The Exhibiting Artist and the Public School Student
Article on Sol Lewitt exhibition. School Arts magazine, 1979. p.40-42
During the 1940s and 1950s, under the direction of Victor D'Amico, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City enjoyed an impressive leadership role in art education. Those were times of expansion in educational communities. Now, during regressive times, it perhaps again plays an even more welcome supportive role.
Rather quietly, in the Spring of 1978, a manSol LeWitt who more than ten years ago had worked part-time in the museum's People's Art Center returned to the museum as an exhibiting artist. A major exhibition of his work was coupled with an educational first. The execution of his conceptual artworks in public schools by public school students under the direction of their art teachers was a unique team art experience. The artist, the museum, the Lauder Foundation, the administrators of the art program in the New York City schools, and the individuals in the schools became part of a joint venture in the creation of specific museum artworks.
It all began during the previous winter. The Museum of Modern Art's Education Office and the Center for the Humanities and the Arts of the New York City Board of Education informed schools that an unusual project would be offered. By late January, schools interested in participation in the project would indicate their interest by filing an application form. Principals, chairpersons and participating teachers were then invited to an introductory session at the museum. Robert Rosenblum, the noted art historian presented an overview of Sol LeWitt's work and several members of the museum staff answered questions on the project. From the beginning, the concerned participants realized they were involved in a project which would test the validity of time-honored principles. On hand were an impressive group of art authorities who provided the leadership, including Alicia Legg, Associate Curator, William Burback, the Director's Special Assistant for Education, Grace George Alexander-Greene of the Center tor Humanities and the Arts of the Board of Education, James Stewart, Director of the Interschool program for MOMA, and Myrna Marlin from the museum's Education Office.
Soon after our introduction to the project, the participating students were invited to the museum on several occasions. Six students from each participating school listened to lectures, visited the Sol LeWitt exhibition (critically considering the concepts that would be appropriate for their school), questioned the parties involved and spoke with the artist. We were presented with printed information on the LeWitt exhibition. This included brochures and the latest book on LeWitt (published by the museum to coincide with the exhibition), printed sheets of Sol LeWitt's statements on wall drawings and, finally and most important, the actual LeWitt wall drawing instructions. We were to execute these on the walls of our school. Before we left the February meeting we were to select one of the eight concepts. Our West Side High School students couldn't decide between concepts 8 and 2 and wanted to do both.
The following were the wall drawing instructions, or concepts, they could select:
1. Using a hard pencil, draw a 6" x 6" (15.24 cm x 15.24 cm) grid covering the wall. Within each square draw a straight line vertically, horizontally or diagonally either way. The lines are straight and bisect the square.
2. Draw a line 36" (91.44 cm) long. From the midpoint of this line draw a line perpendicular 10 the first. From the midpoint of the second line draw another, and continue this process until wall is covered. The lines may be any length.
3. Same as Number 2. But lines are drawn from the ends of the other lines.
4. Pencil lines, not straight, not touching. Randomly spaced over the wall.
5. Vertical pencil lines, not straight, not touching. Randomly spaced over the wall.
6. Straight lines, 10" (25.4 cm) long, not touching.
7. Straight lines, less than 10" (25.4 cm) long, not touching.
8. Using a hard pencil, draw a 6" x 6" (15,24 cm x 15,24 cm) grid covering the wall. Draw red lines from the midpoint of 4 sides to points on grid. Draw blue lines from 4 corners to points on grid. Draw yellow lines from center to points on grid. From each point drawn there should be 16 lines from each corner and side and 32 lines from the center. All lines should be of random length (short, medium, long). Wall size variable. This may be done on a white wall with red, blue, yellow lumber crayon.
A few days later a graduate student, Ann-Sargent Wooster, brought us materials from the museum. She was a valuable link with MOMA and the critical public. Her background was in conceptual and performance art and she was able to judge whether or not we were moving in a direction that was in keeping with the values, ideals and technical practices advised by the artist. After this meeting we were on our own. We knew we were producing Sol LeWitt's works and our own individual directions had to be synchronized with the artist's.
First, our students worked on individual drawings on graph paper trying to visualize the concept. Some who had initially selected concept 2 settled for concept 8 and some who initially preferred the color possibilities of concept 8 eventually preferred the second concept for the ease of technical execution. Each found a wall area that would be suitable for the drawing. While one preferred the seclusion of an obscure attic hallway, another preferred the openness of a well traveled area. Our principal, Ed Reynolds, joined in the democratic spirit of the venture and produced one in his office. After all, what could be more democratic than conceptual art that each participant can possess and still give to another at the same time? It enriches both the giver and the receiver without diminishing either's possession. Also, a public museum was instrumental in buying it for the benefit of all, within and outside of their walls.
Armed with the confidence of our guiding artist, who said, "It is difficult to bungle a good idea," our students prepared their walls with white paint and started their drawings. Matt Dixon measured his grid with a twelve-inch (30.48 cm) ruler and then used a string attached to the wall to evenly curve his lines. Raina Accardi, who worked on concept 2 with a steel T-square and lead pencil, produced straight clean lines. Our principal borrowed a blackboard slide ruler from the mathematics department for the lumber crayon lines of concept 8. Ruth Velez, relying on the naturalness of the experience, worked freehand in pencil on concept 2. Other students joined in and helped wherever possible. Each was anxious to see how the other solved the same problems. We found the museum interested as well, for they sent us color film to take slides of the students at work and of the finished examples. These slides were then shown at the final meeting in the museum where all the participants could look at each other's work and share experiences. From academic, vocational and alternative schools, we found a common joy in sharing our accomplishments.
This was our school's first experience with conceptual art. Alicia Legg has described Sol LeWitt as a "pioneer in the Minimal and Conceptual movements that emerged in the 1960s." An experience of this type leads one to reconsider the relationship between perception and the mind in a tangible art form. It clarifies the meaning of possession of art and the possibilities of individual roles within a teamwork procedure. Non-perceptual drawing, the nature of nontangible art and the interrelationship between the creative thought, the creative act and the tangible manifestation of art are considered. Lastly, we reconsider the role of the exhibiting artist in his or her relationship.
The how and what of the Sol LeWitts wall drawings in our school are explained in a bulletin board display. Months later, these wall drawings still evoke comments, critical appraisals and emotional positions. Our LeWitt/student murals became provocative artworks.
Olga Kitt is an art teacher at West Side High School, New York. New York.
Ann-Sargent Wooster photographed Stuyvesant High School students who were also participating in this project. These photographs illustrate Ms. Kitt's text.