(Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, Massachusetts) Days before Hurricane Irene devastated New England, I managed to visit MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, drawn there by the historic "Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective," which officially opened three years ago but which will remain on view until 2033. The exhibit is definitely worth the trip north (or south, east, or west). Included in the show are 105 of LeWitt’s large-scale wall drawings, spanning the years 1969-2007, the year of his death.
To accommodate the massive exhibit, Building # 7 of MASS MoCA was restored, and a crew of 60 -- including curators, artists, and interns -- spent six months recreating LeWitt’s designs on the walls. Although LeWitt left precise instructions for draftsmen who were going to produce his work, he always insisted that the final product was something of a mystery. "You will find out what it will look like in the end," he wrote. According to Tak, one of the artists who spoke about LeWitt in a video accompanying the exhibit, LeWitt insisted that a maquette is only a maquette. Whatever is on the wall is the art!
Installed on three floors of the former factory building, LeWitt’s wall paintings/drawings range from his line drawings of the 1970s to his later work, where colors were superimposed in layers using all combinations of primaries to create a vivid palette. In several works, the superimposed colors were put on in six layers of three colors — labor-intensive work that meant that 18 coats of paint were applied with a cloth and then tamped down. For crayon drawings, crayon tips were shaved for best results so that the crayons used the surfaces of the walls, and colors bounced off.
Sol LeWitt worked in his studio daily, producing a vast artistic output during his lifetime.
So it seems perfectly fitting that MASS MoCA is now showing a second exhibit, "The Workers: Precarity, Invisibility, Mobility," until March 31, 2012.
The show focuses on how contemporary artists represent the current workforce. Co-curated by Susan Cross and Carla Herera-Prats, the exhibit features 25 artists and filmmakers from around the world who use new methods, such as documentary, videography, and performance to illuminate the struggles of workers and the contributions made by volunteers. Chief among the issues are workers’ efforts to deal with social issues such as homelessness, illegal immigration, and environmental pollution.
In videos, we hear the workers complaining: “In Soviet times, I worked in a milk factory. Now I can hardly pay rent.” “We brought down socialism in order to be free.” The title of Oliver Ressler’s video installation (2010) says it all: Socialism Failed, Capitalism is Bankrupt. What comes Next?”
The installations are both provocative and imaginative. Camel Collective’s contribution, A Facility Based on Change, 2011, uses chain link fence and coffee cups, and bases the work on the history of the MASS MoCA site, which was the Sprague Electric Factory from 1942 to 1985. Leaning upon archival photographs of a strike at Sprague in 1970, the New York-based collective employed a screen-printing process to create 13 unique paintings. Carefully placed in the chain-link fence installed in the gallery are coffee cups with “words” written in Twitter-like shorthand. Although the text will change during the course of the exhibition, the current “message” is MN SHTDN NO END N SGHT. Another work, The Agreement (2011) by Laboratorio 060 in collaboration with York Chang, examines the union contract in place at Sprague during 1976-1979. Labor-side lawyer Chang was asked to analyze and make comments on the document.
Labor, as portrayed in the movies, is not forgotten in the exhibit. Harun Farocki’s installation, Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades (2006), includes footage from 12 different films -- the earliest, La Sortie de l’usine Lumiere a Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon), from 1895. Featured as well are Intolerance (1916), Metropolis (1926), Modern Times (1936), Frauenschicksale (1952), Desert Rose (1964), La Reprise du travail aux usines Wonder (1968), Trop tot, trop tard (1981) footage of a security gate (1987), and Dancer in the Dark (2000). Throughout all of the films, Farocki emphasizes workers shifting from their factory lives to their private lives.
It’s a powerful exhibit -- one that is particularly unsettling for the majority of its viewers visiting MASS MoCA on a New England vacation.
"Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective" will be on display at MASS MoCA until the year 2033, and "The Workers: Precarity, Invisibility, Mobility" until March 31, 2012.