Here at Yale
Playing with perception — and inspiring new scientific insights
A work of art was taking shape one late spring afternoon on the 11th floor of 100 College Street, soon to be home to Yale’s Wu Tsai Institute. Vivid planes of color — green, blue, red, orange, yellow, and purple — stretched along a 49-foot-long wall, their edges masked by kraft paper.
Perched on paint buckets, the crew of artists responsible for this installation of Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #1081” were talking quietly; all were wearing the hardhats and fluorescent vests required in a still-active construction site.
“It’s the traditional waiting-for-paint-to-dry moment,” explained John Hogan, the Mary Jo and Ted Shen Installation Director and Archivist for Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG), who was overseeing the installation.
The YUAG collections include more than 60 of LeWitt’s wall drawings, which exist as diagrams and instructions for installation, “even down to the hardness of the pencil we use to draw,” said Hogan. (They also include instructions for mixing each color, specifying a ratio of paint, medium, and distilled water to produce a consistency “similar to the viscosity of cream.”)
The piece Hogan and his team of artists were installing that day, “Wall Drawing #1081,” anchors a large collaborative space at the heart of the institute’s new state-of-the-art home — a space optimized for cutting-edge research and intellectual collision.
In addition to the Wu Tsai Institute (WTI), tenants of 100 College include the departments of Psychology, from Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Neuroscience, from the School of Medicine, which occupy the floors above and below WTI, respectively. All three are connected by open internal staircases, signifying the close interdisciplinary collaborations that are the institute’s hallmark.
LeWitt, the late American artist who was a founder of conceptual art, was himself a practitioner of collaboration, seeing his wall drawings as an individual vision expressed through communal effort — so that, he once said, “the appearance of the work is secondary to the idea of the work, which makes the idea of primary importance. The system is the work of art; the visual work of art is the proof of the system.”
Said Hogan: “Sol saw it as a collaborative process with the artists who install the drawing and confirm that the idea is viable. Without their hand, it’s just an idea.”
The nature of LeWitt’s work — playful, provocative, illusory — added to its appeal for an institute dedicated to understanding human cognition.
“LeWitt's work often plays on human perception, using scale, color, contour, and shape to induce visual illusions,” said Nick Turk-Browne, WTI’s director, who worked with Hogan to select the art for the institute’s space. “‘Wall Drawing 1081,’ is a perfect illustration. Large color panels connect to create perspective. Instead of a flat, internal wall, the long corridor where it is installed now radiates color into the public spaces of the Wu Tsai Institute, enlarging the perceived space with expanded depth and interest.”
“Art activates a space,” said Kelley Remole, the institute’s managing director. “It’s a signal to anyone passing through that this space is lively and loved and active. It’s a place where people want to gather, and where they feel like they can linger. As people linger, they get to know each other and get to know each other’s science. At the institute, we believe that sense of community contributes to new kinds of scientific output.”
The installation of the wall drawing — LeWitt avoided the term “mural,” with its specific art historical context — took nearly three weeks to complete. Hogan had already measured and adjusted the proportions of LeWitt’s original diagram to the wall’s size before the work began in early May. After prepping the surface, the crew first used thread to lay out the shapes — rectangles and trapezoids, creating the illusion of a three-sided room either receding or protruding — then drew in the lines with pencil. Working in sections, they then began to paint.
“Wall Drawing #1081” was first installed in 2003 in Germany as a two-part piece across four walls: half on a white background, the other on black. The former was what was now being installed at 100 College; the latter is on view in the long-term LeWitt exhibition at MassMOCA, in North Adams, Massachusetts, which includes many drawings on loan from YUAG.
The world’s largest institutional repository of LeWitt wall drawings, Yale is also home to the Sol LeWitt Drawing Archive and Study Center, a digital archive of the artist’s correspondence, working drawings, and other materials. The center also serves as a primary resource for the materials and methods necessary to train the draftspeople who realize LeWitt’s concept.
On site at 100 College St., these included two graduate students from the Yale School of Art, Adam Amram and Ricardo Galvan, and three museum technicians from YUAG, Jason Bates, Lauren McNulty, and Nick Pfaff. Janet Warner, a local artist, also contributed to the installation. Their names, along with Hogan’s, will be recorded on the piece’s certification.
“Every installation offers a chance to continue to teach people the process, for new artists to be involved, and to make the work move forward in time,” said Hogan.
Hogan, who joined Yale to oversee the archive in 2013, began working with LeWitt in 1983. One of a handful of senior artists trained to oversee LeWitt installations, he’s led more than 600 of them. “It’s great to have the collection,” Hogan said of the LeWitt archive. “But it is even better to have people see them.”
At 100 College that afternoon, the paint had finally dried. The crew approached the wall and began, carefully, to remove the masked edges separating color from white. The fullness of the shapes revealed, the wall suddenly seemed to undulate.
“The gift of Sol’s vision is that it is repeatable and it is repairable,” Hogan said as he watched. “It exists as longs as it exists. And it is always contemporary.”
In the coming days, the construction workers would put the finishing touches on the space — installing the lighting and slatted-wood ceiling panels. The artists, too, would make their final adjustments. The Wu Tsai Institute would take up residency at the end of June.
“There’s always hidden surprises,” said Hogan. “As Sol said, ‘In the end it’s always perfect but it’s not perfect until the end.’”