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The Two Kings

It’s storytime here at 27th Street. Get comfortable, maybe pour yourself a little something. A wee dram of Scotch? Yes I’ll join you, thank you very much. Let me take you back in time a little bit, back to 1982. This is a true story, or at least as true as my memory will allow. It’s the story of the Two Kings.

I was studying fine arts at York University. By that I mean I was making paintings. At the time, I was hanging out with another young artist named John McCartney and I recall the two of us were really working hard at developing our skills and ideas. One day one of our teachers, maybe it was Michael Davey,  asked us if we wanted to be part of a crew creating a Sol Lewitt wall drawing.

Now Sol Lewitt was one of the kings of conceptual and minimalist art. One of his wall drawings was to be created at the David Bellman Gallery in Toronto. This really meant that the artist had created instructions for carrying out the work. He sent an assistant to Toronto to supervise the crew of volunteers. We never saw Sol Lewitt and I have no idea if he came to Toronto for the exhibition or not. John and I were happy to volunteer and take part in the creating of a work by such a big name in the art world. The idea was that we would create the work in the gallery, but if a museum or a private buyer wanted to buy the thing, Mr. Lewitt would arrange for it to be recreated in that space. At the time it didn’t bother me that we worked for no pay. Instead, each of the participants received a postcard from Mr. Lewitt on which he made a little geometric ink drawing. I still have my postcard around the house somewhere.

It was going to take several days to execute the drawing. The gallery was in a large space – I think it must have been on the second floor of a building – on Peter St. in what is now called “The Entertainment District”. John and I showed up for work, not knowing what to expect. The drawing was to be created on several walls and on each wall there were to be three large shapes. I think they were triangle, circle and square. I don’t remember if the order changed or stayed the same. On some of the walls, we were to apply an ink wash inside the shapes and on other walls, we were to apply an ink wash outside the shapes. I think there were three shapes on each wall. It was a long time ago, but that’s how I remember it. Finally, a pencil grid was to be applied over the entire drawing.

Each day around lunch time, various people appeared at the gallery to see how the project was coming along. Mr. Bellman would take everyone out for lunch. I recall he treated us to some really excellent lunches. I was an art student and was easily impressed by a good lunch.

Once the shapes were drawn up on the walls according to instructions we had to start in on the ink washes. These had to be done in a certain way and the wash had to be a certain percentage of ink and a certain percentage of water, mixed up in particular buckets. The way I remember it, the idea was for us to use rags dipped in buckets of the ink mix to apply the wash to the wall. There could be no drips. Soon after we started in on the washes, something very strange occurred. Letters forming words became visible once the ink was applied. We watched in amazement as the washes began to reveal words all over the gallery. This could only mean one thing – Lawrence Weiner.

Lawrence Weiner is another pioneer of conceptual art in America. His work, often consisting of words applied to walls, is very recognizable. Weiner must have previously exhibited at David Bellman’s gallery. I can imagine that his work was applied to the wall and then painted over after the exhibition with a couple coats of cheap gallery latex. When we started applying the wash for the Lewitt drawing, the lettering from the Weiner became visible only where there was ink wash. In other words the letters were visible either inside the shapes or outside the shapes depending on the wall. Either way, the borders of the shapes cut off the lettering.

I was beside myself with delight. Here we had the two kings of conceptual art, Sol Lewitt and Lawrence Weiner, and through the unforeseen consequences of a bad paint job over a previous exhibition, we were enjoying an accidental dialogue between the artists. This was not in the plan. The work was by Sol Lewitt. What was he going to say when he found out? Lawrence Weiner was invading his wall drawing. Lewitt was in Europe and his assistant had to frantically try to track him down. He needed direction.

Apparently, Mr. Lewitt was not as delighted with the situation as I was. Or perhaps he just had no sense of humour. I don’t know. What I do know is that we had to get rid of the Weiner. We brought in five gallon pails of a white alcohol-based sealer that we understood would properly cover up the Weiner. Then we had to start from the start and do the drawing all over again. I recall being somewhere between drunk and sick from the fumes of that sealer. It was nasty stuff – but it covered the Weiner.  The test came when it was time to once again apply the ink wash and the test was successful. The Lawrence Weiner work disappeared once again.

The last part of the drawing was the 9H pencil grid over everything. At this time it is necessary for me to write a little about pencils. We refer to pencil lead but pencil leads are made with graphite with a clay binder. There was a time when it was possible to get lead poisoning from pencils and that was when lead was used in the paint that pencils were coated with. Pencils use a system to describe how hard or soft they are. The hardest pencils are 9H and the softest are 9B. HB is in the middle. H stands for hard and B stands for black. In my experience, anything harder than 4H is just silly. A 9H pencil is so hard it makes the lightest possible mark. We were to use 9H pencils to draw an even grid over the entire drawing.

During this process, Lewitt’s assistant approached me and gave me hell because I was not twirling the pencil as I drew the line to ensure the line was even. I looked at him and I looked at the barely visible line I was drawing and I smiled and said OK. Sometimes, there is just no point in bothering to argue.

One of the strange things about these wall drawings is that after the exhibition, they simply get photographed and then painted over. If a buyer is interested, the drawing is simply recreated. We got a call when the show was almost over from Mr. Bellman. Would we be interested in painting over the wall drawing? He offered to pay us $7/hour. Today that seems like nothing but at the time, it was a big deal. Strange though, that we were paid for destroying the art but not for executing it.

To this day, I think we should have left the Weiner in the work.

There is a book that documents all the Lewitt wall drawings. When it came out, years ago, I wandered up to Mirvish Books to have a look at it. Buried deep in the book I discovered I was credited as part of the crew who created the 1982 drawing at Bellman’s. Unfortunately, my name was spelled wrong.

5 Comments

  1. Everyone should be paid to paint over a Sol Le witt. and I can assure you…he must have a sense of humour. I too worked for Sol Le Witt and as I was painting and getting all kinds of sexual discrimination by our artist representative. I thought gee Lewitt is laughing all the way to the bank.

    I always loved this story and I was laughing again this afternoon…

  2. Great story. Of course, you can only speculate as to whether Mr. Weiner would have been happy to see his old work incorporated in a new one. Sounds like a great collage,. though.

  3. inkcasualty

    when I was growing up we were taught to always cover a Weiner, but I digress

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