Portrait of American artist Sol LeWitt, New York, New York, August 1969. Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
The Houston dentist and art collector had always known that a Sol LeWitt drawing was hidden in her home, buried beneath a thin layer of sheetrock mud.
The site-specific Wall Drawing #679—a grid of blue squares segmented by red and yellow lines—had been commissioned by the late William F. Stern, a local architect and the home’s previous owner. It was executed on the roughly 30-by-10-foot wall in the early 1990s, and covered up years later when the house was sold. But until a visiting friend of the family took a knife to the wall last December, they hadn’t planned to bring it to the surface.
“My mom started texting me, ‘oh my god we can see the Sol LeWitt,’” Jonna Hitchcock, the homeowner’s daughter (who wasn’t there that night) told me, half laughing. “And I was texting back, ‘stop him!’” Hitchcock wanted to video the process and not damage the underlying drawing. The family is now figuring out exactly how to unearth the rest of the painting—or as they put it, how to “un-erase” it.
The term is a knowing wink at the conceptual games played by LeWitt and his fellow conceptual artists, particularly Robert Rauschenberg, who himself famously erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning and presented it as his own. The thought of un-erasing a painted-over LeWitt is something of its own conceptual riddle, given that the artist placed the weight for his wall drawings in the ideas—in the form of written instructions—not their physical execution. “Six-part drawing. The wall is divided horizontally and vertically into six equal parts,” reads one such set of instructions (this one owned by the Carnegie Museum of Art, and on long-term view at MASS MoCA). “1st part: On red, blue horizontal parallel lines, and in the center, a circle within which are yellow vertical parallel lines.”
While Hitchcock’s mother owns the wall with the drawing in Houston, and she owns the pigments on that wall, she doesn’t actually own the work. Wall Drawing #679 itself isn’t the swaths of color on brick, but rather the idea of the work in the form of instructions left by LeWitt for how to execute the piece. And it is the Menil Collection, located not far from Stern’s old house, who owns that, in the form of a certificate of authenticity and diagram for the piece.
Detail shot of the wall, showing a part of the LeWitt. Courtesy of Joanna Hitchcock.
When Stern, an avid art collector, died in 2013, his house was left to the Menil Foundation, which ultimately sold it a year later. All the work in the house was removed and retained by the collection following the sale. Because LeWitt’s physical work was site-specific and meant to be temporary, it was covered up in what the collection called “standard procedure for effacing LeWitt’s wall drawings.”
“It is important to underscore that the Menil did not destroy a work of art; for LeWitt, the work of art lives in the certificate of authenticity and diagram,” the collection said in a statement. Because the Menil owns the certificate, it holds the right to create the work (say, for an exhibition) in conjunction with the LeWitt estate (which declined to comment for this piece). The drawing, per specifications, would have to be completed by authorized craftspeople. Still, through a spokesperson, the Menil said it does “not take issue with the homeowner doing whatever projects they wish to undertake in their home.”
Hitchcock said she understands his work is the idea and that they’re not trying to say otherwise in an attempt to dupe people or enrich themselves. “We’re not trying to uncover it so we can sell it,” as she puts it. Currently, they don’t have a definitive timeline or plan on how unearth the drawing. They’ve reached out to conservators as well as a local artist who helped prime the wall (one coat of Sherwin Williams aqualock, five coats of Sherwin Williams paint) before the drawing’s creation.
A recent piece on Glasstire called it “impossible” to unerase the LeWitt since the work is “simply the remnants of what was once the execution of the conceptual work” and said any attempts to do so are “messing up a perfectly good wall.” But still, it isn’t hard to understand why someone might jump at the chance to unearth the execution of a LeWitt wall drawing—even if the blue grid is not actually a LeWitt artwork.
“How could any modern art lover who sees a LeWitt peeking out from behind crumbly sheetrock resist?” Hitchcock told me. “What art lover wouldn’t scratch the paint?”