UT makes big leap in public art

Outside a new building at the University of Texas stands a striking circular structure made of ordinary unpainted cement cubes.

The cubes form a three-feet high circle that is punctuated by eight 14-foot-tall columns — a minimalist, modular Stonehenge of sorts.

“Circle With Towers,” is one of the last concrete block works made by Sol LeWitt, the celebrated artist who was an originator of conceptual art, the movement born in the 1960s that was dedicated to the notion that the concept was the work of art.

Inside, past a light-filled atrium lounge filled with sleek modern furniture, LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #520” unfolds over three huge walls, revealing a highly geometric composition of floating cubes in rich colors.

Both are projects for Landmarks, UT’s public art project program, and they will be officially dedicated March 21, one of several events to mark the opening of the new Dell Computer Science Hall and Bill and Melinda Gates Computer Science Center.

And while both are initially credited to LeWitt, who died in 2007 at age 78, they are actually the work of two teams of artists who executed the artist’s ideas.

That might not seem so unusual for large-scale works of public art, until you consider that LeWitt never intended to make either work with his own hand.

For LeWitt, a work of art was simply the carrier of an idea rather than a precious object — something produced by others from a set of instructions.

And if that seems highbrow and aloof, it’s anything but, a LeWitt scholar says.

“Conceptual art is not the detached, dry, cool thing that people think it is,” says Veronica Roberts, the new curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton Museum of Art. “Sure, it’s heady, but it’s heady in a way that has light, humanity and even humor.”

Roberts is a specialist on LeWitt’s work and for several years was director of research for the Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing catalogue raisonné, the definitive catalog of the almost 13oo wall drawings the artist conceived.

It was Roberts who a while back suggested that Landmarks leaders consider one of LeWitt’s wall drawings to complement “Circle With Towers.”

By coincidence, another LeWitt work, “Wall Drawing #1001,” is on view at the Blanton in the current exhibit “Through the Eyes of Texas: Masterworks of Alumni Collections.”

“There’s an explosion of LeWitt right now in Austin,” says Roberts.

And, she says, with Austin’s young vibe, collective spirit and sense of play, LeWitt’s art is ripe for rediscovery by a younger generation.

In the late 1960s, LeWitt conceived of the then-radical approach of developing an idea for a work of art that others would produce. LeWitt placed few restrictions on where his drawings or sculpture could be sited and often left it open-ended as to how long they could be exhibited. No work can be duplicated and exist simultaneously in more than one place, and each installation must be supervised by a master artisan from the LeWitt estate.

Once a drawing is through being exhibited, it is simply painted over.

LeWitt’s was a defiant gesture, at once undermining any commercial viability a work of art might have and confusing a money-focused art world.

It also erased the exclusivity of the artist’s hand.

Roberts suggests that a composer writing music makes for a good analogy in understanding the way LeWitt conceived of his projects. A composer may write a sonata, but it is up to the musicians or a conductor to interpret it, and each interpretation is different in the end.

“Sol loved the idiosyncrasies that came from other artists interpreting his work,” says Roberts. “And no matter how exacting the LeWitt’s instructions are, no two installations of a wall drawing ever look exactly the same.”

A few weeks ago, a team of six artists — led by a trained draftsman from the LeWitt estate — spent 20 days rendering “Wall Drawing #520.”

The team worked in a human chain tossing balled-up rags dripping with vivid paint (a type of oil-based wash), the last artist quickly dabbing on another coat as the geometric shapes filled out.

Each wall drawing begins with LeWitt’s diagrammatic instructions, written in his own system of notations that reads more like algorithms or complex formulas than instructions for a work of art.

LeWitt pared down his color palette to hues derived from the primary colors — red, blue and yellow — and also gray. A dark green may be rendered from layers of yellow, blue and gray. Some sections of “Wall Drawing #520” are created from as many 17 layers of paint.

“Sol loved rules and a system. He actually felt them to be freeing,” says Roberts. “And he liked to create a system that brought others into the equation.”

LeWitt also eschewed the limelight. “He never wanted his biography to overshadow his art,” Roberts says.

Larger-than-life stars such as Jackson Pollock populated the generation of artists that came before LeWitt. And by the time his own career blossomed in the late 1960s, he wanted nothing to do with the growing celebritization of artists.

LeWitt insisted that the young artists making his work be paid fairly, with each installation — including the ones now at UT — bearing the name of those who worked on it.

Given the thousands of times LeWitt’s wall drawings have been executed around the world, Roberts says the roster of now-famous artists who once worked on his drawings include big names like Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and Christian Marclay.

“Sol was extremely generous to younger artists. He would write thank-you notes to everyone who worked on an exhibit or project of his. He loved employing younger artists. He would give them special limited edition prints he made, signing each one,” says Roberts. “It just was who Sol was.”

UT’s public art program is a directive of a 2007 campus master plan that earmarks 1 to 2 percent of any budget for new construction or major building renovation for art.

Landmarks debuted with a headline-grabbing flourish in 2008, when it received 28 modern sculptures on long-term loan from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sculptures — including a monumental one by Mark di Suvero — now dot the UT campus in locations outside and in, including 11 that are exhibited throughout the Bass Concert Hall.

UT purchased “Circle With Towers” f0r $700,000 from New York’s Madison Square Park Conservancy as per LeWitt’s mandate after he donated the work to help establish an endowment to support the creation of public art for the Madison Square Park. For several years, “Circle With Towers” stood in the Manhattan park, where it became a popular perch for busy New Yorkers.

Now, it will be permanently at UT, undoubtedly becoming a popular gathering spot for students.

And “Wall Drawing #520” is on a 25 year long-term renewable loan from the LeWitt estate, hopefully intriguing young computer science students with its energetic intellectual aesthetics.

“Sol had a sense of humor,” says Roberts. “And he truly wanted others involved.”

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