NORTH ADAMS — The best art demands repeated viewing, revealing itself bit by bit with shifts of time and mood. But even the best can benefit from a little push now and then, if it’s well-crafted with mutability in mind. That’s what drew me to Mass MoCA last weekend to wander the long-running installation of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings. (They’re not even halfway through their 50-year run.) I’ve done it literally dozens of times, though never like this.
This month’s Saturday night Auditory After Hours program features a soundtrack composed by artist and musician Jason Moran, made with LeWitt in mind. If you caught Moran’s solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 2019, you might be in a hurry to make the trek to the Berkshires yourself.
A longtime accompanist to A-list artists like Glenn Ligon, Joan Jonas and Stan Douglas, Moran’s work in the visual arts began to clarify the fact that he was evolving beyond the musical realm. That was most obvious, of course, in the two large-scale installations he created at the ICA, but more subtly in his immersive soundscapes for Jonas’s video and performance pieces at the 2017 Venice Biennale; they hardly could have existed without him.
In haunting film works made with Ligon, Moran’s icy sonic shards cut through the viewer’s psyche in a way that visuals alone never could. His work conjures an emotional sonic landscape that alters and reveals the visual experience it inhabits. To suggest his work is mere enhancement gives it short shrift; truly, it generates a parallel experience, apart from the source, that makes it something of its own.
In the big, bright expanse of LeWitt’s dizzyingly prescriptive imaginings, my earbuds made a comfortably familiar experience strangely off-kilter. (And you will need headphones, as well as your phone. If I can offer a suggestion to the museum, broadcasting the soundtrack in the space out loud, with a dip in intensity of the lighting, would make it all the more transformative.) Nonetheless, Moran’s music — spare, free-form piano, for the most part languid and somber with a few peppy breaks — made for an emotional overlay to LeWitt’s tightly-formal pieces that I hadn’t expected.
LeWitt, the godfather of Minimalism, was the art-world equivalent of a math nerd. (Please note: I love math nerds.) His wall drawings were the product of meticulous geometric formulae, executed with bloodless precision. LeWitt, a progenitor of Conceptualism, popularized the idea of anti-object art. For him, what ended up on the wall wasn’t the art of the piece; the art, rather, lived in the act of making it. You can look up sets of instructions for each and every one of the drawings, and, if followed to the letter, have a Sol LeWitt wall drawing of your own.
As playful as it all is, looking at LeWitt drawings isn’t what you’d call an emotional experience. They tickle the brain, leaving the soul largely unperturbed. Enter Moran. I don’t know what I imagined LeWitt’s work would sound like, if I ever did. But I didn’t imagine this.
The wall drawings are about proportion and division, color and line; they are exacting and tightly-wound to the point of befuddlement. Moran’s pieces, meanwhile, meander, loose and lush. As you look and listen, there’s a shiver, and a realization. There’s something profound in this meeting of opposites that works beyond form.
Minimalism was once considered radical — a wry rejection of robust gestural abstraction, a paring down to a pointedly absurd degree. In the 1960s, with American society in unprecedented tumult and civil rights protestors being water-cannoned in the streets, Minimalism marked a totemic departure point, when the art world detached from the world at large. Even the Abstract Expressionists claimed the devastation of the Second World War as the emotional underpinning to their formal rigor. With Minimalism, the art establishment declared it was content to be a sealed system, concerned only with itself.
Moran engages deep musical histories in Black culture, both formally and physically. The legacies of free-form jazz inform his composition, while his physical installations embody iconic sites in Black musical history. One of my favorites is his re-creation of the Three Deuces, the midtown Manhattan club where bebop was born and nurtured in the 1940s, with Jim Crow and Abstract Expressionism both ascendant.
The LeWitt annex at Mass MoCA is as far from those sites as you can get. But by having these parallel worlds rub up against each other, the resulting friction can be illuminating, can’t it? It casts light to the corners, and throws the straight lines of history some much needed curves.
AUDITORY AFTER HOURS: JASON MORAN AND SOL LeWITT
At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams. Feb. 13 and 20. Advance tickets required. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org