Regine Basha ‘An Exchange With Sol LeWitt’

Part of artist Sol LeWitt’s renown involves his generosity, particularly in the exchange of artworks with others. A new show at Mass MoCA uses this as a framework for almost 1,000 artists to pay tribute to LeWitt.

“An Exchange with Sol LeWitt” opens on Sunday, Jan. 23, at Mass MoCA, with a satellite exhibit at the offices of Cabinet Magazine at 300 Nevins St., Brooklyn, N.Y.

The grain of the show began for curator Regine Basha when she visited the private collection of Sol LeWitt while working on another project. Most of LeWitt’s collection was acquired through trades with other artist friends, but there was a noticeable amount that was from people LeWitt had no acquaintance with. While the ones from his friends tended to reflect his taste and interests, and even his own artistic styles, the ones from strangers took on subject matter that stood out as completely different.

“It was very vernacular, almost folkloric,” said Basha, “like a Sunday painting kind of piece, like a still life of a a flower in a flower vase, or a painting of a trout or different kinds of domestic scenes and landscapes that didn’t look at all like the other work.”

When Basha quizzed the collection’s curator about these paintings, it was explained that people used to send LeWitt work out of the blue, usually out of admiration, and he resolved to always send them art back and transform

the gift into a relationship.

“I was just really interested in how he took this really seriously,” she said. “He did this as almost part of his artwork, I would say. It became a responsibility that he took on. He decided that if an artist was to give him something, no matter what it was or if he agreed with it or not, he honored the fact that somebody made this and he would make something in return, like a form of communication. That’s how I understood it.”

Basha was immediately moved to craft a show that sprang from LeWitt’s activity of trading and she approached it on two different levels. One was to take on the behavior for a massive creative endeavor that used it as a model to shape a gallery show.

“That inspired the project to take that code of conduct as an artist who respects that kind of act of communication and exchange and just extend it and continue it beyond his lifespan,” Basha said. “It asks artists who feel an affinity with Sol Lewitt — not feel an affinity with the work per say, but actually just respect who he was as an artist — to consider exchanging with his legacy. The work is already out there. It’s at Mass MoCa, it’s out there in the world, he gave it to us, so it’s an exchange in that sense, in the symbolic sense.”

The other was to use the behavioral modeling in such a way that the process became another version of LeWitt’s instructionals, which famously gave other artists the information they needed to create the kind of wall murals that are now all over the place in Mass MoCA.

“Inspired isn’t even the word,” said Basha. “It’s more like taking it as an instruction from him and his biography and how he’s approached art, as if I’ve been given some sort of instruction as well. Without being too strange about it, but I like that idea of instructionals, because you learn from art and art history and this is a learning process.”

Basha immediately set about compiling the pieces for the show in a way that was anything but normal when thinking about curated art shows. She partnered with Cabinet Magazine, a renowned art publication, to put out an open call, beyond the few people she had specifically asked if they were interested in taking part.

Submissions poured in from around the world, and Basha decided to include everything that was received by the deadline as her way of emulating the openness of LeWitt’s exchanges.

Much in the spirit of LeWitt’s instructionals, Basha sent out criteria for the artwork, such as the allowable physical dimensions of the work. Some entries were more in the realm of what one would consider an artwork, while others were wildly unorthodox.

“These are things that people sent in that are not necessarily artful, but they are objects,” she said. “They are things or recipes or pieces of music and we did actually mention in the call that we wanted it to be open. They didn’t necessarily have to send an artwork, it could be something else.”

Lucy Lippard, an art historian, submitted an anagram of LeWitt’s name. Felt artist Hope Ginsburg created a pencil sharpener, inspired by her memory of watching a mural project with hundreds of assistants waiting in line to sharpen their pencils.

Artist Luis Camnitzer, a friend of LeWitt’s, treated the artist’s list, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” as a constitution to which he added amendments.

“It has this feeling of very folkloric, very handmade stuff,” Basha said. “Somebody sent a wisdom tooth. It was really strange. I call it from high concept to voodoo.”

One of the side concerns of doing the show is that the role of the curator is being put into question. Whereas traditionally a curator chooses pieces for a show and creates a cohesive identity of the whole out of these parts, Basha isn’t choosing the pieces at all.

Instead, she’s in the position of working somewhat blindly in an example of curation improvisation.

“We had a whole discussion about what to call my role,” said Basha. “Is it organized? Is it curated? We called it a curatorial project which takes it out of ‘curated by’ and into the approach of this idea that it has a curation of some kind, but it’s not necessarily my selecting and omitting. It’s much more about the installation process and how that’s going to come together.”

For Basha, it’s been a moment to flex her creativity in a way that sometimes happen, but not often. It’s also an opportunity to freshen up the usual process and, by proxy, the spaces in museums and galleries that function as the receptacles for the end product of curatorial efforts.

“I’ve done projects in which the role of the curator is also challenged — I like that,” she said. “For me it’s a way to exercise that muscle. I find it sometimes almost too easy to pick and choose and mix and match, to create a show that is almost too predictable. I like this element of chance and unpredictability for myself as well as for institutions.”

If you consider LeWitt’s trading as a communal practice meant to build connections, then you probably also acknowledge that something at the center is needed for these connections to attach to — in the case of the exchanges, LeWitt himself. Basha’s role as curator becomes a proxy for that method — she is the center that sets in motion the production of connections, a placement that she has imbued with LeWitt’s method of instructionals to create one museum show that reflects both the larger stroke of the man’s career along with some of the actual methods of his creativity.

“The instructionals were about him letting go and allowing others to design the work,” Basha said. “Even though there are instructions for how to do it, they really weren’t in his hands at the end of the day. I guess I found that interesting for myself to emulate and see what happens. I didn’t make the selection of the artists. It’s them making the show themselves. I just provided the guidelines.”