BARRY LE VA came into my life in fall 2002, my first semester of grad school, when I chose a large drawing by him as the subject for my lengthy final paper in Bruce Hainley’s art-criticism seminar. The drawing in question had been recently acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where it hung alongside works by On Kawara, Adrian Piper, Ree Morton, and Lecia Dole-Recio. I remember this because I had never spent so much time looking at a single work in a museum. Its title—Separates: Centers, Sections, and Segments: Joined and Overlaid, Separated and Exchanged in Place 1974—was anything but catchy. The drawing, with its almost-but-not-quite-symmetrical arrangement of graphic, quasi-grammatical black marks on pale-green paper, suggested a plan view, something architectural, musical, or choreographic—or, alternately, a math equation. Deliberate but stubborn, it refused to give away very much. The title provided some clues, but it could only get me so far. How could I write about this? I took the dare.
I was curious about the tidiness of this drawing in relation to other works by the artist that appeared more visceral, violent: layered installations of shattered glass, a row of meat cleavers chucked into a wall, a sound recording of Le Va running the length of a gallery at Ohio State University and crashing into the walls at full speed, every half minute, with clockwork brutality. Further research led me to the artist himself, an interview in his New York home studio, many subsequent phone conversations, and a few pieces of writing. Le Va could be as ornery and unyielding as his art, but he was always game for inquisition, which went both ways: Though his work could seem utterly indifferent to the viewer, the artist was in fact acutely interested in an intrepid beholder’s apprehension of its complex operations. His well-known fondness for detective fiction, and Sherlock Holmes in particular, is hardly surprising, given the puzzles he put into space; Godard’s Alphaville (1965), the short stories of J. G. Ballard, the scores of John Cage, and avant-garde jazz were additional topics of fervent interest.
Born in Long Beach, California, in 1941, Le Va studied architecture and math before he turned to art. He graduated with an MFA from Otis Art Institute (now Otis College) in Los Angeles in 1967. The following year, Le Va received the Young Talent Grant from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and promptly left the city for a two-year teaching stint in Minneapolis before finally landing in New York, which remained his home until his death this past January. In November 1968, before he had ever had a solo exhibition, his work was featured in Artforum in an essay by Jane Livingston. It also appeared on the cover: a detail of Distribution Piece, Particles and Strips, 1968, a prototypical work in which a sheet of felt is systematically atomized and dispersed across a hardwood floor. (Ironically, the faculty at Otis had prohibited its display just a year earlier.) Le Va’s notion of sculpture was in its time radical in ways that are hard to overstate—within a year, Richard Serra’s splashed lead and Robert Smithson’s dirt and mirrors would also grace this magazine’s cover—activating the gallery floor and pushing the work to the limits of its architectural container, even as his signature materials (felt, broken glass, chalk dust, mineral oil, thin sections of wooden dowel) often flirted with their own disappearance.
In 1969, Le Va joined his like-minded peers in the scene-setting and controversial exhibition “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials,” held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and curated by Marcia Tucker and James Monte, which helped put post-Minimalism on the map. (The following year, he was included in Kynaston McShine’s “Information” show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; subsequently, he would be the subject of retrospectives organized by Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon Art Gallery in 1988 and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia in 2005.) At the Whitney, Le Va contributed Omitted Section of a Section Omitted, 1968–69, consisting of a perfectly thin wedge of flour dust on the floor between a museum wall (leaving a narrow path to a service closet) and Bruce Nauman’s video corridor, which it provocatively treated as part of the architecture. Despite their swaggering sprawl, it is easier to imagine Le Va’s early works getting vacuumed up or swept into a dustbin at the end of an exhibition than to picture them ending up in someone’s collection. Thankfully, most of them were saved, though many will inevitably change when reconstituted; two such pieces, including Omitted Section, were on view at Dia: Beacon, New York, for a major survey exhibition at the time of Le Va’s death.
Over time, Le Va’s production took on greater mass and volume, featuring more enduring materials like cast Hydrostone and neoprene, perhaps in compensation for the fugitive quality of the early work. His subject matter became weightier, too, alluding to the ruins of German bunkers, metabolic chemistry, and medical architecture, among other things—all intimating a gnawing sense of mortality. The Dia survey was an overdue acknowledgment of his significance to the development of sculpture after Minimalism, situating his art in close proximity to that of his friends and rivals in the project of pushing sculpture to its physical limits while activating the bodies of the artist and viewer alike. What were once provocations are now accepted as givens, with the diffuse residue of this generational tussle now carrying the weight of history.
Michael Ned Holte is an independent curator who teaches in the art program at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.