A couple weeks ago I stumbled upon this album called Wall Music by Gabriel Birnbaum, a musician I know from having played a show together in DC last October. Wall Music is inspired by the Sol LeWitt retrospective at MASS MoCA. If you aren’t familiar, Sol LeWitt was a visual artist whose work is often described as minimalist or conceptual, and who is maybe best known for his wall drawings, which are what they sound like: big, geometric uses of lines and shapes, installed on walls, often in primary colors, often written as a set of diagrams or instructions and executed by someone(s) other than the artist himself.
I’ve seen the retrospective three times, one time each December for the last three years — my first and only visits to the museum. I went, that first December, because I was a fan of Sol LeWitt and pictured myself feeling humbled and bewildered in the three floors that house this retrospective. But more so, that first year, I went to see something else in the museum’s collection: Jenny Holzer’s “Lustmord,” a piece about sexual violence made in response to war crimes in Bosnia. I found “Lustmord” incredibly disturbing, which is more or less why I wanted to go stand in its presence: 2017 was a disturbing year, one where sexual violence rarely left the news, and so I wanted to look squarely at something that presented disturbance in harsh light. The bones on the table did not disappoint.
The next year I went back to MASS MoCA in December with Madeline, and when we got there we found out that K*nye W*st had visited the day before with the artist James Turrell, whose work is featured in the museum, and it made us laugh, and we saw the LeWitts and the Holzers and lots of other stuff, including a performance piece that involved performers plunging wordlessly into an ice bath, which we found delightful. (When I described it to my sister later that night she said, perplexed, “And that’s … art?” and I replied, confidently, “That’s art!”) Last year I went back with Madeline and Matt, and we spent a bunch of time with Laurie Anderson’s VR pieces, and in the Turrell rooms, and in the newly-updated Holzer rooms, replete with her famous “inflammatory essays.” (I do not take such great museum companions for granted, by the way. “By affinity for the same works of art,” a friend recently wrote, “we can at least identify those whose dream worlds resemble our own.” Amen to that.)
Even after three visits I can’t quite describe what I find so moving about Sol LeWitt’s work (probably because I didn’t take my college’s vaunted Art History 101 course; honestly a huge source of shame for me). In writing about his album, Gabriel described it pretty well: “The scale and simplicity of them was wonderful to me,” he wrote on Bandcamp about the wall drawings, “and, for a project that was often so structured, they were totally joyous and playful. I loved how you could glance at them quickly and be thrilled by the bold shapes and huge washes of color, and then also sit and stare into them for long stretches and find other depths.” I find the wall drawings soothing for these reasons — structured yet playful, overwhelming but logical. They’re conceptual but comprehensible (I hate feeling dumb). Sometimes the patterns are obvious and sometimes they aren’t, but there’s always a pattern. Also, I think I like the idea that art can be words written down in the hopes of someone else picking them up and bringing them to life; I like the way these pieces bring the ideas of one person and the hands of some other people and the eyes of many other people together, and they all matter.
I like how Gabriel translated LeWitt’s instructions into his music, which similarly is soothing and surprising and bold and elegant and immersive in turn. I often think about my drive back home from the museum that first year: I was proud of myself for making the trip alone; I left the museum early enough that I could get through the windy, icy backroads of the western half of the state before the sun went down. The sky was so pink on that drive, the sun setting over snowbanks, and I played all my favorite songs from that year (which may as well have just been this one on repeat), and felt soothed. May some good art do that for you this week.
(P.S. As I was drafting this, my sister — the same perplexed one from earlier — asked for a shout-out; hi, J, consider this it <3)