PRINT February 1966

5 Los Angeles Sculptors at Irvine

LARRY BELL AND KENNETH PRICE ARE natives of Los Angeles, Tony DeLap and John McCracken are very recent arrivals from Northern California, and David Gray emigrated from Madison, Wisconsin, a little over a year ago. Thus, any common sensibility revealed in their approach to art is purely coincidental. The absence of any form of a programmatic bias is central to each artist’s working outlook. The maintenance of an open-ended and exploratory attitude is crucial to their art. Although they avoid capricious shifts, they maintain the necessary freedom to change at will by refusing to place a closed curve on their esthetic, particularly one which can easily become the restrictive mantle of dogma.

The full absorption and exploitation in modern sculpture of the accumulated resources of twentieth-century technology, particularly in the use of modern industrial materials, methods of joining, and surface finishes, has been continuously restricted by traditional esthetic attitudes. A typical example is the concept of “truth to materials.” The finished sculpture should clearly reveal the intrinsic nature of the material used and the form and manner of working this material should coincide. To these artists (but perhaps less so with David Gray) esthetic restrictions of this nature are a totally indifferent issue. They employ the widest range of techniques and materials without inhibition; availability and fitness for the purpose in mind is the overriding criterion. Given this outlook, it is solely a matter of practical consequence whether steel, wood, glass, aluminum or a combination of these, or any other materials, are used.

This attitude has had one important result: these artists have developed the capacity to work well beyond the conventional notions of many typical materials and techniques. Price, for example, has worked in fired clay for many years. Desirous of extending the color of this medium beyond the range normally available in the form of slips and glazes, he began to use hard-surfaced industrial paints and lacquers. In this manner, he was able to infinitely extend his color range and at the same time, by controlling the degree of required glossiness and flatness, to extend his color-surface qualities.

A very evident sense of refinement of craftsmanship pervades the work of all these sculptors. Essential to the realization of the acute formal relationships and qualities of surface finish desired, craftsmanship also serves to indefinitely maintain these effects. Despite the simplicity of the forms employed, the surfaces are not renunciative, as in geometric art, but highly sensuous and lyrical. Autobiographic incident, in the form of a record of the hand of the artist, is suppressed, and if at first sight the works are seemingly anonymous, the combination of craftsmanship and surface finish is quite outside that experienced in the area of the mass-produced impersonal object. Each of the effects used is uniquely involved within a singular set of visual conditions in the forefront of the artist’s mind. Once seen in the context of the artwork, they are as characteristic, from the point of view of identification, as a skein of Pollock’s paint or a brush stroke of de Kooning’s.

Price’s form is derived from nature, his biomorphic shapes containing allusions to seed-pods, sea urchins, eggs and similar phenomena. His work can be associated with a segmental view of nature and is an abstraction. The form sense of the other four sculptors is very different; they employ conceived forms, synthetic in origin. These forms are not geometric, but symbolic. They are also not related to, or concerned with, architecture or architectural space. If anything, and despite the difference in medium, they function within the same symbolic framework as easel painting.

With the exception of Kenneth Price, who often uses a minutely pitted and slightly uneven surface to delineate points and slow down the visual scan, all these sculptors tend to use highly reflective surfaces. In other words they seem to deliberately avoid surfaces that direct the attention of the eye to any particular point, thus creating an absence of any hierarchy of focus. In this manner, a special kind of totalness is achieved, which is without a sense of climax. Bell, for example, presses this issue even further—his sculpture is completely an axial; that is, without a top, bottom or sides except as a practical consequence of the manner in which it is displayed. Likewise DeLap’s sculpture invariably consists of a structural shell-form with two identical faces. In conjunction with this type of symmetry, which denies front or back, there is often an absence of a sense of a top or a bottom to his sculpture. Thus his images, apart from being reversible, can also be turned upside down without changing their identity in any way. What these artists seem to be proposing is an extremely extendible order of form, somewhat akin, for example, to that of the alphabet, where each letter is dissimilar yet at the same time there are an infinite variety of combinations available without repetition and without each letter (or part) having a climactic order above another.

All five sculptors are further linked by their persistent use, in one form or another, of a serial imagery. This phenomenon, originating with Monet, and topically referred to as Single Image or One Image art, can be divided—as Lawrence Alloway points out*— into two characteristic aspects (1) a highly redundant, or simple visual image or (2) a configuration used repeatedly. Price’s constant repetition of a polychrome egg-shape, either upright or on its side, Bell’s glass cubes and the constant permutation by Gray of two elements—a chromed pipe form and one or more polychrome rectilinear shapes—all fall within the latter category. DeLap in his typical usage of repetitive halves perhaps only marginally fits the latter category, and McCracken (with the exception of the two works in this exhibition) has to date worked serially with a two-colored rectilinear shape. Obviously the two McCracken sculptures shown in the exhibition, as well as DeLap’s work, more easily fit the first category. Characteristic to Single Image art, however, is the manner in which an artwork takes on enhanced qualities when seen within a set. Admittedly this may be true of any kind of art, but it is not necessarily vital to it. For example, a Picasso Period painting, a Matisse Odalisque, or a Kandinsky abstraction, can be appreciated very fully without seeing the paintings made immediately before and after. With the sculpture of these artists, however, the images are enhanced, and take on more determined qualities when seen in the context of their set; the parts are greater in the context of the whole. This is not to deny that there are single works which are qualitatively better than others, either within or outside of the context of their set.

The environmental situation of the artwork, particularly the manner in which it is displayed, is often crucial, and this manifests itself in a wide variety of situations and demands. Probably neither Arp nor Miró were so insistent that their small sculptures should be seen at so precisely predetermined a height as Price insists upon. He especially designs, and permanently anchors, his sculptures on slim columnlike stands. Bell’s glass constructions demand the entry of light through the bottom to gain maximum luminosity and the desired quality of spatial intangibility. Apart from specific situations of this nature, the large sculptures of DeLap, Gray and McCracken can only function in the desired manner if they are floorbound without the intervention of any stand or base.

A very evident quality provoked by this sculpture is an acute consciousness of the relationship between the observer and the locus of the artwork. The effect of the redundancy and emblemism of these images, combined with the reflective surfaces, is quite distinctive. In Cubist sculpture, for example, by reason of its changing facets, the total configuration cannot be conceptually grasped at once; it is read sequentially as the observer moves around the work. Consequently the eye and the mind are primarily concerned with fitting together the total image. The minutiae of surface quality or detail are not seen except in the most general manner and are in any event not only subordinate, but of lesser or even trifling importance in comparison to the overall image and the internal harmonics. With the exception of Price, who occupies a rather different position, the images of these artists are without conceptual surprises. The redundancy and emblemism employed in their sculpture are of such a nature that shape is delivered and grasped at once, in much the same manner, for example, as a circle is instantly apprehended by the eye. This use of a highly redundant imagery serves to enforce and magnify—at a very dramatic scale—an acute visual consciousness of what is going on within the sculpture. When perception takes place at this scale there is an acute dislocation of vision; the observer is forced to see relationships and surface effects not only afresh but in totally new ways.

Once this is understood, all other relevant factors fall into place. For example, the inventiveness or absolute uniqueness of the overall configuration is of little importance. The less it obtrudes on the observer’s consciousness, the better it functions within these requirements. The pervasive redundancy and simplicity of imagery and form employed by these sculptors neither draws inspiration from earlier European geometric modes of expression, nor does it attempt to create a mechanistic, hostile or anonymous art. Instead, a particular kind of economy is employed to focus the maximum amount of attention on what is of fundamental concern. The two forms McCracken employs in this exhibition are among the oldest known to civilized man: two posts and a lintel, and the pyramid. Bell uses the simplest form of all, a cube, and DeLap and Gray use simple synthetic forms echoing in shape the anonymous quality of mass-produced objects. Unlike Cubist sculpture there is a strong tendency not to break up the sculpture with deep indentations or the kind of voids or incisions which create a focus stronger than that of the total configuration. Thus, any indentations or voids used tend to repeat the total configuration, but in a very diminished manner.

A high degree of lustre or shine is usually associated with a machine or a mechanical finish and thought to be anonymous. In comparison, an irregular texture or roughness is usually associated with hand processes and thus considered to be more personal. Paradoxically, the more these artists enhance and perfect their surfaces the greater the idiosyncratic and subjective quality of their work. Their insistence on the highest order of craftsmanship can be easily understood, for the slightest imperfection would mar a surface and create an unwanted point of focus. In McCracken’s work, for example, color and surface are knitted in a taut union. The surface, however, is so perfected and anonymous that the color completely dominates the shape, and in doing so, gives the work quite unique qualities of color-life. Recently Bell has purged from his cube of optically coated glass framed within polished metal the systematic use of modular internal divisions (ellipses, parallelograms, checker and hexagonal arrangements). This reductive approach serves to remove his sculpture even further from the last echoes of Cubist spatial notions. With the eye undistracted by this overlay of imposed forms, the scale and luminous quality of the work is greatly enhanced.

John Coplans

The above essay, in slightly altered form, is the catalog essay for “Five Los Angeles Sculptors,” presented at the Art Gallery of the University of California, Irvine, January 7–February 6, 1966.



*Unpublished notes by Lawrence Alloway on One Image art, prepared for a lecture given at Bennington College, Vermont, 1964.