By Christopher Régimbal
This summer’s exhibition at the Toronto artist-run centre Mercer Union, Sol LeWitt: A Mercer Union Legacy Project, is an example of a self-aware curatorial project that is simple in its execution, but exposes more than just the sum of its parts. Despite the increasing importance of the role of the curator in contemporary art practice in the last decade, and more formal training programs and specialized literature in the field, the actual act of curating often sticks to some well-worn formats: the retrospective, the thematic group exhibition, the historical survey or the solo show. However, an engaged and self-aware curator can walk these paths and tease out new relationships with contemporary art, as well as contribute to a new understanding of curatorial work. Mercer Union’s LeWitt exhibition is one of these occasions.
Initiated by Sarah Robayo Sheridan, Mercer Union’s Director of Exhibitions and Publications, the exhibition revisits Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #349, which was originally commissioned from the generation-defining American Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt for Mercer Union in 1981. Mercer Union’s 2010 restaging engages with the underlying systems of LeWitt’s logic, and reveals the limitations of the assumptions around his immaterial and instructions-based practice. LeWitt wrote: “The artist’s will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion.” By returning to the artwork initiated by LeWitt in 1981, Robayo Sheridan’s approach tests just how well this very basic tenet of the artist’s work has translated now that his body of work has moved into the archival record after his death.
In July, curator and Magenta Magazine Online contributor Christopher Régimbal met with Robayo Sheridan at Mercer Union to discuss her approach to these significant historical drawings.
Christopher Régimbal: What initially brought you to Mercer Union's archives and what did you find when you got there?
Sarah Robayo Sheridan: I started looking through the archives when I was hired in September 2008. Because I was more familiar with the later history – I only moved here in 1999 – and since Mercer Union was founded in 1979, there was a full twenty years that I didn’t know first hand. When I read the listing for the 1981 LeWitt exhibition, it struck me because I admire the artist’s work and it was a surprise. I wanted an account of how this came to be. It seemed a perfect anniversary project to record this history through a new exhibition.
CR: So, aside from a personal interest in LeWitt’s practice, what did the exhibition tell you about the space and why did you think it was a particularly significant moment to turn into an anniversary project?
SRS: One aspect that I think is important about Mercer Union’s history is that we’ve always looked outward. I think that the desire to connect what is happening locally with international practices is exemplary of Mercer Union’s programming, and the 1981 LeWitt show was emblematic of that for me. I was impressed to find that LeWitt showed at Mercer Union two years after his major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We tend to think of artist-run centres as transitional spaces, supporting emergent artists, but here was a case where an already recognized artist was drawn to the possibility of working with us. By Michael Davey’s account [Editor’s note: Davey was a member of the Mercer Union board in 1981.], LeWitt was really invested in the importance of parallel exhibition spaces and greeted the invitation enthusiastically. The installation of Wall Drawing #349 in 2010 was accomplished by a current crew of Mercer Union staff, board and friends who all pitched in for the install. This facility to work so directly on its creation brought us closer to the social situation prevalent at Mercer Union at the time of its founding. In the early years, the artists running the space had to be a lot more hands-on and engaged in the production of exhibitions. The situation for artist-run centres has shifted a lot from volunteerism into more formalized structures, making a place for a person like me who trained as a curator. The execution of the drawings was an interesting way to mark these two points in Mercer Union’s timeline. Another aspect of interest to me is that a lot of practicing artists today turn to LeWitt as an influence. He is still in people’s thoughts so the exhibition seemed timely that way.
CR: As a curator working in an artist-run centre, what can you add to the process of writing the history of conceptual art and related practices in Canada?
SRS: One thing we are able to accomplish is tightly focused research-based exhibitions. Small institutions can do this. You have very little available in terms of formal supports and resources, but you have what is yours—in this case, an interesting episode in our institutional history. It is a very intimate way of curating because of the scale of our operations. The LeWitt exhibition offers one aspect of the history rather than a giant survey of practices at the time. Non-profit arts organizations require a very high degree of commitment and over time it becomes very personal, meaning that artists involved in running the space in 1981 still feel ownership of our history. And so, it’s also important that we continue to own that history and to tell it with precision.
CR: One thing that seems to be coming up more and more in the past year or two is this idea of restaging historical exhibitions and events. This seems to be an approach that many curators are taking to representing the non-material history of Conceptual Art and related practices. What are some of the challenges that you encountered when approaching this material? What were some of your real successes and what were the limitations?
SRS: To create the 1981 show all over again would have meant engaging in certain theatrics. We would have had to chop down our ceilings and spotlight the forms. Instead, the 2010 exhibition was a new iteration of an existing work, an idea in which LeWitt, I believe, was very strongly invested. The sense of permutation and change is always built into LeWitt’s works; in particular the wall drawings, which are subject to change depending on what architecture they inhabit and what hands install them. Because the work has this flexibility built into it, I didn’t feel like we were remaking but, rather, making. LeWitt championed the idea that the artist need not execute the work with his own hands. The idea is thus transmissible and always open to being made again, rather than a fixed and finished object. No works had to be pulled from storage and transported across the continent to make the exhibition—so the idea travels light! The only challenge was to research the history in detail to figure out the parameters of the drawing — but really that was a delight! It gave me an excuse to make contact with artists from our past. That was a nice and practical way of staging conversations about how Mercer Union operated in 1981. In terms of gaining permission to exhibit the drawing, I couldn’t have asked for better support from the LeWitt estate. They were fantastic to work with. Completely understanding of our scale and resources and very positive about the project from the get-go.
SRS: It’s brought me a lot closer to the material understanding of what we propose to be an immaterial practice. LeWitt’s directives should be impermeable to time, but it turns out that they are hinged to many material questions. We think of conceptual art as the purity of an idea and I think that is what makes it attractive to so many. And, there is a kind of democracy to the offering of the idea, but it turns out that there is a great amount of precision to what the work is that might not be realized, at first. You think that the instructions for the wall drawings are quite simple but, when it comes down to the conservation concerns, and though the works are not object-based, the challenges are still significant. Colours are a subjective category. In order to achieve the right rendition of the red, yellow and blue, we were given Benjamin Moore paint codes to reference. But, those will also have to be reinterpreted over time, if the Benjamin Moore codes are discontinued. Over time, it will be a constant push and pull between what should be the strict parameters of the work and what can be subject to change and substitution.
In the case of Wall Drawing #349, the directives hadn’t been as formally recorded as they might have been if LeWitt hadn’t come to Mercer Union to oversee the install. So, it took referring to the blueprint, which is a very vague sketch when you look at it, consulting the catalogue raisonné and posing questions to the estate. It also took talking to the artists who installed the wall drawing in 1981. I relied on oral history principally from Michael Davey to find out certain details. For example it wasn’t specifically recorded in the 1968-1984 catalogue raisonné that, in addition to the three primary colour walls, there was also a white wall. I had to dig through the Mercer Union archives, held by the Art Gallery of Ontario, to substantiate this fact. Also, there was an error in the recording of the materials—the catalogue raisonné had listed black crayon—but, from the install views, it was possible to confirm that it was, in fact, India ink. So, the research led me to do some sleuthing about how the work was made. This is good practice for a curator. Also, getting the facts rights and correcting the existing record, that is also an important role that a curator can fulfill. The result is that the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of all the wall drawings will offer greater precision about Wall Drawing #349 thanks to information gathered from our own archives and research.
CR: LeWitt wrote: “There are many elements involved in a work of art. The most important are the most obvious.” In your intimate engagement with this work, what elements were the most important to making this exhibition a success?
SRS: The process from research to installation to public exhibition has been a great privilege. I think it often happens that during the actual installation is when you properly understand how the work is meant to function. When we were installing, I was approaching it with trepidation because I was thinking: ‘Well, okay, we have some coaching, but are we doing this right?’ I wanted to ensure that we would be exhibiting a correct execution of the work. At the end of the install, when we finally took the last piece of tape off the edging, finally they were revealed; they were here. For all of the installation documentation, and my knowledge of the plans and the paint colours and what the ink felt like to handle, it wasn’t until that moment when the work was finished that it became fully present. That was something that I couldn’t have foreseen or understood from any documentation—not written, not descriptive—that real physical presence of the work. I guess you could call that an obvious element.
CR: What do you mean when you talk about a “correct execution” of this work? How much of it is trying to recreate something very specific? Or, how much of it is trying to be true to the nature of LeWitt’s practice? Also, how much do you have to factor in very real limitations such as space and our present-day situation? How do you define ‘correct’ in this case as curator?
SRS: This is an open terrain of negotiation, but still this play happens within very strict parameters. I invited Anthony Sansotta to come up and speak about Sol LeWitt’s work at the opening. As a long-time draughtsman responsible for hundreds of installs, he has a deep personal connection to the artist. I was nervous about how he would evaluate our work. In the end, Anthony was incredibly encouraging and very generous.
What I had to realize was that you can’t approach the work with trepidation. You are part and parcel of that work. Accomplishing this task required quiet attention and pacing, and if you approach it with a degree of seriousness and devotion to the idea, then you are on the right course. I think that there could be cynical ways to approach the work or offhanded ways, or ways that are not respectful of the artist’s intention—those would not be correct. When I look at his artist books, I feel his love of grids, systems and structures, and his awe and reverence for basic geometry, mathematical permutations and sets. But, the interesting factors are the anomalies of hand application that counter the rigid structures. That is exactly the tension that is at play in the drawings; you have signs of the human hand and the unevenness of the black India ink, which is quite solid but still reveals the process against the really clean flat application of paint and sharp masking out of the forms. One measure of success for this wall drawing is that people who saw it in 1981 recognize it as the same work. So, the work is the same, but the new architecture allows us to perceive it in new ways. There is that integrity to it. Paired with this was people’s sheer excitement and enthusiasm from having seen the drawings the first time in 2010. My hope is that the generosity of LeWitt’s spirit translates to the viewer. That the simplicity of the forms is not dismissed, but rather that viewers are gently persuaded by their beauty.
Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #349 was on view at Mercer Union from July 10 to Aug. 28, 2010.
Christopher Régimbal is an art historian and curator from Timmins, Ontario. He is Curatorial Assistant at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto and his criticism has appeared in Fuse Magazine, Art Papers and on 89.5FM CIUT.