Conceptual project at Smith College in Northampton brings art and math students together

Last modified: Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sol LeWitt, one of America’s leading figures in conceptual art and minimalism, believed the idea behind artwork was more important than how that art was actually created. That philosophy lay at the heart of one of his signature creations: large wall drawings done by other artists, designers — or anyone, for that matter — based on instructions LeWitt had written.

At Smith College, an unusual collaboration between the school’s art museum and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics has brought a LeWitt drawing to a place the artist might find fitting: a wall between two classrooms in Burton Hall, the school’s science and math center.

Three Smith students, working with a LeWitt-trained draftsman, spent about nine days in January putting the drawing — an intricate geometric pattern of overlapping lines and arcs, measuring roughly 19 by 8.6 feet and done with black pencil — in place.

The students, with backgrounds in either math or art, represented a program Smith began exploring a few years ago to find areas where the two disciplines converge.

“This is an interesting project because it touches on different areas, and on different levels,” said Aprile Gallant, curator of the Smith Museum of Art. ““You can have a very different response to art based on where you view it. ... We really like the idea of putting this in a public, very accessible space, outside the museum, where students and faculty will pass by it every day.”

The LeWitt project was based on a simple line drawing by LeWitt (who died in 2007) that the college acquired in 2000. The title reflects nothing more than the simplest of instructions from the artist: “Wall Drawing #139 (Grid and arcs from the midpoints of four sides).”

The challenge, Gallant noted, is transposing those instructions to a much larger surface.

The Smith students, working roughly 6 to 7 hours a day took part in a variety of tasks, from measuring the lines and drawing them to simply sharpening multiple pencils — the last a tedious job, first-year student Clara Rosebrock says, but an important one for maintaining strong lines on the drawing. The lines had to be precise to meet up as they crossed the wall, she notes — or they’d have to be redrawn.

Lewitt’s drawings were designed to be site-specific, Gallant notes, so each one is unique, with different dimensions. “I think that’s a big part of the appeal of his work.”

Pau Atela, a Smith professor of mathematics and statistics, was drawn to LeWitt’s work when, in 2008, the college installed “Wall Drawing #139,” also with student assistance, in the Smith art museum. That piece remained on view for a year; the new piece will be up indefinitely.

“I gave a museum talk on the piece in December 2008 ... and I started to be really interested in studio art,” Atela wrote in an email. The LeWitt piece, he added, “talks directly about many traditions including Greek preoccupations in geometry and number theory, Renaissance mathematics and 20th century art.”

Atela used that interest in starting MathStudio, which he describes as an “ongoing creative space” at the college that focuses on “process and dialogue between mathematics and art.” As head of the program, he offers courses in which students, as one example, design and build three-dimensional models that deal directly with mathematical aspects. They use various building techniques, as well as math equations and properties, to create the designs. The school has a dedicated studio space for these kinds of classes.

With these kinds of math/art collaborations in mind, Atela approached the art museum about creating another version of the LeWitt drawing, but doing it outside the museum this time.

“They were very receptive about going outside their walls,” he said.

Different backgrounds

The three students asked to assist in the project — Rosebrock, Clara Bauman, and Mingjia Chen — were recommended by Atela and art lecturer John Gibson, with Atela noting they wanted to have a mix of students from different classes

Overseeing the creation of the wall drawing was Roland Lusk, a draftsman from LeWitt’s New York City Studio, which sends its representatives all over the world to install the late artist’s wall drawings. The tools were pretty straightforward: pencils, straightedges, compasses, levels and plumb lines — and some scaffolding to stand on when working closer to the ceiling.

But as Bauman, a senior art major, points out, this was not a simple operation.

“The process was very specific and ... required intense concentration,” she wrote in an email. Measurements had to be exact, she said. She was initially surprised, she added, what difference a small miscalculation could make.

“I also found it a challenge to control the quality of the line, as it’s important to apply consistent pressure and move at a uniform speed across the wall,” Bauman said.

But the overall project was an appealing one, she said, because even if she approached it from an artist’s perspective rather than that of a mathematician, “I’ve always considered the relationship between those two fields in my practice.” Her art is keyed to the idea of space, she said, “and I look to artists like Sol LeWitt for alternative perspectives and methods of quantifying space.”

Rosebrock, who’s considering majoring either in biology or studio art, said the first few days of the project were particularly difficult, as Lusk and the students had to determine the midpoints in the wall and then measure out horizontal and vertical lines, precisely one inch apart — work that was “very intensive” since it required considerable focus and concentration.

Chen, a sophomore who’s majoring in math, has also learned drawing, mainly with pencil, so she enjoyed the LeWitt project on a couple of different levels.

“The concept of the drawing is pretty mathematical,” she wrote in an email. “If we express every line and arc in equations, and we draw all the equations into one graph, then we would have the same drawing as the one we now have on the third floor of Burton.”

From an artistic standpoint, Chen adds, one of the most interesting parts was watching the drawing evolve each day: “The drawing kept changing, becoming prettier and more complicated.”

Indeed, a close look at “Wall Drawing #139” reveals a wealth of shapes — diamonds, ellipses, ovals, curves, even what looks like miniature versions of the Eiffel Tower — as dozens of lines intersect and soar across the space. Gallant, the art museum curator, recalls that when she gave a talk on the 2008 LeWitt installation, “There was one little boy, probably 9 to 11 years old, who was so into it. He was saying, ‘This is great, look at all these shapes and line.’ ”

Chen said she and the other drawers of the new LeWitt piece had to contend with a few problems, like one part of the wall not being quite plumb with the ceiling, which required recalculating some measurements. But in the end, she said they had a great time with the project.

“It required precision and patience, and it was just exciting to see an artwork visually presented in front of me,” said Chen.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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