in Sol LeWitt: 2D+3D.