An Interview with Dewain Valentine
KURT VON MEIER
When you were a kid . . .
When I was a kid I used to collect rocks. I had a friend who was a stone polisher, and he would polish them for me. I think the interest in transparency and such goes way back — I was in junior high school then. Let's see, that would make it about nineteen fifty ... fifty ... Anyway, I was making things. I did a lot of polyester jewelry—cast, transparent things. It's really tied up with a lot of funny and funky things that go way back.
What happened about the time you got into your earlier big pieces of sculpture like the fiberglass discs? They are opaque, but is that because of the material itself? Also the colors are deep or intense and you use metallic pigments that are necessarily opaque rather than transparent.
I think it was just because when those were made (like Blue Tandem, 1966) it was impossible to cast things of any size. I wanted them to be big so I had to use fiberglass. The material of these newer pieces wasn't even available yet—or at least there wasn't enough crude knowledge about polyester casting to accomplish anything of size, say over a foot square. The "shells" or disc-shaped pieces were coated with polyester; but they've just developed it within the last year to where we can cast effectively on a more ambitious scale.
What were the problems? What kind of developments were needed?
Well, in the setting-up or hardening process the material would get too hot, and would tend to crack—from the heat generated by the chemical reaction.
And I guess the bigger the piece, the more heat?
The piece in the studio now is the largest ever cast in one pour. It is six feet high. But the new ones will be eight feet.
Could you outline the process—how the resin works?
It is an exothermic reaction between methyl ethyl ketone peroxide, which is the catalyst, and cobalt or manganese leoleanate, which is in the resin. It is an oxidation between the peroxide and the cobalt which, if you mixed them together directly, would explode.
What keeps them from exploding?
The quantities—and also one is already mixed into the plastic, or resin. But the quantities are such that the chemical reaction just makes the resin heat, and then set up. Sort of like jello-self-cooking art.
What are some of the practical processes?—lt might be valuable to outline the key steps in actually making a piece. What do you do?
You get it in a drum, it's liquid. The molds are made usually from a mock-up of the piece. If the shape is curvilinear, or if the piece has any undercutting or such, the molds are made from fiberglass and plastic. I usually make a mock-up with a polyurethane foam because it's light and easy to shape. It's also relatively expensive, but it is sympathetic with the polyester; you can put polyester right over it where you can't with Styrofoam. or some other materials. So with this you make a pattern, for lack of a better word, from which to make the mold proper. When the fiberglass or plastic mold is pulled off the pattern, then it is ready for casting the finished piece or pieces.
If they're so compatible, how do you pull them apart?
You put a separator between them — a polyvinyl alcohol separating agent. So you start with a polyurethane base brought to the rough shape; then this is covered with polyester (with which it forms a sympathetic bond) and this pattern is finished precisely; this is then sprayed with the separating agent or mold-release, which is the polyvinyl alcohol. The resulting mold is then readied for casting the final—the actual—piece of sculpture.
If the finished pieces are solid polyester, how much do they weigh?
The big ones . . well, the six-foot high ones weigh about a thousand pounds. The largest ones will weigh around 7,500 pounds.
Are there any particular problems in transporting or shipping them apart from the sheer practicalities—I mean, do they crack or anything?
They don't tend to crack. Once they set-up, they're pretty solid, and virtually insoluble. Real permanent art. For transport, it is just a matter of packing them properly, because the surface is delicate in the sense that it could scratch.
But if that happens, can you resurface the piece?
Sure. You can just resand the surface if it gets scratched up, and then repolish—almost infinitely, until the material is finally worn away. Right now I'm trying to find some other kind of material with which to coat them, so they can be placed outside. Protecting the surface from weather is still a problem. The polyester sometimes tends to abrade. And when they get scratched up they don't look like much. You get involved in looking at scratches instead of really working to get into the piece. The surface on these recent solid-cast pieces is really ultimate. It has to be ultimate, so it doesn't become important. Not that it isn't important—of course it is important, but so is the whole piece—right into its deep, clear guts.
What about your palette, as it were, your range of colors?
It's unlimited. The pigment is mixed right into the liquid resin. You can add any hue, or opacity, or get special qualities, such as with metal flake ...
That's what is possible, but what about your colors?—ln the recent, solid pieces there are blues and purples—very subtle, thin colors.
Not quite colorless, but very clear colors, yes, subtle colors . .. The subtler the color the more interior illumination you get.
What do you mean by "interior illumination?"
Well, with the very light colors you're able to get inside the piece more than with a darker color which tends to block off sight. I'm involved with seeing from one side to the other so that you become completely involved with both that inside space and the outside space or surface—where most sculpture visually stops.
How does the density or hue affect the reflection and refraction of light, so that when you look inside a piece . . . ?
Certain colors like reds and yellows tend to cut down diffraction because they absorb light—especially sunlight—rather than letting it play, bounce around inside, spreading out the light rays to get prismatic, spectral colors inside. But the blues and purples let this happen, particularly in the new ring-shaped pieces. But when you get very much density of pigment, varying somewhat with the hue, then. it just cuts out the light and you can't see these things happen. The lighter blues, the pinks and such tend to be the most successful—the very light yellows are good, sometimes the fluorescent yellows also spread the light, or let it spread into spectral effects.
Why, for example, even though you can see through the piece, isn't it really "transparent?" There seems to be a sort of range or space in which you are stopped inside. You still can see through to the other side, but it doesn't happen naturally or automatically as it would with a clear glass pane. It is almost as though you had to find your way visually. Clearly the pigmentation in the resin has a lot to do with it. But I have a feeling that it would happen too, no matter how subtle or delicate the color.
That's true, you don't really stop in the sculpture. You slow down—it just kind of slows you down as the density of color accumulates and as you pick up reflections from the other side. The only thing that may stop you is the other side. But you get there by going through the piece of sculpture rather than by walking around it.
This reminds me of Marcel Duchamp referring to the Large Glass as "un retard en verre," a glass delay. But in contrast to other (and most earlier) sculpture that you have to walk around, or at least see around, your pieces also seem to possess a quality of instantaneousness.
Yes, there is a sort of instant perception. Not that one can't spend time looking at the pieces, but it is easier to see what is there. It's more clear —well, I always think it is more clear anyway—in sculpture than it is in painting. This is especially true in respect to painting that deals with illusionistic space, for that involves an effect specifically on the eyeballs. Sculpture tends to work more on other balls.
The concept of a kind of instant perception interests me for reasons not particularly derived from art nor even necessarily related to it: field theories, the virtual instantaneousness of electronic circuitry, McLuhan. But could this aspect of instantaneousness also be tied in with your preference for fairly simple, almost geometrical shapes?
No, I think that the simplicity of the shapes is a result of sorting-out rather than the result of looking for a specific shape or kind of shape ... of aiming toward any shape for a specific reason. I think it's a result of where I've been—not something I'm going toward. Does that make sense? I certainly wasn't concentrating on simple shapes (or some theoretical reason, like to make a shape that would be easily perceptible. But naturally these shapes are the result of sorting them out from other possibilities .. . of limiting and eliminating.
I was looking into a couple of those rings the other day with Polaroid glasses—you know, just a pair of polarized sunglasses—and it was really fantastic. I'm going to do some serious looking at them with polarized light, which might lead to some special shapes too.
Might these also be concerned with the idea of getting inside a piece—physically as well as visually?
Well, the arch-shaped, big, new pieces are made to be walked through. The smaller rings are involved with this kind of thing too, in that they contain an accessible physical space. You could actually stick your head In the center of the ring. But this kind of space isn't any more important than the inside, visual space.
As for the surface, you could almost say that the more finely it was finished, in a way the less important it would be as a visual barrier between the physical and the visual space.
You may be able to see through the surface, but it is still there. It's a nice paradox. I really like the idea that the more ultimate the outside or surface skin, the more one is able to get involved with the inside. And this really means becoming involved with the total piece of sculpture rather than with just the skin. Surface has always concerned sculpture—but surface as the skin of a conception. The outside has been the important thing; it hasn't mattered too much what is on the inside.
Then it is the combination of newly developed materials and techniques that seems to have made this possible. Not only did the means become accessible—they also had to become acceptable for the medium of sculpture. And this really only happened in the 20th century.
The only thing I can think of that might relate to the kind of transparency I am interested in is a pre-Columbian rock crystal carving of a skull. There were also some stone rings which relate to the shape of my polyester counterparts. I've never seen them, but I had them described to me—again pre-Columbian pieces, and of about the same size as my rings. Arman was telling me about them—apparently they had an opening cut out of one side though. And they were of opaque stone, not clear, like the skulls.
As for more recent sculpture, whose work would you cite as the most important for your own in terms of sources and influences or inspiration?
Brancusi was very important I think, but just for the formal considerations—his great concern with formal problems in the work. I suppose too the tightness of surface in Brancusi was important as well. But I think really more important, in ways, were people like Robert Morris, Donald Judd and John McCracken. Especially people right around here and "on the scene," like Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston and Larry Bell, in addition to McCracken. These are the guys I first met who were so interested in using a very tight surface—one that was almost obliterated, it was so meticulously clean—so self-conscious, or unselfconscious, depending upon where you want to get off. For example, in McCracken's early pieces from 1965 and 1966 there was already this tight quality. They were cleanly shaped—made of wood, and then later fiberglass, with polished automobile lacquer finishes—very tight, very finely, beautifully finished surfaces.
How about Judd and Morris? Did you know them when you first started making sculpture in Los Angeles, or did you meet them later?
I met Bob Morris at the Dwan Gallery here in Los Angeles, but I didn't meet Judd until later. Still, their importance was from formal considerations —from knowing their work rather than from knowing them. A couple of pieces in particular were important for me, like the large grey ring by Morris with lights at the ends of each semicircle, and the piece Judd had in the Whitney Annual last year—rectangular with rounded corners, and diamond shaped in cross-section.
But could you count either of these pieces as direct influences?
Once you see something, it's always stacked back there. And, oh boy, they're both really beautiful pieces.
Both of those pieces have truly architectural scale. But there is still another way to "get inside" your sculpture—that is with sound. I noticed it first with the big disc-shaped pieces from 1965-66.
Yes, they have a nice, resonating, drum-like sound. The newer pieces have a nice sound too, but more like the ting of glass or ceramic, They don't make that much sound, but there are possibilities: now it is a quality, but not as important a quality as it was with the discs. There you could get Involved with the inside because of the hollow construction. That is really the beginning of my interest in the interiors—making pieces which seemed to be solid but really weren't. I became aware that they were just shells, full of space.
Then this also relates to the problem of so-called positive and negative space in sculpture.
Yes, the discs look like very positive spatial statements. But they really aren't because the insides are just air, which you can tell from the sound. And the actual "piece of sculpture" is just a membrane, the material covering that interior space. I guess sheet metal sculpture had been that before I made the discs, but I was never keenly aware of it. On the other hand, there is something about working with molded shell forms which makes you become very much aware that they are full of air, that they contain this interior space.
Have you been influenced at all by the spread here of Eastern, i.e., Oriental thought, particularly Japanese art and Zen poetry or philosophy?
I think not, basically. My sculpture comes really much more out of the Western tradition—the materials, the techniques, and most of the attitudes are all Western. But I've thought about it. Maybe I tend to—well, not reject, but to sort out most of the Eastern notions, somehow not feeling that they are in fact my own or that they could really have that much to do with me. I don't think that any such interests ever got to the work—but who ever really knows? Still, there are some very particular things that have happened on the West Coast in relation to my work. Mostly it is a kind of freedom that exists here, partly because of its lack of direct communication with New York and the European art tradition. This makes it possible for the artist to travel in some pretty esoteric directions without any of the traditional automatic limitations and prohibitions. By that I mean I don't think it would have been possible for Larry Bell, for instance, to have grown up in New York and to have made his glass boxes in quite the same way. But these WeSt Coast factors. are not necessarily artistic considerations; they often have nothing to do with art at all, much less being concerned with what art should be. Even so, they may be made by artists. I wish I could be more specific about it, because I have some very specific feelings about this . . . For example, Frank Stella is very particular about art—like, he has a very exact notion of what art is ...
Isn't this a trait found frequently among New York-centered artists?
. . . And there seems to be these distinct limitations about what art can be . . what he will even entertain as the possibility of being art . . . But I think it is a more general reflection of an attitude in New York—that of having specific limitations and definitions of possibilities, and more or less fixed ideas of what things are .. .
Or what they can not be, and still be art?
What can be or can't be art really doesn't exist so much here. Anything is possible. You can be as esoteric as you want. I find many more people here who are working outside of (or through additional) ideas of what art is, and might be, than there are in New York City. But it's true, there are not as many people working here.
Nevertheless, you are here. And you have been working here in Los Angeles for—what—at least the last three years or so? Thus isn't it possible that there are some special qualities about L.A. that might have affected your work?
I think that L.A. is less chauvinistic than most places. It has less to be chauvinistic about. Sure, it's plastic—L.A, is the city of the modern world so far, and that world is going to be plastic.
Not only the celluloid of Hollywood or the plastic of your sculpture or Rudi Gernreich's clothes. L.A. is a city whose effective population is not in terms of people but in terms of cars. We know, Detroit makes them, but the car as a phenomenon made LA., and California: from the pattern of cities to the destruction of farmland to the design of freeways; and the car as a work of art really started in L.A. There were the Hot Rodders right after the Second World War, and the Kustom Kars of George Barris, or the incredible design mentality of Ed (Big Daddy) Roth. And a lot of L.A. artists, such as Bengston and Irwin in particular, have been very big on cars.
Well that is where I got started using lacquers and being concerned with surfaces. My daddy used to own a garage and I painted cars for him. That's where I learned to use lacquer. Also I used to build cars, and work on hot rods. I never actually owned a hot rod, because I didn't get too interested in them. But custom cars were my thing.
Did you "sculpt" them or what? I mean, did you use molds or metal filler?
Mostly lead fill, or bronze, and then a lot of welding. That was before they started using plastics or fiberglass.
What did you have?
Oooh, I had a little '40 Ford coupe, a '40 Ford convertible, and two '40 Ford trucks. I really loved '40 Fords, man, just loved them. The little convertible was all stock except that things were all cleaned up beautifully. There was just enough leading, trunk and hood, with a padded top, pleat and roll inside in red and white.
Did you do the upholstery yourself?
How many coats of lacquer did it have?
Oh, god, you know—twenty-three coats, each of them rubbed and polished in between—beautiful!
Some of those cars got lacquer jobs of—what was the maximum number of coats?
We would usually do about twenty to twenty-five coats. But some of the guys used to surface them finally with a couple of coats of clear gloss lacquer. They don't do that so much anymore—it was really garish. Just wonderful! It looked like patent leather—just knocked your eye out—blinded you.
I had a Model A '31 Ford pickup truck that was fixed up and painted metallic purple. What color were your Fords?
I had a metallic black. It was a dark metallic lacquer with graphite in it.
Like a dark primer?
It was darker than primer. It was really a black, but it had this flake in it—really a groovy color, smoky black. The pickup I had wasn't so much. And the convertible was just a nice cream color, with a black top.
Did you ever have a green car? There is a sort of metallic apple green that is really an L.A. color.
I had a green car, but it wasn't a good color, really. It was one of those gold-flake and maroon '49 Fords, with the gold in the green. That is when I learned to weld. It started the whole trip. Then when I was in high school I worked in boat shops, and that is when I started using plastics, working on fiberglass boats.
Were those boat shops here in L.A.?
No, in Colorado.
They don't have any ocean in Colorado.
No, but there are a lot of -lakes around that country, and a lot of power boats.
But did L.A. interest you at all at that time?
Oh, of course, man. I read every hot rod book I could get my hands on—are you kidding?
That was really an L.A. thing, then.
Sure, it was the capital. I knew about everything Barris ever did. Custom Car magazine was where I first saw a Carson fold-down, padded top. So I had to build a padded, fold-down, Carson-style top for my '40 Ford convertible. It was really nice.
And what ever happened to these cars?
I sold them for fantastic prices. That is where I made my money—from buying and selling cars.
Claes Oldenburg is still hip on the Chrysler Airflow. Now that is really a classic taste.
But then I saw a car that tops that: a De Tomasso Mangusta. There's no reason for me to ever build a car if I could drive one of those. That's really it. God, it's fantastic. I saw one on the road driving out here this summer and almost had a wreck. An unbelievable car. Really, really a piece of sculpture.
This interview appeared in the pages of Artforum, (May 1969). Here is a copy of the cover of that edition.