Walker Art Center

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Conceptual Café
The story behind Gallery 8’s masterful mural

By Paul Schmelzer

Senior registration technician Dave Bartley bristles, just a little, when he sees people ignoring the bold geometric patterns that illuminate the walls of Gallery 8 Café by Wolfgang Puck. And pity the hapless soul who, not realizing the mural is an artwork in the Walker collection, leans against the gold, red, and blue wall while Bartley’s in the room.

It’s not that he’s overly sensitive to the preciousness of art—it’s that he helped install the piece during a painstaking three-week process per the exacting specifications of conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. Titled Four Geometric Figures in a Room (1984), the piece actually exists in the collection as a detailed four-page document consisting of a signed certificate of authenticity, a set of installation instructions, and a diagram of the work. Whenever it is reinstalled, the Walker follows the instructions and flies in a technician approved by the artist to work alongside Walker registrars and preparators. Throughout his career, LeWitt has privileged the idea above the artwork itself, a notion he discussed when coining the term Conceptual Art in a 1967 issue of Artforum: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” Says Walker curator Betsy Carpenter, “With this statement, LeWitt gave license to a burgeoning art movement in which he was an undeniable force.”

Perfunctory might be an oversimplification of the efforts of LeWitt’s installer Sarah Heinemann and the crew who painted the work just prior to the museum’s 2005 reopening. Commissioned by the Walker and first installed in 1984 on the lower level of the Edward Larrabee Barnes–designed building, the mural served as a colorful gateway into former galleries A and B. When the hallway was reconfigured and the spaces converted into the art lab and the library, the work had to be relocated. Gallery 8 Café’s expansive windows and abundant natural light—not to mention proximity to LeWitt’s sculptures on the adjacent terrace and in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden—made it a perfect home.

The first step in relocating the piece was to receive the artist’s blessing. Carpenter sent LeWitt a floor plan of the new site, which he returned with the intended location of the shapes drawn in with pencil. Next, LeWitt’s assistant sent a detailed list of supplies and equipment, plus instructions on how the walls were to be prepared. In this case, the installation of pristine new drywall was required before the team could draw each figure directly onto the walls. After masking with tape and paper, they began applying the acrylic wash: first the yellow outlines, then (after drying and remasking) the blue center, and finally the vast fields of red. The paint was applied with “buns,” a term coined by LeWitt’s team. White fabric resembling the material of a man’s undershirt was folded over to make a cloth disk. “The next coat would be ‘boom-boom’,” recalls Bartley, using another term in the preparators’ vocabulary. “So first you’d fold the bun and use the smooth side for wiping, then your boom-boom side is the scrunched-up side that allows you to dabble.” Drips weren’t tolerated, random wipe patterns had to be used to avoid leaving overlapping acrylic, and many buns had to be prepared at a time so technicians could work continuously to finish an entire wall in a single color before it dried. According to the instructions, the mural is made up of nine coats, not including the six layers of primer that went on first “(two coats of Benjamin Moore oil-base low-odor primer QD 30-202-01, using a 3/4” roller, and painted with four coats of Benjamin Moore Regal Satin Latex, Decorator White #215 04, using a 1/2” [pencil] nap roller).”

While the process of creating the work was exacting, the vivid results are well complemented by the artful cuisine of Wolfgang Puck. It’s worth noting, however, that the hues evoke Italy more than the geographies—California, Asia, and a bit of Minnesota—on which Puck bases his menus. As Carpenter wrote in the Walker’s collection catalogue, the colors, which began appearing in LeWitt’s work around 1980, were inspired by the countryside surrounding the artist’s farmhouse near Spoleto: “Warm earth tones reminiscent of frescoes and the Umbrian hills infiltrated his palette, resulting in increasingly sensual wall drawings.” A new source of inspiration for a Gallery 8 menu, perhaps? That’s fine with Bartley, as long as no one spills their red wine.

The reinstallation of Sol LeWitt’s Four Geometric Figures in a Room was made possible by Mrs. Julius E. Davis and the Fifth Floor Foundation.