Unearthing Museum Treasures

Sol Lewitt, Model for Earth Project (Cube), 1967

Although many collectors know that provenance research is important in regards to Old Masters, they assume it’s a useless endeavor for contemporary art.  But the history of early conceptualism, minimalism and performance art is still in evolution and it is possible to find gems in the marketplace which have incredible historical import and can inform our understanding of an artist’s working process.  

In 2007, I purchased a Sol LeWitt white Formica cube on behalf of clients from Wright Auction House. The piece itself had no confirmation on provenance and the exhibition information was scant.  The piece had never been reviewed, nor had we any curator’s scholarship to rely on. The Wright Catalog listed only that it may have coincided with the 1966 “Primary Structures” exhibition at the Jewish Museum - an important exhibition which solidified the principles and aesthetics of what came to be known as minimalism. The catalogue stated, but we could not confirm in time for the auction, that the sculpture was indeed exhibited at the Virginia Dwan Gallery in New York, an iconic gallery for minimalism, conceptualism, and Earth Art.

Shortly thereafter, LA MOCA decided to put together the first large scale Land Art exhibition which was shown this summer and is currently on view at the Haus der Kunst in Munich until January 20th, 2013. They contacted us about the LeWitt piece we had purchased and requested permission to begin extensive provenance research to determine the conditions surrounding the cube’s production. What was discovered was quite astonishing: the work proved to be an important one and one which is now a museum gem.

Image courtesy: Kaiser, Philipp and Miwon Kwon, Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 (Munich, New York: Prestel, 2012), 213.

LeWitt’s Model for Earth Project (Cube), 1967 was probably a maquette for a Land Art installation that LeWitt proposed to Robert Smithson, the seminal theorist and artist known best for his Land Art work Spiral Jetty, 1970. Smithson invited LeWitt, Carl Andre, and Robert Morris, all active minimal artists, to submit design proposals for the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport, slated to open in 1974. The proposals were submitted in letter form to Smithson. LeWitt wanted the cube to be buried in an undesignated location somewhere on the grounds of the airport and specifically 3 feet underground. Although none of these projects were ever realized, Model for Earth Project (Cube) was shown at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in their “Minimal Art” exhibition of 1967. The following year, LeWitt’s Buried Cube was exhibited at the Virginia Dwan Gallery in New York. LeWitt did use the piece to conceptually inform him when he buried an aluminum cube on collector Martin Visser’s property in Bergeyk, Holland.

Image courtesy: Kaiser, Philipp and Miwon Kwon, Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 (Munich, New York: Prestel, 2012), 213.

The incredible history of this piece’s provenance saw it originally conceived as Land Art for a large scale airport, then shifting back to its Minimal roots for an exhibition in the Netherlands, then back to the Dwan Gallery where it was shown as a Land Art work again and finally informed the execution of a similar work for a collector on his personal property. Model for Earth Project (Cube) proved to be an exciting and important part of LeWitt’s practice as it represents a link between two movements occurring simultaneously in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Minimalism and Land Art. Model for Earth Project (Cube) is now on view at the Haus der Kunst as part of the “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974” exhibition.