West Coast Minimalism: Four New York Shows
Primary Atmospheres: Works from California 1960 -1970
David Zwirner Gallery
January 8 – February 6, 2010
525 West 19th Street
New York City, 212 727 2070
John McLaughlin: Hard Edge Classicist
Paintings from the 1950s to the 1970s
January 7 – February 13, 2010
Greenberg Van Doren Gallery
730 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street
New York City 212 445 0444
Laddie John Dill: Contained Radiance
January 15 – February 20, 2010
358 West 20th Street (East of 9th Ave.)
New York City, 212 995 1785
Ronald Davis: Monochrome Paintings From The 1960s
Franklin Parrasch Gallery
January 6 – February 20, 2010
20 West 57th Street
New York City, 212 246 5360
“Primary Atmospheres: Works from California 1960-1970” at David Zwirner Gallery, curated by Tim Nye and Kristine Bell, is a must see for anyone who wants to appreciate the creative energy that boiled over in the mid-to late 1960s in Los Angeles. While seven of the ten artists in this show have had one person shows in New York within the past few years, it isn’t until you see these artists together that you can appreciate the multiple ways in which they shared an L.A. aesthetic at the same time as maintaining easily recognizable individual styles.
Several artists in this show reflect the Light and Space Movement (Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Doug Wheeler, and Laddie Dill) while others represent the Finish Fetish Group (Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman, John McCracken, Helen Pashgian, and De Wain Valentine). However, the boundaries are permeable: Alexander, whose tall wedges disappear at the top and Bell, whose cubes are both solid and transparent, belong in both groups.
The Light and Space artists make us question the reliability of what we see. The Irwin room has three works that are best seen in midday light. Some visitors experience the room as empty when they first enter it. The large slightly convex almost square dot painting by Robert Irwin (Untitled, 1963-65) is like a fuzzy Josef Albers painting observed from behind a scrim. This is a slow work where patience is rewarded. You begin to see a series of soft-edged nested squares that hover on the surface. Directly opposite it is Irwin’s white formed acrylic plastic convex disc (Untitled, 1969). A black horizontal line in the center of the diameter first captures your attention. After that, the disc became visible and then its sides and bottom edge slowly disappear into the wall surrounding it. There is visual magic and ascetic beauty here: virtually everyone seeing this work walks up to the wall to look at its acrylic lacquered surface and what lies behind it.
A few steps away in a perfectly proportioned, dimly lit, sterile, white room with white painted floors is Doug Wheeler’s Untitled (1969). This soft-edged acrylic and wood square box, the same color as the walls, has a perimeter of fuzzy white neon light that provides an experience of a transcendental floating rectangle. In two totally darkened rooms, Turrell’s mastery of light goes one step further. Projections of light read as solid forms. Juke Green (1969) appears to be a green cube that is leaning against the back corner of one room. Gard Red (1969) reads as a solid pyramid that has been chiseled out of one corner wall in the other room. Irwin, Wheeler, and Turrell expand our perception by forcing us to use our eyes, our bodies and our minds to disambiguate what we’re seeing.
A dimly lit room on the way to the Finish Fetish works contains a mesmerizing floor installation by Laddie John Dill, an artist whose in-between location is a bridge between the two L.A. groups. Untitled (1969) consists of graceful mounds of brown and tan sand that are sliced through at an angle by large squares of glass revealing marble-cake sand patterns. Smaller pieces of square glass are placed horizontally to the viewer above a row of green argon with mercury lights that are hidden below the sand. The lights can only be seen in the reflections at the top and fronts of the glass, creating an otherworldly landscape.
The last two rooms of the show are devoted to artists captivated by new industrial materials available to them largely from the aerospace industry. It is widely acknowledged that these artists were inspired by the glossy finishes used on the fast cars, sleek motorcycles, exquisite aerodynamic surf boards, and alluring billboards around them. When Walter Brooke advises Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967), “I want to say one word to you… Plastics”, his advice had already been heeded in L.A. Plastics of all types opened up new options in the realms of color, shape, translucency and size. But, less well known is that some of these artists (for example, Alexander, Valentine, and Dill) also turned to nature for their inspiration. They tried to capture the transient beauty of sea, sky and sand, a beauty that extended to smog besotted colors. As a result, some of their works transgressed the boundaries between Light and Space and Finish Fetish. In this connection, Peter Alexander’s work is particularly interesting because he creates immaculate objects that also have the perceptual concerns associated with the Light and Space artists. However, when his works merged into their surroundings, he was less concerned with formal considerations than with capturing the transiency of the L.A.. sea and sky. Two cast polyester resin pedestal pieces, Untitled (Window, 1968) and Green Wedge,(1969) and a tall floor piece (Blue Wedge, 1970) virtually disappear at the top as they become thinner and fade from dark pigment to no pigment. De Wain Valentine, the acknowledged alchemist of the group, also made resin pieces (some of them vast and weighing several tons) during this period. In this exhibition, he is represented by Triple Disk Red Metal Flake—Black Edge (1966), a sensuous molded fiberglass reinforced acrylic piece with the speckled iridescent finish of a car, motorcycle, or boat. In fact, its gracefully rounded forms can allude to a series of breasts or the bows of three oncoming ships.
Helen Pashgian’s two small polyester and resin sculptures (both Untitled, 1968-69) have a complexity that belies their size. One, a murky crystal-ball shaped work reveals two cylindrical forms that cut through the piece. The other, a clear igloo-shaped work has two mirror-image half-spheres embedded at the top and near the bottom. Larry Bell’s cubes are magical. Placed in the center of the room, several of them reflect the works and the people that surround them. Others can also be seen as allusionistic, as vessels that capture the L.A. smog. Two are particularly arresting. The first is a small vacuum coated glass and chromium plated brass cube (1966) that has both bronze and turquoise vertical edges depending on where you stand. The second, Glass Box with Ellipses (1964), with oval mirrored areas allows you to see yourself and then look inside the piece and straight down for an illusion of infinite depth. Craig Kauffman used Plexiglas to create sensuous vacuum formed molded reliefs of intense colors with varying degrees of translucency. Spray-painted on the back, three of these acrylic and lacquer Untitled Wall Reliefs (1968) in seductive hues of green, orange, and blue were attached to the wall. Among the John McCracken pieces are two of his signature polyester and resin planks (Think Pink and Red Plank, both 1967) that combine seductive color and immaculate surface with minimalist rigor of form, while functioning both as paintings and sculpture.
It is important to note that while others in the Finish Fetish group showed in New York in the 1960s, McCracken and Bell were more often included in Minimalism surveys in New York and Los Angeles. It is perhaps not accidental, given Donald Judd’s friendship with Bell and his trips to L.A. that Judd, in the middle 1960s, began designing boxes and stacks using seductively colored Plexiglas. The result was works that easily could fit in with aspects of the Finish Fetish L.A. culture. Indeed, in reviewing a Judd exhibition, Rosalind Krauss observed that Judd’s works were both beautiful and illusionistic, properties that sharply transgress Judd’s own writings regarding what properties “specific objects” should have. Even more telling, Robert Smithson’s labeling of “uncanny materiality” to aspects of Judd’s oeuvre could easily be applied as a general description of the Primary Atmospheres exhibition. Indeed, perhaps the increasing use of plastics in New York eventually eroded some of the phenotypic differences between East and West Coast Minimalism, creating what James Meyer in his scholarly essay in “A Minimal Future?” (2004) referred to as a “Bicoastal Minimalism”.
It is indeed fortunate that concurrent with the Primary Atmospheres exhibition, there are three other Southern California artists exhibiting who relate either directly or indirectly to the David Zwirner show. In particular, the exhibition of John McLaughlin’s work at Greenberg Van Doren is highly informative regarding the evolution of the L.A. minimalist aesthetic. His hard-edge reductive paintings created a climate for L.A. Minimalism. McLaughlin progressively reduced his paintings to allow geometry and color to move from figure to ground, as line increasingly became a vehicle to explore space as pure form. One could argue that the de-materialization of McLaughlin’s painting from its constructivist roots in geometry of varied forms and color—his “Finish Fetish” phase, exemplified by Untitled, (1952) – leads to his “Light and Space” phase in the 1960s and early 1970s (#8, 1963). These largely black and white paintings synthesize Western Modernism and Eastern Philosophy. They resonate with the attempt by Irwin, Turrell, and Wheeler to make the boundaries of their images merge with their surroundings. In each case, the simplicity, clarity and self-discipline of the void creates a phenomenological experience that allows the observer, in McLaughlin’s terms, to learn more about himself than the artist.
The other two L.A. exhibits deserving of attention are Laddie John Dill at Nyehaus and Ron Davis at the Franklin Parrasch Gallery. In Dill’s exhibition, we can observe the evolution from his horizontal and vertical pure “light sentences” affixed to the wall to his glass, sand, and light floor installations similar to the one at David Zwirner Gallery. Light Sentence (1973) was inspired by the changing daylight during an average day in Taos, New Mexico. While his light and sand works parallel Sonnier’s light pieces and Smithson’s dirt, gravel, mirror, and glass installations, his light sentences anticipate the fluorescent light pieces of Spencer Finch who sets about simulating the light at a specific time and place. The most dramatic piece in the Nyehaus show isDeath in Venice (1969), a large floor piece on the second floor of the gallery that calls to mind the canyon fires Dill experienced in the California landscape. The red, yellow and blue neon and argon tubes lying on and under the sand create an aura of smoldering heat.
Ron Davis’s monochromatic pastel-colored, shaped canvases have never been exhibited in New York. Of particular note are two works—the beautiful and majestic Big Orchid (1965), an angular pink painting in two sections and Bent Corner Slab (1965) a diamond-shaped green gold painting that is highly illusionistic with apparent folds in the canvas somewhat like Dorothea Rockburne’s work of the early 1970s. These “in-between” works are the beginning of Davis’ move from painter to object maker. Specifically, they anticipate his large geometrically shaped floor pieces (the Dodecagon Series) that use Finish Fetish materials of resin and fiberglass along with new technologies to trap the splatters and abstract forms of his expressionist brush strokes while maintaining the clarity of his high key colors.
These four exhibitions provide a nuanced view of Californian Minimalism that includes some of the most perceptually challenging, technically innovative, and downright beautiful works of the last fifty years. We still have much to learn about California’s cool recasting of New York’s cold Minimalism, but these shows provide a good place to start.