New York

Barry Le Va

Sonnabend Gallery

A show like this couldn’t have happened at a better time. To an art world still hung up on fleeting trends and “isms,” it demonstrated the importance of two elements, too often ignored and swept under the critical rug, that nevertheless can withstand the test of time: creative commitment and integrity. Each element was present in abundance in this succinct though revealing survey of Barry Le Va’s drawings.

This display, which included work from the late ’60s to 1985, was revealing of Le Va’s distinctively analytical approach toward drawing. This approach is inextricably tied to the needs of his sculpture, which the activity of drawing serves as a means of both generating and working out ideas. In some instances the drawings are the sources of new ideas or the means to clarify sculptural issues; others are drawings after completed sculptures. While knowing which category a specific drawing falls into will add to one’s understanding of it, such information about its function hardly dominates the viewing. One of the most remarkable features about these drawings is their ability to signal aim by strictly visual means alone. A group of ink drawings on graph paper from the late ’60s, among which is Shuffle—Sheets/Streets/Sheets, 1968, conveys a striking sense of purpose, due mainly to the articulation and rhythmical distribution of complex geometric structures and basic shapes.

Tangents Indicated, Segments Enclosed, 1974, an ink drawing on green paper, is similarly resolute, yet here Le Va’s analytical geometry yields unexpectedly poetic dividends. His ability to activate the surface of the paper through the strategic yet seemingly random placement of marks lets the image breathe, and thus the mood of the drawing is one of expansiveness. With their strictly balanced, layered structures, primary colors, and elements of collage, LeVa’s drawings of the late ’70s have a clear-cut constructivist look to them; at the same time, the formal vocabulary of the sculptures and installations described in the drawings has increased in complexity. In those drawings that employ tracing paper-for example, Corner Sections (of 2 Triangular Boundaries, Hovering Overhead From Ceiling) . . . , 1978—the translucent surface of the sheets becomes an evocative white veil that lends a ghostly impression of timelessness.

In Le Va’s most recent works on paper a shift in focus from the structural description of areas to the rendering of forms in space mirrors the changes occurring in his sculpture. Called “diagrammatic silhouettes,” these drawings feature collaged elliptical and circular forms. According to the artist, by using collage he avoids the necessity of repeatedly drawing over forms in order to investigate three-dimensional spatial relationships. Recalling the early 20th-century interest in the art of the machine, these large-scale compositions, with their structural network of solid forms and metallic colors, represent a fascinating meeting point of the graphic and sculptural impulses in modern art, which Le Va will likely continue to pioneer.

Ronny Cohen