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May 12 - August 28, 2006 at the Norton Simon Museum, West Los Angeles

by Elenore Welles

Larry Bell, “A Wisp of the Girl She
Used to Be,” 1963, oil on canvas, with
glass and mirror, 48 1/2 x 48 1/2 x 3”.

Ron Davis, “Wyoming Slab,” 1974,
vinyl-acrylic copolymer and dry
pigment on canvas, 108 x 174”.

For its first show of contemporary art, the Simon Museum focuses on a unique group of California artists who began working in the Sixties with an oxymoron--translucent sculpture.  Art makers in those days were a de facto "boys' club," but the curating is scrupulously historical, and thus includes Helen Pashgian's light and light filled polyester resin spheres.  Unmentioned in most histories of Southern California art, the lone woman holds her own in a room full of the better known male representatives of the "Finish Fetish" aesthetic:  Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Ron Davis, Guy Dill, Laddie John Dill, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Dewain Valentine and Norman Zammitt.  The small and perfunctory catalogue is a missed opportunity to further the history of Left Coast art.  Forty years out from the premature categorization of every new movement, perhaps it is time to make some distinctions.  Although often lumped with "L.A. Pop," or unfavorably compared to New York Minimalism, these artists used culture to capture nature.  Their aesthetic is a postmodern romanticism with Malibu as the last refuge of Friedrich's pantheism of the Last Frontier.  Not only do the translucent artists occupy a separate sector of Finish Fetish, their surfaces are also very different, ranging from glass to mirror to neon to Plexiglas and beyond.  So where do these artists of the translucent belong along the timeline of history?

Los Angeles has long been cast as New York's Feminine Other, scorned for its penchant for a hedonistic love of leisure and nonintellectual activities.  The anti-aesthetic of the New Yorkers, Morris, Judd, and Andre, was demonstrated with old-fashioned industrial materials, while Judd sparingly  used Plexiglas.  The Minimalist artists were reacting to Abstract Expressionism in an Oedipal denial of artist's touch and a repudiation of emotionalism.  In California, Ab Ex was far away, in the Bay Area, and the L. A. artists celebrated the new postwar concoctions, from argon to polyester resin.  Their environment was not an art world environment, but the real thing--the Endless Summer.   Dewain Valentine's gigantic blue circles, facing each other across the gallery, rise and crest like a Blue Crush, enveloping the viewer within twined waves.  In another gallery, one of Robert Irwin's beautiful white discs glow, tinted at the edges with the palest of pastels, rising like a dawn sun.

There are distinct differences within the translucent group.  The technique used by Valentine, for example, is that of mass casting.  Polyester resin was carefully blended with MEK, a catalyst, in huge drums.  The colored shape had to dry for two to three days before it could be removed from the mold.  The "part" was then hand polished, using increasingly fine sandpaper up to 2500 grade.  Some fabricators, such as Eric Johnson, had automotive training and used automotive tools exclusively to acquire the perfectly smooth and translucent finish.  Valentine, from a boat-making heritage, used traditional woodworking tools.  Zammitt painstakingly airbrushed his stenciled patterns onto Plexiglas layers that were then glued together.

Although according to lore, the "finish fetish" artists were referencing surfboard-aerospace-hot-rod models, most were sculptors working in a far more traditional manner, as sculptors and painters: only the mediums were unprecedented.  Despite the inherent artifice of synthetic chemical combinations, working methods were time-honored: that of the artist's atelier or the master's workshop.  The "name" artists worked through and with a team of fabricators.  Although some of the touch may have been lost, their presence was retained, unlike the New York practice of impersonal factory orders, which eliminated the hand of the artist entirely.  New York critics had already voiced their suspicions of the L. A. artists' (masturbatory) rubbing of their often phallic shaped objects (Dill, Kauffman, and Alexander), or their feminine fascination with mirrored surfaces (Bell).  From a Romantic perspective, Laddie John Dill's neon lines separate from Dan Flavin's industrial fluorescent tubing--neon becomes a new drawing tool, a way to limn a horizon line with the now-fragmented sun touching the ocean’s edge.  In Helen Pashgian's sphere-within-sphere, one glowing globe seems to engulf another.  The enfolded internal colors shimmer and move around some axis mundi of an acrylic rod.

Norman Zammitt, “Opal,” 1966,
acrylic, 11 x 9 7/8 x 7 3/4”.

Craig Kauffman, “Untitled,” 1968,
sprayed acrylic lacquer on vacuum-
formed Plexiglas, 19 x 55 1/2 x 10".

These translucent works seem to be pieces of skies, bits of sunsets, slices of a life outdoors in a world always filled with light endlessly reflecting light.   Only in California. . .