Sol LeWitt was at the forefront of two of the 20th century’s most esoteric and alienating art movements, Minimalism and Conceptualism, yet he somehow managed to keep his own work as crowd-pleasing and hypoallergenic as a Goldendoodle.

From the process of making art, he removed the traits to which many people attach the most value – instinct, skill, personal expression – without forfeiting popular appeal. He even dared to take up one of the 20th century’s most pernicious ideas – “irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically,” he said, echoing the thinking of many a crazed dictator – and converted it to purposes at once sunny and civic-minded.
How he managed all this is not easy to explain: Most attempts at describing LeWitt’s work make it sound more or less lunatic.
So let me start by stating simply that the massive, three-story installation of LeWitt wall drawings that opens today at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is as wonderful as anything I’ve seen in years. It will be staying in place for at least a quarter-century, over which period it is sure to become a site of pilgrimage for all those susceptible to the proposition that life can be beautiful as well as absurd.

I traversed the 30,000 square feet of Mass MoCA’s Building 7, which has been converted for “Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective” by the Boston architectural firm Bruner/Cott & Associates, over more than an hour, delighting in LeWitt’s hands-free, deadpan humor and basking in optical delights. I felt like a little boy watching a mile-long freight train rattle past, each car holding some new, un-guessed-at enchantment. I went back with my family a week later.

The wall drawings were executed over the best part of a year by a team of artists following LeWitt’s casual-sounding directions (“Four-part line drawing with a different line direction in each part,” for instance). Many of the early works on the ground floor are in fine pencil; they feel as austere and otherworldly as distant galaxies. Others, in ink wash or acrylic paints, are so big, bold, and emphatically present they virtually snap their heels and salute.

LeWitt, who died last year, may have straddled the divide between Minimalism and Conceptualism, but he was typical of neither.

On the Minimalist side, he whittled art down to its bare essentials, exploring the rudiments of line, color, shape, and surface with the kind of steady-hammer intensity that Minimalist composers brought to rhythm, melody, and harmony.

He aimed, like other Minimalists, to make the experience of the viewer before the artwork as unencumbered as possible, dispensing with outworn vestiges of symbolism and rhetoric. In the same vein, he rid artworks of their aura of preciousness and singularity by emphasizing the importance of the idea behind a work over its execution.

This last, oft-repeated claim, however, needs closer scrutiny. It’s true, LeWitt was in thrall to the symmetries and permutations of mathematics, and he didn’t especially care who executed his works. But when you see his works in situ, it’s hard to hold onto the notion that the idea overrides all. These works give too much pleasure. They may begin with ideas, but eventually those ideas are reduced to a background hum.

So how does the show look? In a word, vast. Most people will enter on the second floor of Building 7, which focuses on the middle of LeWitt’s career. The best thing to do is cross the floor and walk downstairs to the ground level. The first work you will confront there is “Wall Drawing 305,” which has, as part of its subtitle, “The location of 100 random specific points.”

Dated 1977, the work reveals LeWitt with his best poker face on. One hundred numbered points are scattered across the wall, and alongside each point the instructions determining its location are written. The second point, for instance, “is located halfway between the center of the wall and the midpoint of the right side.”

The 12th point is harder to follow: It “is located as far as I can reach toward the center of the wall with my right hand while holding my left index finger at a point halfway between a point halfway between the upper left corner and a point halfway between the midpoint of the left side and a point halfway between the center of the wall and the upper left corner and a point halfway between the center of the wall and the midpoint of the left side.”

See what I mean by lunatic?

Don’t balk. This lower floor, dedicated mainly to early works in pencil, also includes some of the most exquisite things LeWitt ever conceived. A few of them experiment with lines that run in four directions (vertical, horizontal, and two diagonals). Superimposed in all possible combinations, the lines create effects of impossible delicacy against the subtly textured wall, and yet the clarity and unbendingness of the idea makes them as robust and inevitable as quadratic equations.

In other works LeWitt combines lead and colored pencil lines according to strictly logical rules. One whole wall, for instance, is covered with small squares covered in lines of one color only (red, yellow, blue, or gray). The opposite wall superimposes these primaries in different combinations, creating an overall effect that is, surprisingly, orange, brown, and light blue.

Upstairs, on the second floor, LeWitt goes to town with colored ink wash, a medium that combines intense levels of color saturation with an impression of cloudy ethereality. One work, “Wall Drawing 422,” is simply a series of vertical bands of color along a long wall. The first four bands are light gray, yellow, red, and blue. The fifth combines gray and yellow to get a darker yellow, the sixth gray and red, and the seventh gray and blue. The eighth combines red and yellow (to give us orange), the ninth combines blue and yellow (green), and the 10th red and blue (it’s purple). And on it goes, until every possible combination has been exhausted.

If it all sounds crushingly dull, the miracle is that it’s not. It’s as light and airy and joyous as can be.
On the third floor, color is intensified even further as LeWitt shifts from ink wash to acrylic paints. Almost methodically, we see him moving through all the rudiments of color, shape, line, and surface. We see glossy paint contrasted with matte. We see wavy lines combined with straight ones. We see arrangements of shape and color that imply three-dimensionality set against those that are adamantly flat. We see primary and secondary colors in various predetermined combinations. And we see strict geometrical shapes set against random “blobs” and “splats” (there is even a wall drawing called “Loopy Doopy”).

One late series of ravishing works uses nothing more than scribble lines to build up shapes and illusions of space with subtle gradations of tone. Part of you marvels at the amount of skilled, concentrated work required to execute such drawings; another part remains cognizant that, for LeWitt, skill was beside the point.

LeWitt’s great contribution was to lighten the burden of expectation artworks had to carry. In this, irony became his ally. He relished various contradictions: between, for instance, the simplicity of his own “ideas” and the (in many cases) devilish complexity of their execution. I think he also enjoyed the tension between the cold inflexibility of the logic he employed and the emotional experience it could give rise to.

Janet Malcolm once wrote that “the spell of any work of art can be shattered by the sound of the nasty little voice saying, ‘But this is ridiculous.’ ” Sol LeWitt was honest enough to embrace this vulnerability – every idea he had courted silliness – but he trumped the voice with rolling waves of beauty.

Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe