Usually, the artists commissioned to produce an original installation for New York City Ballet’s Art Series have not worked within the Promenade of the Company’s home theater. But sculptor Eva LeWitt had a sneak peek as to what an installation might look like when the Promenade, with its soaring, gold-leafed ceilings and dramatic beaded curtains, recently served as her workshop. For LeWitt, it was more than appropriate for the large-scale, vibrant work she has become recognized for in recent years. “Obviously it’s a beautiful space,” she noted in a recent conversation. “Such a perfect space to put work like that.”
The “work like that” she’s referring to is the set design for Partita, the latest ballet Resident Choreographer Justin Peck created on the Company, which had its premiere on January 27 and returns for encore performances this month.
LeWitt’s set design was built on the theater’s Promenade before it was transferred and lit onstage, uniquely coming to life in the space. As plans began to develop for the next installment of the NYCB Art Series initiative, which is re-launching this spring with lead underwriting support from Lynne and Richard Pasculano, commissioning LeWitt to create new sculptures for a Promenade installation emerged as an obvious and perfect fit. Created in 2013, NYCB’s Art Series has featured acclaimed site-specific installations at the Koch Theater by artists FAILE (2013), JR (2014), Dustin Yellin (2015), Marcel Dzama (2016), Santtu Mustonen (2017), Jihan Zencirli (aka Geronimo) (2018), Shantell Martin (2019), and Lauren Redniss (2020), and has been a powerful vehicle for attracting new audiences to the Company’s performances.
While working on her set design for Peck’s Partita on the Promenade, LeWitt capitalized on the vast dimensions, resulting in a piece that represents “the largest I’ve ever worked,” she says. The multicolored ribbon-like elements reflect the “exuberance” she describes in both Peck’s choreography and Caroline Shaw’s score, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices. “Justin saw a piece of mine in Boston, a big installation at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art], and he approached me with the idea of doing a set that had a similar energy, similar colors—bright and big. So we just started from there,” LeWitt says.
Peck was initially motivated to seek LeWitt out due to a familial connection with the music. Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices was inspired, in part, by Wall Drawing 305, a work by the late minimalist pioneer Sol LeWitt, who was Eva LeWitt’s father. The piece quotes from the instructions Sol LeWitt provided for the third-party draftsperson who enacts any installation of Wall Drawing’s “100 random specific points,” resulting in a beguiling combination of accident and intentional intervention. “It’s the way of working more than the actual work that inspired [Caroline’s piece],” says Eva. “The music that Caroline came up with is completely her own; it references my father’s work, but is something totally of itself. He loved music and I think he would’ve really loved that his work should have inspired something so different.”
She would know: Born in Spoleto, Italy, Eva LeWitt grew up on the Lower East Side, often spending time painting alongside her father in his studio. Nowadays, she works in the former accordion shop just around the corner from the workspace where Sol LeWitt formulated his era-influencing works. Her site-specific installations, which often incorporate everyday materials like acetate and latex, have been described as spiritually descended from the oeuvre of Eva Hesse, a close friend of her late father’s; the two women’s works do share certain minimal qualities, as well as an organic softness that sets them apart from the movement of which Sol LeWitt was such a significant figure.
Eva LeWitt has often referred to the importance of directly manipulating raw materials to her practice; she usually creates the sculptures herself, with an emphasis on the significance of the process and the labor involved. That intimate engagement with the work’s raw elements is evident in the Partita design, despite its size. The set radiates buoyancy and life, in part a result of its dance-appropriate material: silk taffeta. “It’s quite light and is susceptible to the movement of the dancers in a way that really shows the audience how quickly or how vigorously they are moving,” says LeWitt. “I think it’s easy to forget, as a spectator, how physical ballet really is. So I like that aspect of it—that the piece reacts to all the energy the dancers are expending.”
For this spring’s Art Series, she will extend her stage designs, creating additional site-specific sculptures for the Promenade that will offer the possibility of a more up-close engagement for the audience. When the original set build was complete, “I was kind of sad to see them move to the stage, because they look so great in the Promenade,” says LeWitt. “I’ll be happy for people to be able to get a little bit closer to the material and to the work.”
Her goal for the installation in this new iteration is simple—one that she describes as central to everything she produces: “I hope that it brings people joy and happiness.”
Madelyn Sutton is a culture writer based in Asheville, North Carolina.