PRINT January 1983


The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions.
—Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

Like most mystery novels, Barry Le Va’s sculpture presents a superimposition of two interdependent sequences of time—an action performed in the past, and an investigation of that action gradually unfolding in the present to explain the past; a real event (a “crime,” a configuration in space) for which the motivation is not initially self-evident, and an analysis of that event, deducing and discovering its missing links. Le Va’s work is about more than meets the eye—about an absence. “Clue” is a very important word in Le Va’s vocabulary.

The reader of a mystery novel passively observes the narrator retracing the steps of the plot. The narrator is a surrogate for the writer, explaining the writer’s construction. The viewer of a Le Va sculpture is invited to become the narrator, and to retrace the artist’s actions from the work’s material back to the motivation for it. The conditions that facilitate the viewer’s participation are remarkably similar to the dictates of most mystery novels: a general structure simultaneously ambiguous and transparent; suppression of superfluous detail; plainness and clarity—any strong image or significant form hinders the progress of the investigation.

While Le Va has occasionally incorporated violence into his work and has once or twice indulged in sexy material (red iron oxide, mineral oil), nothing even as mildly picturesque as an excess of whisky or a flashy convertible intrudes upon his work. His continuous use of materials with a minimum of art references (felt, flour, wooden dowels, particle board) achieves the same elegant deadpan so crucial to the pared down prose of such writers as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

The comparison to a narrative genre is made to emphasize Le Va’s persistent pursuit of the temporal dimension. His configurations do not congeal into static constructions, but present residues of activities that overlap and shift in time. Le Va creates diagrams of the unfolding dialogue between mind and matter; he ritualizes the act of making a choice, bringing rhythm and ration to the space between decision and action.

Since 1967, the activities that generate Le Va’s sculpture have shifted from simple physical interactions (e.g., throwing, placing, rolling) with one or more materials (e.g., felt, ball bearings) to more complex mental interactions employing the materials as markers involved in systems of logical measure. Le Va’s most recent work engages purely visual decision-making and moves from logic to experience; the more conscious visual focus engenders a more pronounced physicality and an urge to objectness. However, this urge is cantankerous, self-doubting, and precarious, giving volume to flux rather than to form.

Transience, or homelessness, has been the plight of sculpture (and almost all art) in Modernist/bourgeois times; sculpture needs more place than painting, and has received less: Le Va is part of the generation of sculptors that came to the fore in the late ’60s, radically questioning the klatch and clutter of cocktail table and sculpture garden. This generation made transience a trenchant partner in the making of the work: and replaced product with process, Objects dissolved into residues of activity and intent which reclaimed sculpture’s architectural dependence while renouncing its permanence as object (a work’s material life often being limited to the duration of the exhibition it was made for). Once-pristine exhibition spaces now appeared to be occupied by mattress manufacturers or active volcanoes. Perhaps for the first time sculptors, not painters, were pulling the stuffing out of art to see what was inside-sculptors like Le Va, Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, et al.

Le Va’s rejection and dissection of the object was arrived at quite early (1966-67) and independently, in Los Angeles (he moved to New York in 1970). The aspects of his dispersed felt pieces from 1967-68 that most readily connected him to artists in New York were their configurations—derived from simple activities which punctuated process—and their restriction to the horizontal plane of the floor, Le Va was less interested in phenomenology, process, and an active partnership with gravity, however, than such artists as Serra and Robert Morris. Serra’s splashed-lead sculpture and Morris’ work in hung and draped felt, both from the late ’60s, present rhythmical, continuous sequences of activities that are visually coherent materializations of the interaction between artist, material, and gravity. Although clearly generated by simple activities (cutting, tearing, placing, throwing), Le Va’s layers of felt are not sequentially coherent; they reflect the zigzagging vagaries of mental process as much as the clearer dictates of material process. The disparity of clusters of tiny shreds of felt overlapping large rectangles of felt breaks up visual continuity and calls attention to the juncture of two discontinuous but related layers of time. How are they related? What is the logic of the placement of the felt? What is the role (roll) of the ball bearings, included in most of the felt works? The viewer is given clues but no certainty of an answer—certainty and finality are not part of Le Va’s vocabulary.

The felt pieces, like most of Le Va’s works, take up the entire space they are situated in—the viewer is almost always within the piece and must (re)perform its construction to move through it. No overall view or distance is possible, no configuration is dominant; the almost intolerable profusion of units creates a field of constant shifts, junctures, and overlaps which frustrates any attempt at a unified reading. Intent is not clearly apparent; the viewer must deduce and intuit Le Va’s actions as he turned material into the nonsequential transitions in space and time that reflected his mental processes of deduction and intuition.

Formless, shapeless, structureless—clues, no conclusions. Can sculpture be purely about relations and transitions? How much responsibility should be given to the viewer? At what point does the material risk turning from being “sculpture” into becoming the vestige or trace of “performance”? Where is intent located? Le Va’s work continuously asks these questions. You must think harder than you see.

By 1970, the procedural residues of simple physical interactions with a variety of materials (glass, bricks, flour, felt, etc.) were replaced by residues of systems of measurement and sections of geometric figures, The material (wooden rods, dowels, Masonite, etc.) no longer denotes itself; it becomes more and more connotative of a set of purely mental activities, An example from this period is the “Circle Series,” 1970-71, which employs stone markers for the centers of circles, points of tangency, or overlapping of circles. While these works appear to have more order than the earlier pieces, they are just as resistant to any sequentially unified viewing. The units of material are fragments of figures and systems overlapping in time and space, frequently interrupting and partially erasing each other, They are not visually “logical” the way a Sol LeWitt wall drawing is.

The walls that act as passive boundaries for the felt pieces are now incorporated into the work. A 1973 work is entitled An Attempt to Fit: 16 in 4: Centerpoints Outwards (walked end-over-end; ends touch, ends cut); it is divided into four overlapping rectangles determined by and including the layout of the floor and walls. Wood sticks have been walked separately, end over end, through the space, their ends cut each time they touch the ground, leaving paths of dowels separated by ever-diminishing spaces; ultimately each stick (measure) either exhausts itself or hits a wall, where it then remains. The space becomes a map of itself and the viewer is left with overlapping traces of the cartographer’s measuring instruments.

As Le Va’s work develops, paths of measure turn into segments of lines of perspective and the space turns into a projection (illusion) of itself, first from a single vantage point, then, in the group of works titled “Accumulated Vision,” 1975-79, from multiple vantage points. The material now becomes a sign for a system of measurement rather than itself being the measure, as were the walked sticks. The wood is now dispersed in open angles and diagonals which represent sections of perspective lines projected from a. vantage point outside the space. The viewer is inside the space; the point of view is outside. Reconstruction of the projection(s) becomes more and more difficult as the number of points of view increases. The distance between what is seen and what is (was) conceived is pushed to an extreme. The materials become a set of complex signifiers which resist visual decoding—perhaps more hieroglyphic than “sculptural.” Le Va’s language is now almost impossible for the viewer to penetrate without a dictionary.

At the same time, titles become necessary rather than merely helpful adjuncts to the work. Le Va’s titles are always descriptive of the operations that compose a specific work, providing verbal clues and context without fully describing the content-providing a common denominator but not a solution. The need for titles varies with the degree to which the visual procedures that constitute a work are self-evident, and with the viewer’s knowledge. If knowledge of the operations that comprise a work is necessary to the understanding of that work, then the titles of the “Accumulated Vision” pieces begin to weigh more than the materials—e.g., Accumulated Vision: Boundaries Designated (configurations indicated) corner sections (of 2 four-sided boundaries that cut through corners of this space where designated) separately projected. From eight positions of viewing, each position (not necessarily stationary) is located at a specific height above floor level and outside the boundaries of corner sections (1977 installation at Sonnabend Gallery, New York).

How visually self-evident must a “sculpture” be? How much responsibility should the viewer be given? Is the content of a work of art the sum of its operations? Mystery novels require a solution—does a sculpture? What is a sculpture?

The “Accumulated Vision” pieces ask more questions than they answer, while seeming to turn Cubism inside out. Instead of an object being analyzed and layered in planes of multiple points of view, the observer is split into multiple points of view. The viewer moves from vanishing point to vanishing point inside a series of illusions, and must attempt to project him- or herself backwards to the outside; artist and viewer unite on the other side of first one, then many, lenses. The illusion is almost totally conceptual, and the degree of (re)creation required of the viewer is extreme.

While the distance between material and intent here is greater and more perplexing than before, the “Accumulated Vision” pieces have a visuality and physicality common to most of Le Va’s work: radical horizontal compression, denial of unified form or gestalt, and material dispersed in a large field in configurations implying movement in one or more planes and resisting any visually sequential reading, Surfaces are totally eventless—generally mat, flat, and ungiving, Because of the multiplicity of units and their refusal to congeal, the floor appears to shift constantly. The viewer is in the piece but seems to view it from above—the generally small size of the units makes them seem to float far below eye level. Le Va turns space into a rather disconcerting nowhere place, both matter-of-fact and alien, simultaneously immense and measurable. The work’s openness and seeming incompleteness encourage investigation and completion.

Could purely visual concerns become the basis of the work? Decisions based on personal experience have been thought to becloud the clarity of intellectual intent; decisions based on objectively verifiable procedures or systems have formed much of the art of the past 25 years, including Le Va’s. Many artists have sought the transparent logic of language; recently, however, more and more have come to realize that art may be weightless but it is not transparent.

In Le Va’s work choices of medium, size, scale, and placement (by chance and design) are, to varying degrees, determined by personal experience and preference, These choices are largely responsible for the work’s believability, If there were no spatial tension or suspense, what would initiate the viewer’s investigation? Could the work be drained of illusion and replaced by a diagram? Could it be written?

“Illusion,” “spatial tension”—these are purely visual and psychological concepts, How are visual decisions made? Can they be communicated? The realm of the visual has become the primary (rather than secondary) focus of Le Va’s most recent work, He seeks to make and analyze models of visual choice-making: Since 1980 the work has been less about specific processes and more about “experience,” With Expanding Foundations: Eliminating Foundations, a Partial Exterior Plan with an Interior, 1981, the action begins to move back onto the plane of the floor,

“Gyroscope Roulette” suggests random rolling and rotation on a variety of planes of choice and chance, Gyroscope Roulette: sketching a possibility is the title, of a work done in the winter of 1982, in which Le Va gambles with and abandons himself to the totally visual. Like a gyroscope, the piece is simultaneously stable and revolving, The precariousness of shiny, ready-to-roll fiberglass balls on compartmentalized tracks, several sets of particle-board ellipses in staggered triplicate suggesting horizontal revolution, and sections of single, variously angled ellipses that seem to slice through the floor, all at about knee height, fan endless currents of illusion—illusion totally dependent upon material, shape, and placement.

What is an ellipse? Both a specific, complete geometric figure and an incomplete geometric figure, it falls short of a circle or appears to be a perspectival projection of a circle, Its visual incompleteness seems to set it in motion, An ellipse is a perfect monogram for Le Va.

An ellipsis is a lapse of time or the omission of an element that is structurally necessary but understood in context. “Ellipses” is the plural of ellipse and of ellipsis, Ellipses populate and propel Le Va’s recent work.

Two works done in the late spring and summer of 1982—one for Documenta 7, one for an exhibition at the DeCordova and Dana Museum in Lincoln, Mass.— are more demanding in both content and configuration than Gyroscope Roulette, although all three are composed of similar elements, The DeCordova installation is the latest, and most complex and disturbing, of the three.

In photographs and at the first moment of viewing the piece seems to be a uniform, mazelike structure incorporating ten spheres and two triple-tiered sets of ellipses. Barry Le Va the neo-Constructivist? Only for a second; almost immediately the structure becomes disjointed and the space uncomfortable. The paths that fill most of the room are scaled to the spheres and must be carefully stepped over or straddled—passage is awkward (as if one were at a too-miniature golf course). On inspect ion the mazelike structure breaks down into two separate sections: one side is made up of disconnected but parallel planks in a straight path ending in an angle, the other side of intersecting diagonals in two different scales.

The piece is entitled Revolving Standards: Past Decisions, Present Revolutions, Future Drops. The roll of a sphere is an ambiguous measure at best, and an ellipse is an incomplete one. These “standards” are far more elusive than were the walked sticks; their placement by design seems almost as gratuitous as the placement by chance of the ball bearings in the felt pieces.

The placement and removal of the spheres and ellipses seems to have determined the structure of the paths, but the paths could as readily have determined the placement of the spheres and ellipses. Are the three different sizes and surfaces of the spheres the result of different standards, or projections of the same standard? The piece goes round and round—the drop of a sphere defines an angle, an angle defines the ability of a sphere to drop. There is no solution, only flux and an endless, cyclical reciprocity. The work seems to be a record of the mind’s erratic search for a reason to be.

The title of the Documenta piece is Perspective Slot Drop/or Illusion/Delusion: Related Consequences. This work has a simpler configuration, but also splits the room in two and builds a seemingly unified but ultimately disjunctive structure. As physicality and visuality become primary rather than secondary concerns in these works, decisions are generated directly by the self rather than through systems or procedures. There is less certainty, less verifiability, more doubt (self-doubt); standards are less “accurate,” measure even more ambiguous than before. With self-doubt comes the specter of self-deception and the possibility that illusion is a delusion. The flux and vulnerability of much of the previous work now issue directly from the self.

Le Va would like to make an object but is painfully aware of the impossibility (?) of making a self-confident object. Perhaps the only possibility is to continue the relentless laying bare of the problematics of sculpture, picturing more clues but finding no solution.

The body of work that Le Va has created is alarmingly uncompromising. His surgical awareness of the dilemma of sculpture is hardly endearing, but is as rewarding as it is instructive, especially at a moment when so much sculpture reverts to sheer mindlessness of material and re-upholstering of Constructivist clichés. Object lessons are still in order.

Klaus Kertess writes fiction and art criticism.