Barry Le Va, whose ground art has defied borders, dies at 79


Barry Le Va, an artist whose sculptures included arrangements of ephemeral materials like felt and flour spread across the floor and, more flamboyantly, works involving meat grinders, bricks and even his own body, died on January 24 in hospice care in the Bronx. He was 79 years old.

The cause was congestive heart failure, according to the David Nolan Gallery, which has represented his work since 1989.

Mr. Le Va (pronounced luh-VAY) was a member of the post-minimalist generation that emerged in the late 1960s. Partly in reaction to the sleek metals of minimalism, post-minimalists minimized or completely abandoned objects of finished art, turning instead to performance, earthwork, video and process art.

Mr. Le Va has worked in the art process mode, with artists Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier, Lynda Benglis, Alan Saret and Dorothea Rockburne. They started their careers working with temporary installations which were re-performed at each exhibition. This would be Mr. Le Va’s practice throughout his career.

Tall, bald, sizable, and with a rocky voice, Mr. Le Va might be intimidating in person at first. His manners were marked by friendly imperiousness and skepticism, with a hint of misanthropy. He might be charming, but he was happy when a critic compared him to Colonel Kurtz, the army officer, played by Marlon Brando, who becomes a thug in the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film “Apocalypse Now” .

Artistically, Mr. Le Va has been influenced by boundary-pushing Fluxus artists like Allison Knowles and George Brecht and sometimes by painters like Oyvind Fahlstrom and Roberto Matta, whose work involved endless detail. He also admired the sequential action of the comics.

Jazz aficionado and admirer of the dense writing of Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, Mr. Le Va wanted his work to engage and disorient his viewers – to present them with an overabundance of information and material but without a fixed point of view.

Having been drawn to dance and theater as a student, he sought to make art that “was not static” but was rather “in flux” as he put it in a video interview. last year at an exhibition of his work. at Dia Beacon in Beacon, NY

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Mr. Le Va was in some ways a radical sculptor of radical sculptor, one who put the conceptual and the physical in an unusually equal balance. He made his first temporary ground-bound pieces in college, calling the horizontality a revelation that had prompted him to destroy all of his previous works. He used materials for pedestrians including felt, ball bearings, paper towels, mineral oil, wooden dowels, chalk, iron oxide and flour.

In the early years, a typical Le Va might involve felt in various states – thick rolls, or windrows cut into small rectangles, streamers, or small shards – all accented by clusters of silver ball bearings that it spread on the felt like a second. organizational system. At least one of these pieces was discarded by museum concierges after it was installed.

As he said of his early work in Dia’s interview, “looking like a work of art was bad.”

His materials later became more substantial, sometimes including black blocks of poured hydrocale, light plaster, which resulted in arrangements that resembled austere architectural models. The addition of shiny aluminum spheres on raised channels suggested an enlarged part of a pinball machine. He called his efforts pieces of “distribution” or “scattering,” although “the art of scattering” had become the popular label, a term he didn’t like.

“The art of scattering is something invented by art magazines,” he says.

Mr. Le Va wanted to engage viewers so that they could peruse a work, view it from different angles and, like detectives at a crime scene, reconstruct the mental and physical processes that had shaped it. (He admired Sherlock Holmes.) Mr. Le Va’s viewer was so essential that he only made sculptures for public exhibition, never in his studio, adapting them to the spaces of art galleries or museums where they would be. presented.

He drew endlessly in his studio, starting with sketchbooks and progressing to huge drawings that could match the actual scale of the finished sculpture. The drawings have been compared to scripts or musical scores. The titles of his pieces often reflected his process, such as “Equal Quantities: Placed or Dropped In, Out, and On in Relation to Specific Boundaries”, from 1967.

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Some works were protracted arcane puzzles that took time to make and time to think. Others were more obvious, instantaneous, and even violent, such as the one consisting of several meat grinders thrown and lodged in a patch of wall or floor. His pieces of flat glass were also compressed, in which sheets of glass, stacked one or more at a time, were crushed with a hammer after each addition.

Mr. Le Va used his own body as material, violently, with “Impact Run Velocity Piece,” an audio work he performed once – and recorded – at Ohio State University in 1969. Here he repeatedly ran at full speed in opposing walls. of a gallery until he is unable to continue. The recording was then played in the open gallery, letting visitors deduce its actions from the sound alone: ​​the footsteps, the impact and the slowing of the pace.

He allowed 30 seconds for each race. In an interview, he said he continued for an hour and 45 minutes (over 200 sprints), when friends ended the performance fearing for his health. The recorded piece is in the collection of the Center Pompidou in Paris.

In contrast, some of Le Va’s works were overtly gentle, even serene. A particularly beautiful example, from 1968 to 1969, consisted entirely of chalk dust. (It was recreated for the Dia exhibition.) The material, gathered in dunel-shaped drifts, looked like interior earthwork. He was swept up and dumped at the end of the show this month.

Barry Edward Le Va was born December 28, 1941 in Long Beach, California, the only child of Muriel (McCullinan) and Arthur C. Le Va Jr. His mother was a teacher; his father owned a clothing store and imbued his son with an appreciation for fabrics and style. Mr LeVa rose to fame for his ubiquitous Borsalino hat, well-cut jackets and the occasional trekking poles. (For his felt sculptures, he used only 100% wool, produced by a German factory.)

Mr. Le Va once said that the greatest influence on his work was watching his mother make her own clothes, lay paper patterns on fabric on the floor, and cut around the edges.

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Between 1960 and 1967, Mr. Le Va attended three art schools: California State University, Long Beach; the Los Angeles College of Arts; and Otis College of Art & Design (formerly Otis Art Institute), where he obtained a BA and MA in Fine Arts.

He first studied architecture and mathematics but turned to art, focusing on painting and then sculpture. In 1968, after a visit to his studio, Jane Livingston, curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was impressed enough to write an article about him in the November 1968 issue of Artforum, the leading contemporary art magazine. A piece of Le Va felt was depicted on the cover.

The Artforum article launched Mr. Le Va into a highly respected, if not very lucrative, career. He lived mainly on the sale of his drawings, which museums bought more often than his sculptures, although the glass pieces enjoyed a certain popularity.

Mr. Le Va’s work was included in “Anti-Illusion: Procedures / Materials,” a groundbreaking exhibition of process art at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1969. He moved to New York the following year. He had his first gallery exhibition in Cologne, Germany, at the Rolf Ricke Gallery; his first gallery exhibition in New York took place at the Bykert Gallery in 1972.

Mr. Le Va has focused on his art to the exclusion of many other things in his life. His first marriage, to Britta Schmücker, ended in divorce in 1975. In 2004 he married Lisa Rubinstein and they maintained separate residences. She survives him. He died at Calvary Hospice in the Bronx.

Throughout his career, he maintained a busy schedule of gallery and museum exhibitions in the United States and Europe, where most of his patrons lived. In a catalog for a 1973 exhibition of his work at the New Museum in Manhattan, this usually lonely man explained that his work was about “relationships” – the participation of the viewer.

“What you give the job, it gives you,” he said.


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