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Around the Mall: Who is the Artist?

A team of artists turned up at the Hirshhorn Museum to carry out Sol LeWitt's vision of a wall mural. Is he the artist or are they?

By Victoria Dawson

 

When Tomas Ramberg, 30, and Megan Dyer, 34, arrived from New York City at the HirshhornMuseum in Washington, D.C., they spread out paint-spattered tarps and set up scaffolding and ladders. Before long the museum's Lerner Gallery was littered with masking tape, paint cans, brushes and water buckets. Assisted by a crew of five, the pair labored for nearly three weeks before unveiling, on the last day of 2003, two floor-to-ceiling mosaics, one a pyramid of red, yellow, blue, green, purple and orange, the other a bold cube within a square. But the artist responsible for the compositions had never set foot in the gallery.

Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, 75, has long made a habit of hiring other artists to execute his compositions. "The idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work," wrote LeWitt in 1967. He is a leader of the 1960s movement that pushed art off the canvas into the realm of ideas.

Its proponents believe that the handoff of a project from creator to draftsperson is not unlike that of architect to builder. "All of the planning and decisions are made beforehand . . . ." wrote LeWitt of his wall drawings. "The execution is a perfunctory affair."

Or is it? LeWitt's artists or, as he calls them, his "draftspeople"—which currently number ten in New York City and three in the Netherlands and Germany—enlarge his designs and map them directly onto the gallery's walls. But they are also licensed to make changes to LeWitt's signed instructions and diagrams, which don't look all that different from a paint-by-number kit. In fact, for one of the mosaics, Ramberg switched the green and purple rectangles "to get the sense of randomness just right." LeWitt, he said, would not mind at all. "Sol likes surprises."

"It's a very democratic process," adds Dyer. Each of us is making decisions while we're executing the piece." What the Hirshhorn actually owns is a deed for the plans—the paintings may be executed at the museum's whim (depending on the availability of LeWitt's disciples) and may be painted over. Obviously, the process begs a question: Is the artwork the instructions or is it the work on the wall? As critic Peter Schjeldahl once noted, "You can raise hairs on the back of your neck thinking about this."

Both Dyer and Ramberg are themselves artists. Dyer makes portraits using a technique she describes as a cross between painting and digital imaging; Ramberg combines painting with photography. (His works will be on view through the end of this month at New York City's Trygve Lie Gallery.)

As coat after coat of paint went on the Hirshhorn's walls, chatter among local participating artists—Patrick Burns, Larry Colbert, Joy Hayes, Stephens J. Carter and Michele Talibah—mingled with directives from Ramberg and Dyer. Keep razor-straight edges, the pair advised, as they fielded questions about color choice and touch ups. Wandering by, a visitor, attracted by the noise and sight of so many worker bees, asked which was the artist. "Well, we all are, and yet none of us is," said Dyer, "but Sol LeWitt is back in his studio, creating new works for us."

 

Around the Mall: From the Attic

Found and Lost

By Beth Py-Lieberman

 

Smithsonian archaeologist Ralph Solecki says he felt a twinge of excitement when he first laid eyes on northern Iraq's Shanidar cave in 1951 and saw its huge 82-foot-wide opening. There, starting in 1953, Solecki would recover nine Neanderthal skeletons and determine that the Paleolithic beings were more humanlike than previously thought, caring for their sick and elderly, and ritualistically burying their dead. His ideas would inspire fiction writer Jean Auel, whose characters Creb and Iza in 1980's Clan of the Cave Bear were based on Shanidar skeletons. "The expedition was a lot of work," recalls Solecki, 86, now professor emeritus at ColumbiaUniversity. Constantly fearful of cave-ins and earthquakes, the archaeologist fretted over his crew of 21 Kurdish workers as they hurried in and out of the 28-foot-wide excavation pit with sackfuls of dirt via two ladders. By 1978 the political scene had changed drastically, and Solecki was given a military escort away from the cave when he tried to resume work there. Today, one Shanidar skeleton is housed in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History along with casts of the other eight Shanidar skeletons. The originals remained in Iraq, and are now presumed lost. "So," says Rick Potts, head of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program, "we treat the casts as if they were the originals."

 

Around the Mall: Bull's-Eye

A Smithsonian geologist helped NASA set its sites on Mars

By John F. Ross

 

On Saturday, January 24, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover "Opportunity" hit the Red Planet's thin atmosphere at some 12,000 miles per hour, and deployed rocket thruster brakes and a parachute. Cocooned by air bags, Opportunity bounced a couple dozen times before coming to a stop. The probe had hit its target, a smooth 46-mile-long elliptical area on Mars about 75 miles south of the equator. Like its sister probe, "Spirit," which landed safely on the opposite side of the planet 21 days earlier, Opportunity immediately began sending back images of the alien landscape.

Compared with the technological wizardry involved in navigating across 283 million miles of space, choosing a spot to land seems far less daunting. After all, Mars' land area exceeds Earth's by 10 percent. But site selection is fraught with perils, says John Grant, 43, a geologist for the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and SpaceMuseum and co-chair of the Mars Landing Site Steering Committee.

Grant's 14-member team had to take into account wind shear, craters, violent storms, deep drifts of fine Martian dust, and steep inclines, "any one of which could wreck the rovers," he says. In addition, NASA engineers warned that rocks taller than 20 inches could damage instruments inside the air bags. The perfect site would offer minimal risk for the rovers and maximum geological riches. But featureless topography ideal for landing is less than ideal for studying the planet's geology.

Right from the start in January 2001, Grant and his colleagues had narrowed the target area to 155 possible sites along a thin belt around the equator where the Sun would be strong enough to charge the rovers' solar cells. To ensure a layer of atmosphere sufficient for the crafts' parachutes to slow their descent, the team also needed a low-altitude site. By March 2002, the number was down to four. It's a matter of "how well you can know the surface and ground conditions from pictures taken in orbit," says Grant, who, as a boy, fell in love with geology walking the beaches of Lake Champlain in upstate New York.

The team's final choice for Opportunity was an equatorial plain called Meridiani. The area is covered in a dark, fine-grained material believed to contain hematite, an iron-oxide mineral that usually forms in association with water. For Spirit's site, they settled on Gusev Crater, a basin the size of Connecticut, which was created early in Mars' history by an asteroid or comet impact and may have served later as a lake bed.

NASA scientists hope the rovers will help them to determine whether liquid water existed long enough on the surface for life to emerge. As long as the rovers continue to function—Spirit's heart-rending breakdown in mid-January and NASA's efforts in reviving it have heightened the drama—this $820 million mission offers the best shot yet at answering one of science's most burning questions: Is—or was—there life on Mars?

 

Around the Mall: Who's Counting?

 

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Mannequins (including three horses, two dogs, one cat and a rat) populate the National Museum of American History's transportation exhibition, "America on the Move." Crafting the models took more than a year as the figures were meticulously researched from tip to toe—including crafting faces from head shots supplied by film and television actors
 
 

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