UPDATE: Why “Unerasing” a Sol LeWitt is Impossible

by Paula Newton January 11, 2018

The butter knife action across the wall where the execution of a LeWitt once was. Image via Swamplot.

[Since publishing the news post “Disappeared Sol LeWitt Painting Slowly Reappears in Houston Home” two days ago, I have been schooled by the Menil Collection and others very knowledgeable about LeWitt’s work. Glasstire thinks that it is critical to right the misinformation.]

First of all, Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawing #679 still exists in the collection of the Menil. He was a conceptual artist and, 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. The ink drawing behind the wall in the new homeowners of the house designed by architect Bill Stern, who commissioned the LeWitt, is not a work by Sol LeWitt. It is simply the remnants of what was once the execution of the conceptual work.

The Menil Collection states, “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.”

So, despite the homeowners’ many chronicles of the “unerasing” on a variety of social media platforms, they are really just messing up a perfectly good wall.


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LSH January 11, 2018 - 17:20

Depends on your definition of “perfectly good wall” I suppose.

What if you were a modern-art lover who bought a house with a “perfectly good” white wall. Then one day you saw that a 30″ tall, spectacularly colorful Sol LeWitt wall drawing that had previously been executed on that wall was peeking at you from behind crumbly sheetrock, because whoever did the plastering and painting on the perfectly good wall didn’t actually do it such a perfectly good job. You would just leave it alone? Yeah…right.

Bill Davenport January 14, 2018 - 08:45

Nevertheless, that thing on that wall, whatever it is, bears an interesting relation to Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawing #697. Physical reality stubbornly persists irrelevant to concepts. “Eppur si muove”!

DSK January 14, 2018 - 09:19

The argument put forth by Paula Newton is Sophist in nature. If it “was” a LeWitt drawing, it still “is” a LeWitt drawing. Likewise, so is the argument put forth by the Menil that it is ephemeral in nature as it is not destroyed, merely covered up. Further, we still refer to many restored frescoes as being “done” by the original artist, even though they have been over painted and stripped down several times. The Menil is merely trying to limit their legal liability for selling the artwork by denying the authenticity of piece which should have been removed or destroyed to satisfy the instructions of Stern’s will. Further, the idea that the certificate of authenticity and diagram are equivalent in any way to an actual execution of said diagram is ridiculous and specious. They better not hope I sit on the jury when the dentist decides to sell the house and lists the drawing as a selling point and the Menil attempts to enjoin the sale. The “intention” of the artist for his work to be bound up in the certificate of authenticity and the diagram but not it’s execution is charming, but does not take away from the fact that it was executed and certified and deemed authentic at the time. The dentist did not copy or recreate the drawing, he is merely uncovering it. The correct course of action would have been for the Menil to either remove or destroy the wall before the sale of the house. They didn’t, and when the title of the house was transferred so was the drawing, the fact that it was not listed one way or another is moot. If they had put in language in the deed at the time of the sale it may have protected them from this sort or thing, but apparently they didn’t. They put themselves in this ridiculous position by their actions and are now trying to convince all of us that black is white.

John Hovig January 17, 2018 - 10:30

So basically it’s like a bootleg recording. Sorry, but you should’ve used a bigger magnet.

Christopher Buczek January 17, 2018 - 17:32

Yeah, Hitchcock bought a LeWitt along with the house; no one is buying otherwise. But don’t take my word for it. This is not my comment. I left instructions for someone else to type it.

VC January 21, 2018 - 23:05

DSK – the dentist is she.

JLH January 23, 2018 - 22:24

And she has been a longtime supporter of Houston artists, accepting art in trade for dental work.

Richard Chused January 27, 2018 - 21:22

In copyright law there are lots of interesting problems in this tiff. Normally the copyright exists not in the tangible object itself. The object is merely a copy of the protected work. This sounds messy but it really isn’t. Think about a book. The author (or the author’s successor) owns the copyright in the book, but the person who buys the book at a store owns the copy. This gets narrower of course with a typical painting. The artist (or successor) owns the copyright in the painting but after selling the painting the owner gets the property rights in the object. (Yes the artist may also sell the IP but usually does not.) In short, ownership of the object is not the same as owning the IP rights in it. So in the case of the LeWitt it may well be proper for the Menil to claim ownership of the IP rights in the work. But that does not necessarily mean they own a copy of the IP. Once the copy was made and the house was sold with the art in it, they may well have lost their property rights in the paint on the wall of the house. So I think it is dubious they can stop the work from being uncovered. And I also think they will find it difficult to argue that the work on the wall is not an original LeWitt. They may well have breached a contract with LeWitt by leaving it intact when they sold the house but that shouldn’t disturb the rights of the new homeowners. It is a fascinating squabble for IP fans.


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