Los Angeles Letter: Avant-Garde Sculptor Harold Paris
ART INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE
LOS ANGELES LETTER - KURT VON MEIER
An installation of sculpture at the UCLA Student Center Grand Ballroom has established Harold Paris as among the foremost avant-garde sculptors in America. This exhibition marks his first one-man presentation in Southern California in several years, and is the first time that the direction of his most radical new sculpture has been substantially indicated. During the last three years Paris has turned from his earlier expressions in the media of fired clay or bronze to the rather less conventional materials of rubber, aluminum and plastics.
In contrast to the subtle richness of coloring in the earlier clay or bronze works, Paris restricts his dependence upon polychrome values to an extreme in the more recent pieces, by using only black, white and the cold neutral colors of aluminum or stainless steel. Yet within these limitations there is a remarkable variety and intensity of "coloristic" expression. It is almost as though the narrower range has provided him with the necessary visual facility for making his subtler and sophisticated statements all the more effective. The "Black and White" exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York (1963) might serve here as an historical point of reference. In his catalogue introduction, Ben Heller writes : "Artists are forever creating expanding horizons out of constricting situations. For some, black and white might have been initially a simplistic or reductive experience, but for all who dealt with these two colors at length this involvement became the means to the discovery of new problems and solutions, of new meanings and techniques." That exhibition contained no sculpture. Were it to be reconstituted today, however, it is clear that Harold Paris would provide the best example of an artist who has realized the " new meanings and techniques" and who has most fully sought out the "new problems and solutions" of black and white in terms of three-dimensional statements.
There are other ways in which Paris explores and expands the medium of sculpture: some pieces, with their carefully varied and contrasted textural qualities, shift our attention to the essentially tactile mode of sculptural perception. In a major piece still in progress, a " Pantomina" or room-environment structure, Paris further develops these implications of a new expanded and unified realm of aesthetic perception. The slick, cool, polished surface of white epoxy form is set against a warm black felt panel at one edge, and a burnished stainless steel plate at the other. Paris is one of the first contemporary sculptors to compose consciously in terms of surface temperatures. The relative temperatures of different walls are controlled and changed, and through the use of related electronic devices the dimension of sound is incorporated into the structure. Paralleling some of the ideas of Charles Mattox, Paris wires pieces or panels to produce programmed variable responses to the presence of different viewers. A light touch may cause the walls to squeak, while a punch may elicit a bellow or moan.
The Paris installation at UCLA was separate from the regular gallery, which was being readied for "The Expression of Gio Ponti", an exhibition of work by the Milanese architect-designer to be reviewed in a later Los Angeles letter. But actually this provided the Paris exhibition with an added significance: its installation in the Grand Ballroom of the UCLA Student Center initiated a new period of active collaboration between students and university staff. This concept, as strongly fostered by Chancellor Franklin Murphy, a longtime patron and supporter of the arts, provides added encouragement for the vital and youthful characteristics of the Los Angeles art scene.
The exhibition opening was blasted off by a combination of rock and roll bands including The City Lights, featuring the painter Lynn Foulkes on drums, Canned Heat, and the new group, Non-Sense, Ltd. This emphasized the aspect of total-environment which prompts an approach to the Paris sculpture as a scene or an installation rather than as an exhibition. Sequences of perception are controlled by a maze arrangement of walls, leading first into an area where several "miniature" pieces are encased. Then, through a stretched rubber-slit opening, another corridor focusses on an altar-like niche containing two large forms cast in the mold of Paris' bathtub, set side by side, and each supporting other more organic forms. As with the miniature pieces, seldom over six inches long, the " lifesize" niche forms combine the smooth and mechanical characteristics with the more vital and complex shapes. Here is another statement, in abstract terms, of the machine: human juxtaposition of Marcel Duchamp's Bride and Bachelor in the "Large Glass".
The maze-like installation leads to an enclosed courtyard, with walls draped in black polyethylene, in which stands one of the Paris "rooms" on a platform of inch-thick aluminum plates, measuring twelve by eight feet—a sort of super-scale version of the miniature pieces. This dramatic culmination suggests really architectural scale for some of Paris' conceptions. On the other hand, his sculptural qualities are impressively displayed even in the very small pieces (which are usually of cast plastic, or bent and contorted rubber, often encased by transparent plastic boxes, and mounted on aluminum or stainless steel blocks). It is a high tribute to the force and command of his artistic talent that on this miniature scale Paris is able to convey some or the same sense off truly monumental effect that the large piece achieves so powerfully. This work is tough and aesthetically demanding; its reduced means and apparent starkness create a disarming image of simplicity. It is among the purest and most effective sculpture being created today. With the completion of the more complex and compressed " Pantomina " room-environment project scheduled for exhibition early next year, Paris should establish this fact beyond question.
Two aspects that are combined in the sculpture of Harold Paris: the clean, tough visual simplicity, and the richly irregular organicism, separately form the stylistic focal points for several other sculptors recently exhibiting on the West Coast. The "precision aesthetic " is paramount in the work of Anthony Magar and Forrest Myers, presented in a two-man show at the Dwan Gallery. Within a self-imposed system of restraint and understatement, Myers' pieces bend into geometrically formed space puzzles. At first glance some works seem to be built up of separate, interlocking solid bands, like large-scale reminders of those friendship rings, or childhood chinese puzzles. The smaller grid structures are finished metal, depending for much of their visual excitement upon lighting and cast shadows. Myers' largest piece, with a blue and red polychrome finish creates a much more stable statement that nevertheless preserves some of the intrigue of the other works.
The most impressive single piece of the show in the spacious Dwan Galleries, was an extended beam construction by Magar that commanded the central area physically—and also with its purple and yellow pigmentation. In a previous exhibition at the Dwan, this interior space was dramatically punctuated by a suspended sculpture of Robert Grosvenor which stretched into space as an inverted cantilever, apparently defying gravity or visual logic. All three sculptors, Myers, Magar and Grosvenor, show with the Park Place Gallery in New York; they represent some of the brightest sculpture that is currently enjoying exhibition in the East and now on the West Coast, together with another Dwan-Park Place artist, Mark di Suvero. But di Suvero is also considered a West Coast artist; and indeed Myers was born in Long Beach, California, and built a top-eliminator dragster which he ran at Lion's Drag Strip before entering art school, then moving back to New York. Increasingly there are artists going in both directions, who sometimes stop to work on one coast for a particular show, and then move again across the country, as Grosvenor did earlier this year. Many Los Angeles and San Francisco sculptors still prefer to live and to work on the West Coast because of year-round working conditions, and to send their work back to New York galleries following exposure of some or all of it first to the burgeoning markets here. Some prominent West Coast men who have done this recently include Tony de Lap, John McCracken, Charles Mattox, Larry Bell, and Ed Kienholz. As a result of these cross-influences, stylistic distinctions between geographical extremes have tended to diminish considerably.
While there still may be characteristically different approaches, or subtle differences in attitude between, say, Los Angeles and New York artists, it is also generally true that there are greater stylistic disparities among the various artists within a given area, and correspondingly closer associations between some of them from various places—thus defying any strict correlation of style and location. For example, Bell, McCracken and de Lap have more in common with Donald Judd, Robert Morris or John Chamberlain than either of them do with Kienholz. But some general differences in approach still do seem to lend meaning to critical groupings such as the "Fetish Finish" or " L.A. Cool School" artists. These distinctions are far from categorical, but they help explain why both Myers and Magar are still "New York" and not "L.A." in some details. Solutions to formal or structural problems, such as the joining at an acute angle of two members that are square in cross-section (in one of the Myers " puzzles"), seem to result more from a certain practicality and expedience in making the thing, while preserving the concept, than from a someways typical L. A. obsession with precision. Quite possibly had the latter propensity been evident, the decision to use that kind of structural member in that kind of piece might very well not have been taken. Either way, the resulting character of the finished piece would have to be significantly altered, for finishing off the corners edge-toedge and plane-to-plane would almost involve the craft of a jeweller.
These are just the qualities that emerge in the recent work of Judy Gerowitz [aka: Judy Chicago], in the collections of small moveable metal pieces, grouped together on highly polished bases. The reduction in scale from her former works, such as " Rainbow Pickett", shown originally at the Rolf Nelson Gallery and then at the new Whitney Museum in New York, simply focuses our critical attention on an approach that was manifested already in the larger work as well. The small untitled sculptures of Gerowitz were included in a group show that inaugurated the new sumptuous quarters of the Rolf Nelson Gallery. Ranking for several years among the finest of galleries along La Cienega, the imposing and expansive space now promises to offer its fine group of artists an even more strategic and sympathetic setting for their work.
Celebrating the last show in the old gallery, Rolf Nelson presented sculptures, constructions and paintings by the N.E. Baxter Thing Co., Things and Services, "Anything Does It", lain Baxter, President, with the grateful assistance of Mr. John Friel (both of whom are Canadians from Vancouver, B.C.). Baxter is teaching art (and in a sense life) at the exciting new Simon Fraser University in Barnaby, British Columbia, near Vancouver. The work represents commentaries, in the form of works of art, on works of other well-known contemporaries. On the surface these are witty visual puns and take-offs, or put-ons. But most of the works also suggest deeper levels of meaning, involving a thorough understanding of the original works and an extraordinary " extension" of creativity. This was almost literally demonstrated by Baxter's extension of a painting by Frank Stella, constructed so that the original pentagonal canvas would fit precisely within Baxter's hollow pentagonal stretched canvas. There is a "Bagged Rothko", a soft version of a piece of sculpture by Donald Judd, and a Dan Flavin neon tube that hangs limply from its wall bracket. Each work, however, was carefully researched, and dimensions (if not media or materials) correspond accurately with the originals. The changes effected sometimes relentlessly follow the logic of the first creative conception to a ruthless extreme. A case in point is "AI field's A Into B", in which the "Big A" canvas has further stretched and shaped canvas elements added to the edge of the frame, transforming the "A" into a "B" and providing a powerful, quite original statement in itself, in addition to the wit of commentary and transformation. As an additional concept Baxter takes issue with the concept of Originality, in that all pieces are scheduled for production in limited editions, and could conceivably be mail-ordered: an extension of the ideas presented by Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.
In some ways the sculpture of Erik Gronborg is as traditional as that of the Baxter Thing Co. is fanciful and exploratory. Formerly working in the San Francisco Bay Area, Gronborg is now entering his second year teaching sculpture at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. His recent show at the Silvan Simone Gallery in Los Angeles presents the fruit of this first year of contact with the Pacific Northwest. Remaining true to his Danish heritage, Gronborg continues working with wood in a manner that cornbines ruggedness and fine craftsmanship. The most successful pieces are those like "Kraka", which retain a formal cohesion. Here, as in most of the other new works, he combines wood with ceramics : the checkerboard pattern of metallic glaze and white squares are richly offset by the deep red natural color of the shaft, cut from a log of uncommon Brazilian hardwood. Most of the titles are derived from figures in medieval Norse mythology, and " Tyr " even recalls, in its projecting wooden "horns", the helmets already made so much a part of our contemporary cultural property (thanks to everyone from Wagner and Prince Valiant to the National Football League's Minnesota Vikings or the Marvelous Thor's journeys into mystery). " Tyr's tower-like ceramic top was fired first in a buff and blue glaze of Hamada's delicacy, then the stained wood base was cut to size and the grappling-hook horns fitted in. The important implication of Gronborg's rugged but well-made work is that one does not have to present technological innovations, far-reaching stylistic developments, or complex levels of intellectual and aesthetic content in order to create solid works of art, fully valid in and for themselves. There will always be a demand for any work of real quality.
It often happens that the brightest talents in an area fortunately turn out to be the most dedicated and hardest workers. Their major energies are spent less on self-promotion than on pursuing their own lines of vision; hence, they remain either hidden or only barely discovered, even while creating some of the most compelling (and perhaps most significant) work of their time. One of the rare really positive services a critic can perform, from time to time, consists in calling attention to such artists, both within the immediate community and in the larger world of (A)art (I)international. Having concerned itself with sculpture primarily, it is perhaps fitting that this Letter include mention of but a few of the artists who thus quietly, yet forcefully, contribute to the general health and vitality of West Coast sculpture.
Vredaparis is an artist who sums up many tantalizing qualities: her work is much too well established (at least in the San Francisco area) for her to be referred to as "promising", and yet it has so far received far too little recognition commensurate with its exquisite merit. An exhibition which opened at the Hansen Gallery in San Francisco in October with high enthusiasm could well mark the occasion for her emerging to the respect and attention the work rightfully commands. The most startling of Vredaparis' medium-size bronze pieces recall the form of yet other helmets—those of the Italian Renaissance condottieri. Their boldness and formal invention, coupled with their technical mastery might at first belie the fact that they were made by a woman. The grouped bronze pieces, which are mounted on metal plates, create an expansive sense of architectural space. But it is the beautifully finished box-object constructions that integrate the elements of guts and precision in Vredaparis' sculpture. The wooden box frames are fronted on one side with clear plastic; relief panels on the principal face are of cast aluminum, and the other of paper, i. e. a deeply embossed "relief print". These prints are worked as fully as the metal; and their imagery is as crisp and playful or as striking as the surface of a Fontana canvas.
Although he is currently teaching photography at UCLA, and has made several experimental films, Pat O'Neill's sculpture has occupied his primary energies for the last several years. A group of his strange, evil-slick, funny-funky polychrome plastic-looking sculptures was shown last summer at the Orlando Gallery, together with the paintings of Donald Lagerberg. Most of the works are actually built up from wood and metal, then carefully painted and finished. An aggressive, iconic quality is emitted from "Annual CHP Award 40", suitably presented in the California Highway Patrol's black and white colors. Perhaps even more directly concerned with the increasing sense of police-state brutality raised to a level of sophisticated sadism is a piece as yet untitled, which is constructed from .an actual war helmet, its base surfaced over, with an appended hook. (Curiously the helmet possesses associations of violence or war, while of course also a symbol for protection of the individual.) The hook and helmet are balanced against. each other —the fulcrum is the tip of a pyramid, which lends a reading literally (although not facetiously) commenting on the peak of escalation, the stained straight rise to an ominous impersonal hate and the efficient cruelties of all authoritarianism. A third example of O'Neill's work, completed after the Orlando Gallery exhibition, is "Dickie Doo and the Don'ts ", referring to the rock and roll group, but also to a strong sexual element which recurs in much of the contemporary West Coast conceptions. The top element is non-formal in its modelling and evokes the quality of "Funk" that has been so historically significant in the development of the San Francisco scene, or in the work of L.A. artists such as Ed Kienholz. In a neo-Freudian gesture "Dickie" appears in primary colors; the two phallic appendages (Do and Don't ?) complete the complex, and are moveable. As a sop to the pure in thought, two rounded elements probably stand for Mickey Mouse ears.
Related stylistic approaches can be discovered in the sculpture of a small group of artists working in Davis, California. That community, together with Sacramento, has not yet developed into a scene of its own because the relatively nearby Bay Area siphons off talent and attention. Nevertheless, several important artists have been working there over the last few years: Wayne Thiebaud, Mel Ramos, Robert Arneson and Bruce Nauman. In turn, their stimulus and encouragement has been effective in producing at least two sculptors of highest potential, who have already created excellent and probing works. Steve Kaltenbach has worked his way through a series of fired ceramic multiple-piece sculptures, designed to hang, semi-suspended over the edge of a table or other base. The attitude is reminiscent of Erik Satie's profound "incidental" music. Now building his sculpture series in larger scale, and perfecting a vinyl resin moulding process, Kaltenbach may soon command regard as a major California artist. Gerald Walburg is another Davis sculptor of outstanding merit, who has just enjoyed a showing at the Richmond Art Center. "Semi-Soft Loop" is an almost five foot high, severely reduced object that retains elements of lyricism. To obtain his highly-controlled effects of form, light, color and surface, Walburg has employed a complex combination of techniques: acrylic lacquered wood, plastic, painted and polished chrome-plated welded steel. Another untitled wall piece of chrome-plated steel succeeds in stating intricate sculptural problems—of interior: exterior space, absorbed and reflected light, physical permanence : visual flux (or the Parmenides : Heraclitus syndrome)—all with an elegance and economy of means.
Fletcher Benton is already too widely-known to be regarded as a "young" sculptor, although it is difficult to understand why his work has not yet quite achieved the recognition it deserves. Benton is young enough still to be developing with vigor, both conceptually and in terms of style. A one-man exhibition of his kinetic sculpture earlier this year at the Esther Robles Gallery firmly established Benton along with Charles Mattox as among the leading creators of machine-game art living outside the New York scene. Although without the sense of humor that makes the work of Mattox, or Castro-Cid, or Takis, or Tinguely so intriguing, Benton's aluminum and plexiglass machines have their own quiet, almost repressed fascination. " Eccentric Concentric", for example, slowly revolves its colored plexiglass discs with hypnotic precision like a paradoxically moving mandala.
In this idiosyncratic survey of newer sculpture seen on the West Coast, we must mention another artist working in the Bay Area, John Battenberg. Again, he has not yet drawn to himself the acclaim that sculptors such as Paris, Peter Voulkos, James Melchert, Arlo Acton, or Manuel Neri (inter alia) have received; but some of the most recent bronzes suggest that it will soon be forthcoming. The World War I imagery Battenberg explored in his show of smaller pieces at the Comara Gallery in Los Angeles has developed into major statements of the artist, which were shown more recently at Esther Robles, and also at the Hansen Gallery in San Francisco. There is an obvious risk of sentimentality in dealing with subject matter like this, of which the artist is well aware. But despite current cultural parallels (" The Blue Max", Snoopy in " Peanuts") in Battenberg's finest pieces, the eerie, wild quality of terror and phantasmagoria are captured and powerfully projected with a sense of mood that more formal or abstract work can seldom evoke. "Johnny's First Trip" has both the terror and adventurous abandon of an early treacherous flight in one of those wood and canvas contraptions, and the nightmarishly funny vision of a bad "trip" in the more current sense of the term.
It should be fitting to conclude this Letter by returning to Los Angeles with a quick consideration of the sculpture presented in a recent group show by the Dwan Gallery. Far from exhausting the number of promising artists who demand attention, this exhibition simply indicates the wide and fertile activity in the area, also documented by impressive group shows presented by the David Stuart, Herbert Palmer, Felix Landau, and Ankrum Galleries, in addition to those other galleries mentioned above. Dwan included work by Jim Massey, David Crum, De Wain Valentine, Nancy Gowans, Jessie Jacobs, and Richard Matthews, all of which provided evidence of a healthy state of sculptural affairs (although the pieces by Jacobs, moving light paintings, are on the edge of the medium). The intelligent and inventive drawing and painting of John Carruthers rounded out the show—it is compelling work, and requires further consideration at a later date. Some of the sculpture is big and bold, like De Wain Valentine's fiberglass "Yo-yo", or Jim Massey's "Jitney ", built out of masonite, fiberglass, plywood and finished with enamels. Perhaps the more sophisticated and finely-worked pieces are those by Richard Matthews. His " Paceminterris" would be an outstanding sculpture in any company—interestingly it also utilizes many of the same formal means for presenting its statement that can be discovered in the work of Harold Paris. The two artists met for the first time just a year ago last summer, but have been working almost five hundred miles apart since then. Nevertheless, the tremendous impact or inspiration of Paris' sculpture is possibly making itself felt here in one of the finest ways of coalescing traditions. Without taking anything from Matthews his work may, on the contrary, acquire an even greater historical significance for its shared sensibilities with that of Paris—and the two of them together may very well indicate one of the most fecund and fundamentally sculptural movements of our time.
Kurt von Meier
This is the cover of the December, 1966 edition of Art International, which discontinued publication in 1984. Kurt was a regular contributor during the years 1966-67.