Barry Le Va: Accumulated Vision

by Donald Goddard

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Continuous and Related Activities; Discontinued by the Act of Dropping, 1967/90.

Ritual, specifically in religion and politics, is more determinedly aesthetic than art, but the aesthetics of art are more complicated, less bound to certainty. Adolf Hitler might otherwise have become an artist. Politics and art are nonetheless pushed in something like the same direction, as Barry Le Va's work indicates. Everything is subject to organization, which is impossible to escape. Nothing exists outside structure, there is no end to it--which is itself a contradiction--no matter how completely one might promulgate, perceive, or embrace randomness.

Structure is far more complex than anything that can be contained within the boundaries of a painting or a sculpture on a pedestal, and Le Va, beginning with his early distribution pieces of late 1960s, extended its reach, or desired and was subjected to its extension, more purposefully and multifariously than any other contemporary artist. Pushing art beyond the object began with Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, or perhaps nascently in the collages of Cubism, then resumed with Yves Klein and the New Realists and the Conceptualists of Le Va's generation. Le Va did it literally, dropping and throwing materials with various properties--glass, felt, ball bearings--on the floor, blowing powders into big interior spaces, shattering glass sheets with bullets, slashing a line of meat cleavers into a wall. No more objects. No longer the special space in which the artist's, and the viewer's, ego is held in suspension. Except that the objects and the space are all still there, in ruled fragments. The works exist as far as the fragments are thrown, or shattered, or blown.

They spread and accumulate at the same time, with apparent randomness and directed by the artist, within his purview. He is, or we are, responsible for everything within that purview, the dropping, the blowing, the shooting, the slashing. The appearance of no limits is contradicted by the limits of how far we can throw, or see, or think. At the end of the 1960s Le Va did a performance piece in which he ran the length of a room into a wall, waited 30 seconds, ran back the other way into the opposite wall, waited 30 seconds, ran again and so on over and over again for three hours, at which point he was exhausted, bloody, and bruised. Only the sounds of his running steps, his banging against the walls, and the 30-second pauses are heard or experienced in the exhibition, from speakers at either end of a long ramp.

Continuous and Related Activities; Discontinued by the Act of Dropping, 1967/90.
Felt and glass, 26' x 20'.
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee.

In work of the 1970s and into the '80s, Le Va seems to take more precise control. Shapes are no longer irregular or molecular, the result of breakage or stress. The spaces depicted in drawings and used as sculptural sites are more recognizably rooms, gallery rooms. Everything is geometricized, into circles, rectangles, other angles, straight lines. The need to go beyond the given now encompasses the orbit of one's own actions, which had been engaged in the earlier work. At first Le Va indulged in defiant acts of measurement, attempting to exhaust the possibilities of defining the rectangle of a drawing or the space of a room. The instrument in drawings and sculpture is a "walking stick," rather than a running person or speeding bullet, that moves about the space in a zigzag pattern hoping, perhaps, to diagram the interior of a perimeter that already represents an irreducible diagram. A segment of the stick is deposited each time it lands, thus creating, in the sculpture, a third-dimensional picture of itself, something like a pencil that leaves its lead behind in the act of writing. The long, horizontal drawing called Walking Stick has three equal sections in which the zigzag pattern moves into the center of the picture in the first section, does so somewhat more tentatively in the second, and confines itself mostly to the perimeter in the last--a kind of surrender.

Circular Network: Objects 1971, Area 1972, Activities 1973, 1971-73/1988/2005.
Wood and cast concrete, 35' diameter.
Courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York.
On back wall, below: Walking Stick, 1973.
Pencil and ink on paper,
36" x 120".
Collection Parasol Press, Ltd.

Accumulated Vision: Series II, 1977/2005.
Wood, 28' x 27'.
Courtesy of the Artist.
What the zigzag lines suggest, however, is perspective and the illusion, at least, of moving beyond the rectangle. From this point the field of thought, of possibilities, becomes increasingly complicated, as indicated in the title, for instance, of Corner Sections [of 5 four-sided boundaries] Separately Projected from 18 Positions of Viewing, a drawing of 1977. Now there are lines of vision that seem to extend beyond the given space, which in the sculptures are always real spaces and in the drawings based on real spaces. Le Va is describing the coordinates of one's existence, which are constantly changing and therefore diagram a strangely contradictory structure that is both definitive (in form, as lines and shapes) and confusing, or indecipherable, or decipherable only provisionally. Accumulated Vision: Series II, 1977/2005, even so, has an almost lyrical quality. Varying lengths of plain wood square shafts are arranged on the floor and walls along with short pieces of dowel on the floor (like those left by the walking stick) in a way that could be directing one's vision outside as well as inside the space. So the room opens up gently, but the walls are there, and it is really impossible to know what might be outside them, whatever glimpses one might have of the building's plan or of the actual commotion in the street or adjoining rooms.

Drawing Interruptions, Blocked Structures #6 (Combined in Two Perspectives), of 1981-82, with its thrusting diagonals, dense rows of circles, articulated edges and corners, and indelibly interlocking elements, is more aggressive at commandeering space, but by such degrees also more opaque. One is backed into corners or sent off in directions that do not connect, no matter how many connections seem to exist. The perspectives travel, as one of the exhibition's wall texts notes, "from points that are both inside and outside of the space," so that ultimately the vanishing point is as much in the viewer, or artist, as in any other place.

Drawing Interruptions: Blocked Structures #6 (combined in two perspectives), 1981-82.
Ink, graphite, paint stick, and charcoal, with vellum on paper, 48" x 72".
Collection Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Dodds, III, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
[Barry Le Va, Interruptions on 1st CD]

The sense of being inside is increasingly a sense of being inside the body, initially in beautiful large collages that are built up on surfaces of yellow ink with cutout geometric and organic shapes in heavy paper, darker forms on the original field of light. These are followed in the late 1980s by a series of drawings called "Institutional Templates," in which the inside is that of a hospital (Le Va had spent some time in one for open-heart surgery) diagrammed as a series of rooms and annotated with the kinds of abbreviations used by doctors for medical instructions and diagnoses. Inside this plan, Le Va carries with him Samuel Beckett, represented by ellipses, and Thomas Bernhard, by cone-shapes--Beckett, whose protagonist in his play Endgame, sitting all the while in his chair, speaks of "here," inside his room, and "there," outside the window, and Bernhard, whose protagonist in his novel The Woodcutters reconstructs his own life and those of everyone around him while "sitting in the wing-chair" at a literary dinner party.

No sculptures from this series are in the exhibition, though one did appear at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York in January (Dissected Situations: Arrangements According to Functions (Diagnostics), 1989), and in that work the "templates," as in some giant board game, can be, and inevitably are, rearranged, on the floor and on the wall, representing the two planes of our existence. That was always the case with Le Va's sculpture, but now chaos has been transformed into a perplexingly playful, ultimately inconclusive, and increasingly formalized process of rationalization. The antic behavior of materials has accumulated into large metallic spheres and heavy wooden channels and patterns that can be moved around to solve a puzzle that has never been clearly posed. Still, there is a puzzle.

Bunker Coagulation (Pushed from the Right), 1995/2005. Cast black hydrastone and neoprene, 11' x 24' x 20 1/8". Courtesy of the Artist. On back wall, left: Study for 1 Sculpture Occupying 2 Areas "CDE" (Reading Beckett, Reading Bernhard) #2, 1991. Graphite, oil stick, and cardboard, glued to paper. 2 sheets, 38" x 50" each. Nolan/Eckman Gallery, New York. Middle: Study for 1 Sculpture Occupying 2 Areas Institutional Templates: Readings from Above, AFIB (4 Places Thinking Bernhard), 1991. Graphite and oil stick on paper and cardboard, glued to paper. 2 sheets, 37 1/2" x 50" each. Courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York. Right: Study for Sculpture in 2 Parts. Dissected Situations Arranged in Order of Functions (Path/Surg) Variation 3, 1989. Pencil and ink on paper. 2 sheets, 38" x 50" each. Nolan/Eckman Gallery, New York.

Accumulation becomes coagulation in works of the mid-1990s, in a group of drawings and a massive floor sculpture called Bunker Coagulation (Pushed from the Right). A cluster of 50 cylindrical sections is squeezed between three larger cylinders and three long box shapes, from which extend two roomlike plan outlines and three U-shapes. The large shapes derive from Le Va's consideration of the Nazi bunkers built along the northern coast of France during World War II. Rather than scattered or thrust outwardly, everything is pressed together, a body protecting itself. This is felt from the outside, the larger shapes pushing inward to keep the smaller circles from flowing beyond the configuration. One is also aware of looking outward from this massive blackness, the bunkers, seeing the world only narrowly, as through a mask (Le Va had done series of drawings on African masks earlier), and conversely being falsely hidden within the world.

9g--Wagner, 2005.
Polyester resin and rubber-coated MDF, 31' x 36' x 25'.
Courtesy of the Artist

9g--Wagner, created for this exhibition, occupies a gallery that rises from the ground floor through the second floor. The overall shapes cover the wall and floor like a giant black shadow and are composed of smaller interior shapes suggesting parts of bodies and various scientific and architectural symbols. It is a reconstruction from the evidence that is available, putting the pieces back together at something like an archaeological site or a scene of disaster. There is no color or movement but all that there can be in this mirage, with the image on the wall rising out of the image on the floor, each reflecting the other, imperfectly.

From the window of the train on the way from New York to Philadelphia, where the exhibition is, streets lined with houses stretch in every direction. Spread out on separate lots or crammed together in continuous rows, in relative wealth or poverty, these collections of rooms and lives have emerged and decayed along the lines created for them, all of which return to a single point in our consciousness.

Donald Goddard © 2005

The exhibition was on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 118 South 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-3289.

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