For more on this article, see the follow-up UPDATE: Why “Unerasing” a Sol LeWitt is Impossible. – Ed.
Swamplot has a great article on the slow reappearance of a big Sol LeWitt painting that was commissioned by the late architect William F. Stern. Stern was a trustee of the Menil Collection and left his house and his art collection to the museum, with one stipulation—it could not sell off the artwork.
Certainly, the Menil was thrilled to enter Stern’s fantastic collection into the museum. The LeWitt painting, though, was site specific, painted directly on the wall, and could not be removed without damage to the work. So, when it wanted to sell the house, the decision was made to cover the work with plaster. The house was sold; the LeWitt was not.
But the new owner later told the story to a house guest who then picked up a butter knife and began picking at the wall. Sure enough, the LeWitt seemed to be intact behind the thin layer of covering. The painting has since grown to a wandering line across the wall.
The website UnerasingSolLeWitt.com begins with the following statement:
In 2013, upon the death of noted Houston architect William F. Stern, the Menil Collection became the owners of his award-winning modern house and his extensive art collection.
For undisclosed reasons, the Menil chose to sell the house and since they could not sell an artwork that had been bequeathed to them, they painted over the 30-foot-tall Sol LeWitt wall drawing that Stern had specially commissioned for the space in the early nineties, just before he broke ground for construction.
The Stern house was purchased in 2014 by a local dentist and art lover. After much speculation about whether the LeWitt might be recoverable, a friend who was visiting in December 2017 began to chip at the painted wall with a dull knife, seeking answers. What he discovered surprised everyone: the LeWitt had been covered by a thin layer of sheetrock mud which easily flakes off revealing the beautiful colors of what lies underneath.
This will be the story of Unerasing a Sol LeWitt. More to come.
We should expect some discussions between the estates of Stern, LeWitt, the Menil Collection, and the new owner.
UPDATE FROM THE MENIL COLLECTION:
After reading your article on Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #679, I am writing to clarify some details on both the Stern bequest specifically and LeWitt’s work in general.
William F. Stern bequeathed both his collection of art and his house to the Menil Collection at his death in 2013. The artwork you mention, Wall Drawing #679, was part of that collection and is today owned by the Menil Collection.
Sol LeWitt was a conceptual artist. His wall drawings are designed to have a life cycle; they are temporary installations. It is important to underscore that the owner of a LeWitt wall drawing owns an idea. That idea may be executed by craftspeople who are overseen by the artist’s studio and entrusted to carry out the idea satisfactorily.
Before the Menil sold the Stern residence, Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawing #679 was effectively removed from the building when it was overpainted. This is standard procedure for effacing LeWitt’s wall drawings. It is important to underscore that the Menil did not destroy a work of art; for LeWitt, the work of art lives in the certificate of authenticity and diagram. The certificate for Wall Drawing #679 is owned by the Menil, and the Menil retains the right to recreate it.
LeWitt likened his wall drawings to a musical score. The artistic creation is in the design. The execution depends on talented craftspeople (or in the case of the musical score, the musicians) who adapt the design. The work is ephemeral. LeWitt intended for his wall drawings to be created and then overpainted, re-created and even re-configured for various locations by the owner of the diagram and certificate. The wall drawing currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum is actually a loan. (https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/metkids/2017/sol-lewitt-wall-drawing-370)
To return to the Stern piece, ownership of Wall Drawing #679 was transferred from Bill Stern’s estate to the Menil Collection in 2013. When the museum sold Stern’s house, the wall drawing was painted over, and its physical life came to an end. The museum owns the certificate for the work and has the right to recreate it, in consultation with the LeWitt Foundation.
It is true that many, perhaps even most, of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings were intended to be temporary, especially those on loan for a defined period of time or those which were part of a temporary museum or gallery exhibition.
That is one of the things that makes this one a little different. This wall drawing was not on loan, nor part of a temporary exhibit. It was privately-commissioned by esteemed Houston architect William F. Stern for his personal residence. Stern had met LeWitt in the mid-70s and was a great admirer of his work. He had wall drawing #679 specifically designed by LeWitt for the grand 30′ wall in the main room of this stunning modern house, which Stern designed as a showcase for his extensive art collection. Architectural designs of the house and wall were sent to LeWitt, and then Stern received at least one maquette for approval prior to the work beginning.
As owner of the instructions, Stern certainly had the right to paint over the wall drawing or install it elsewhere, if he wanted. But there is no evidence that he ever intended it to be anything other than a permanent installation on this wall, in this house.
In fact about ten years after its first execution, just a couple of years before he died, Mr. Stern had the piece re-inked because he thought it had faded from sun exposure. Apparently when the 2nd execution was done, Stern was more careful in ensuring there was a sun-protective coating applied. This may well be why the sheet rock mud and paint is coming off so easily.
Of course what remains on the wall today is NOT “Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing #679”. That wall drawing became the sole property of the Menil Collection when Mr. Stern bequeathed the instructions to them, as has been well explained by Ms. Newton. The Menil could elect to have that wall drawing re-executed anywhere they wish. The current homeowner is not disputing that, nor misrepresenting ownership in any way.
What remains in Stern’s house is what’s left of the original execution(s) of Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing #679, which did not end up being destroyed when the house was sold, as the Menil apparently intended. Perhaps the protective sun coating foiled the plan. Or perhaps the workers contracted to paint over it (unaware that it now had zero value) just couldn’t bring themselves to destroy such a beautiful thing. Or perhaps the cover-up work was just not performed well. Whatever the case, it was covered in a such way that it is possible for the homeowner to now uncover it.
Whatever you choose to call that which remains under the sheetrock mud and paint, is what the homeowner will have when they are finished. A “not-LeWitt” or an “un-LeWitt” or an “Unerased Sol LeWitt” (with a nod and wink to Rauschenberg).
Does it have any value whatsoever? Many will say no. It is worth zero without the instructions. Some will disagree. Conceptual artists have long challenged and played with the ideas of permanence, ownership and value. And so it continues.
With the utmost respect for our beloved Menil Collection (bless you Dominique for choosing Houston!), the genius of Sol LeWitt and the architectural legacy of William Stern, we proceed with caution, anticipation and joy. Such enormous fun!
The misinformation and ill-informed opinions that have circulated recently in Houston about the Sol Le Witt wall drawing that initially was installed at the then-residence of William F. Stern at 1505 Milford Street in Houston do a disservice to Stern’s reputation as an intelligent man and a serious collector and custodian of art.
Lynn Steen’s assertion that “there is no evidence that he ever intended it to be anything other than a permanent installation on this wall, in this house,” is palpably incorrect. Bill Stern was well aware of the terms under which he purchased the art work from the artist. He fully understood the implications of making a gift of the art work to The Menil Collection through his estate. Indeed, in the course of the many conversations about works in his collection that he and I had in the weeks before his death in March 2013, he speculated about the techniques the staff of The Menil Collection might employ to obliterate the Le Witt wall drawing, as installed on the wall in his house, prior to selling the house. He did not consider Wall Drawing # 679 to be a permanent installation on that wall, in that house; if he had, he would not have left the art work to The Menil Collection.
If you and Mr. Stern discussed the fate of Wall Drawing #679 during the last few weeks of his life, it is intriguing that the work was not actually taken down but simply covered. Were there provisions in Mr. Stern’s will or in LeWitt’s instruction set for the work that gave instructions to the Menil Collection about how to handle the wall drawing? If not, aren’t the present owners of the house free to do as they wish with it? And if there were instructions, did the Menil follow them or impose upon the present owners any constraints when they sold the house? Thanks very much.
It seems to me that one who professes “the utmost respect” for the Menil Collection and Mr. William Stern would honor their wishes and leave this installation covered instead of creating a spectacle out of the “unerasing” of it. The action seems opportunistic. The spectacle seems insensitive. Both are quite the opposite of respect.
While it is exciting for the home’s new owners and quite wonderful that they appreciate the terrific work of Sol LeWitt, the artist was very clear in his philosophy and in the language of certificates of ownership for his works; the Menil owns this work, not merely its instructions. Any interpretation otherwise is either misunderstood, misinformed or at worst, disingenuous. The wall drawing (it’s not a painting) at the residence is no longer a sanctioned work of art by LeWitt.
Steven Evans (Managing Director of Dia:Beacon from 2003-2010, museum project manager of the “Sol LeWitt: Drawing Series” exhibition)
From a legal standpoint, were stipulations spelled out in the house contract? If not, the owners of the house are free to do whatever they wish: expose the covered art, cover it back up, modify it architecturally ect. What they can’t do is claim they own the certificate, and try to sell that via the art market. They could reproduce the house version in photos and the like and state this is the first exercise of the concept, which they do not own in the sense they do not own the rights to create new versions.
From a philosophical or physical science viewpoint, what is on the wall–behind the paste, exposed or not exposed–as visible, tangible particles exists: it is there. And because of the paradox of mental faculties, it exists even if the particles are not visible. The owners of the certificate, in other words, cannot erase the concept of this partially obscured image in a wall in a house they transferred ownership to from the minds of readers.
It seems petty to argue this issue from a purely art-market rationale.
The homeowners should commission Richard Prince to “rephotograph” the wall after it’s fully exposed, at which point they can sell the prints for millions. I dare people to deny the legitimacy of a Richard Prince rephotograph of a readymade LeWitt.
To Mr. Nolen,
Thank you for this additional information. Given Bill’s work with the Society of Architectural Historians, his firm’s much-heralded restoration of Philip Johnson’s Menil House, his dedication to the preservation of modern design through the co-founding of Houston Mod, and so on…many of his colleagues and friends assumed that he would want his own architectural gem of a house to be preserved.
But since you spoke to Bill about how the LeWitt would be covered up when the Menil Foundation sold his house, then he must have been accepting of whatever would become of the house as a result of that sale, including the very real possibility of a developer tearing it down.
While my mother was in negotiations to buy the house, the realtor informed her of a bid from a builder who was interested in putting 6+ townhomes on the large over-sized corner lot. There were no restrictions as to what could be done to the house (or the wall therein) as part of the sale. My mother could easily have subdivided the lot or sold the house to developers for financial gain. Houston is the “Ephemeral City” after all.
Instead my mother has acted, against her own best financial interests as a property owner, to ensure this beautiful structure is protected. She voted to approve a minimum lot size restriction that the neighborhood homeowners group recently filed with the city. This civic-minded action will help to preserve the Stern house now and for the future. She is maintaining the house as the showcase for art that Bill designed it to be.
Mr. Nolen, your comment also raises more questions about why the wall drawing was not destroyed. If Bill Stern had strong opinions on how the LeWitt should be obliterated and he conferred with you about how to best do it, why do you suppose it wasn’t done? The thin layer of sheetrock mud is flaking off so easily that more than one professional who has looked at the wall has wondered whether it was intentionally left in an easily restorable state. We of course have no answers. We would welcome any further information you or anyone else may have about who performed the cover up and why they chose this method.
As for the idea some have suggested that we are out to enrich ourselves by making the “Unerasing Sol LeWitt” documentary, I can assure you that we are not expecting any profits from this self-financed project (please all of you filthy-rich, short-film documentarians out there: stop laughing). We are simply filming a once-in-a-lifetime experience to share with other modern art lovers. And we are learning and having a lot of fun along the way. What an easter egg this house has provided!
Finally for anyone who wishes the wall drawing had never been discovered, or who finds it unseemly to uncover it, or who thinks we are opportunistic to create art from this extraordinary situation, I refer you to Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art #s 3, 5, 17, 24 and 33.