Barry Le Va by Saul Ostrow

BOMB 60 Summer 1997
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Barry Le Va, Confined, 1997, hydrastone and rubber, 20 x 110 x 140 inches. Courtesy of Danese Gallery.

In the late ’60s, Barry Le Va, along with such peers as Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier, Bruce Nauman, et. al., sought to dismantle the then restrictive concept of avant-garde art as determined by a reductive and rationalizing process which defined art’s only legitimate goal as its conceptualization. Instead, these artists sought to create new subjects, forms, formats and modes of production for themselves. To achieve this, they found it necessary to rethink the nature of art’s autonomy and processes as they intersected with such themes as “everyday life” or “life into art” in the age of mass media and “cultural revolution.” For almost 30 years, Barry Le Va, by emphasizing human scale, material properties and varied forms (both derived from process and logically structured), has sought to call attention to the body’s role in the intellectual process of determining meaning or arriving at an understanding of its conditions. In this interview, which took place in his New York City studio, we discussed how he had come to abandon the look of pop culture and objectivity, pursuing instead a rational subjectivity defined equally by reductivism and what might only be described as a controlled sense of nihilistic reverie.

Saul Ostrow Do you think watching TV in the studio is generational? I don’t write without the television on. I don’t look at the picture. It’s the sound and peripheral vision.

Barry Le Va I don’t think about whether it’s generational or not. When I’m working at home or in the studio I always have the TV on. I like the sound of voices, and when I walk by I can see the flickering images. It keeps me company, it’s my family, that and music.

SO Part of this article I wrote for Art and Design describes why sculpture not only came into its own in the late ’80s, the reason it was so body oriented was because most of our visual experience had turned passive. Painting was becoming more and more like looking at movie screens, whereas sculpture became a form of resistance to that. I started hypothesizing that work like yours, Richard Serra’s, late Robert Smithson’s, early Carl Andre’s is about putting the viewer inside the work rather than outside of it. Back then, were you giving serious consideration or even thinking about that?

BLV I had to. I felt that the viewer was there to partially influence the sculpture and to become part of the experience. And the only way that he or she was going to complete the experience was if the work had a sense of being unstable or was in a state of transition, sort of suspended animation, both physically and conceptually. A lot of the early felt pieces gave you the process by what configuration they took and vise versa. I tried to make the work ambiguous and elusive. You think you’ve got it, and then it slides away and you discover something else.

SO There’s no privileged position in which to view your pieces. There’s no “X” at which you stand and get the piece. Let’s say that traditionally when you stand in front of a painting, you locate yourself towards the center. Occasionally, someone like Barnett Newman makes you stand off-center. By the late ’60s, with a Carl Andre sculpture, you could stand inside or outside of the piece. The shows you had at Bykert at that time, the real experience of the work was to stand in the room with it all around you.

BLV The only way you could understand the piece was if you walked through it, viewing parts to parts, adding them up. So you became engaged with it. That’s the only response I’m after, the engagement. It’s dialogue with the viewer. Hopefully, there’s something visually, physically present that gets people mentally engaged. Now where that leads to, I have no idea, possibly to a state of confusion.

SO So the scatter pieces weren’t about reconstructing the process of their making?

BLV In some sense it was always about reconstructing, but in a non-linear way, based upon picking up clues: what is this in relationship to that? Hopefully this leads the viewer to something. In the more recent work, let’s say, certain forms, or shapes, or the proportions may or may not give a sense of architecture. There are so many different forces mixed in these works. What I’m after is simply a mental engagement, questions, possibilities, readings …

SO The very early works were associated with field painting.

BLV I always thought that was wrong. It’s a very silly notion. People didn’t know how to deal with that kind of work yet, they could only view it in the context of what they knew. If it was a painting on the floor, they could address it in terms of balance and composition. But if it’s sculpture all over the floor, was it really sculpture, or what was it?

SO The early work, the dowel pieces and the felt pieces, were perceived by critics as pictorial or process oriented. When you started having objects fabricated, those aluminum spheres, that changed the work’s relationship to what the viewer expected. What made you decide to make that shift to volume and mass?

BLV Not only did I want more physicality, I wanted to focus on a mixture of many contexts and readings based upon fleeting glimpses of activities, elements of architecture, mental states, spatial arrangements of functional objects … relationships that exist or existed within either a personal or an impersonal situation. They are processes, without going through the construction of a physical process—readings of the information presented, but ambiguous and elusive readings.

SO At one time, the work seemed like a residue of an unseen performance.

BLV The most recent work is from real physical situations. I take the forms from templates of various professions. Before I went to art school, I studied architecture. I look at templates as a symbolic language. If I can get the right templates, make them into the right volumes and put them together, possibly I can reconstruct through situation a different, non-art language. I’m probably asking for the impossible, because I’m trying to get people to get to a sense of something, not necessarily articulate the specific situation, though the forms are derived from a specific situation or many specific situations. Something placed ten feet away might mean that it’s not being used at the moment, but yet it’s in the piece. You can walk into a room and see a chair way over there, but it’s still part of the situation. It’s also thinking diagrammatically, using templates, because their form is derived from the perspective of looking down. So when those forms are made into a sculpture, it’s presented as if you were looking down on them; but at the same time, they exist three-dimensionally in the space. When I started taking a situation from the floor and put it on the wall as well, I looked at it metaphorically, as things that are in your head. It’s as if you’re lying down in bed and you close your eyes and try to visualize that room you were just in: that was there, this was here, this was there. And then at the same time as you’re visualizing, you remember the process of somebody writing down an abbreviation which becomes an abstract language in itself. Let’s say a medical language. Maybe there’s a part of the piece that resembles the initials “S.P.Q.” “S.P.Q” means something to the people who understand those abbreviations. But most people are outside of that language. In the piece it’s objective, but it’s become something abstract, possibly an unrelated intrusion. Thoughts intrude upon other thoughts.

SO The problems of inventing form weren’t at play in the earlier work.

BLV If anything, the early work destroyed a notion of form and rebuilt upon it. I’m placing the viewer in a mental and physical dialogue. I tend to think that sculpture has to be read more than it has to be felt. You read a diagram, you get a sense of what it’s about.

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Barry Le Va, Study for Sculpture in Two Parts. Dissected Situations Arrangements According to Function. (Path/Surg) Variation 4, 1989, ink on paper, 77 × 50 inches. Courtesy of Nolan/Eckman Gallery.

SO Looking at your work becomes a comparative process, constantly comparing shapes.

BLV Not only shapes, but distances, clusters, groupings, arrangements, etc.

SO I don’t look at things in terms of what they represent—I looked at those pieces in terms of repetitions and variations.

BLV Clusters and groupings.

SO But also the notion that, ultimately, I stand in it and look at the mass of that piece and I realize I can’t get all of the shapes into my field of vision. So I shift around to the other side and try to get that one out there into my field of vision because it sets up a parameter.

BLV Certain clusters, in certain situations, have different kinds of energies and sources. In the last show, some of the cylinder forms represented a stool which in turn alludes to function. In some of those pieces, Pushed on the OutsidePushed on the Inside, I physically pushed the form, the arrangement. That force jockeys all the other shapes into position. And some I automatically arrange, push this one so you get that kind of cluster. Then over here we have a cluster that is arranged as it is in the template. Therefore, the work present has many different energies, contexts, and meanings within it.

SO How much do these works concern social situations, given the drive to invent both the resistance to inventing form, and creating form?

BLV A lot of them are from situations I’ve been in. When I was studying to be an architect, I was trained, or my perceptions, my act of drawing was done as floor plans and diagrams. So after awhile I started automatically seeing things in that manner. Now, when I walk into a room, I can see that chair in relationship with another chair, those groups of people, how many chairs they’re using. As I see it I’m transforming it in my head. It’s as if I were looking down on the situation. It’s mapped out in a different way. Templates are symbols, they’re very close to how I draw. Like from a grouping of electrical symbols or arrangements, you get a sense of electricity. But that in itself will be influenced by what is presented with it.

SO I’ve always read the works in terms of phenomonology, as the induction of doubt. I was never quite sure which of the forms were the same or how the patterns related.

BLV The induction of doubt. I would use that phrase, producing a sense of instability. Are we sure of what we’re looking at? Are we sure of the meaning we’re attributing to this?

SO So it’s a generic coding?

BLV Coding is part of it. Or reading symbols, if you consider that the template comes from and also describes a real situation or a real object that’s already abstracted into a symbol. What I do is I make things and arrange them.

SO Are any of your pieces in peoples’ homes?

BLV One felt piece, owned by Frederika Hunter. And that’s it. Unless somebody who is committed decides to take that chance.

SO Would you need that empty of a space?

BLV No, at one point I was thinking that it might be interesting if the sculpture would co-exist with a real domestic setting. Would you start reading the objects and furniture in the same way as you would read the sculpture? The viewer always participates. They aren’t just an audience. They’re a participating member, but not in the sense of performance.

SO The demand that your work places on the audience literally creates the dual role. On the one hand there is the role of the observer. These are objects.

BLV The person looking at what’s there is an observer witnessing observations.

SO And, the participatory aspect, the engagement.

BLV Basically, what’s there is what I’ve observed and arranged and rearranged. Therefore, when somebody walks into it, maybe they see it fresh, but someone could also walk in and say, “Oh, this is how Barry sees this situation.” There’s a lot of clues. It goes into a labyrinth. The more you turn it over and twist it, the more elusive it gets. In anything where there’s a lot of information, you start picking up different threads, then they slip away. It mentally accumulates and at the same time cancels certain perceptions. You start thinking you’ve got it, but then, another thought comes into your head that wipes away everything that you just thought, and that builds up again and again. So when I talk about engagement and participation, I want my audience to be in that state where their mind is acting, but keeps shifting.

SO There’s no slip between mind and body in terms of that information. It’s not just visual information, it’s phenomenological. Which is one of the big, seemingly significant shifts that takes place in your work.

BLV Most of the time, I just talk about it in terms of visual information, what’s there and what it alludes to.

SO Well, when you start talking about pushing and deconstructing, that’s not visual information.

BLV Yes, but everything there is perceived visually and spatially. The information is presented to you physically.

SO What we’re touching on here is literally the difference between the maker and the viewer. As I said, I’m well aware of where I have to stand, or the motion that I’m set into in order to get the information from the piece. In part it’s physical information to me.

BLV It occupies a space. That relationship has a meaning spatially.

SO Or occupies a space that I can’t occupy. (laughter) It’s sensory and aesthetic information, rather than merely conceptualizing. It does go back to phenomenology. It occupies my space, or I occupy it.

BLV I think I’m in agreement with you. But how are you using the word “phenomenology?” I ask because the word means nothing to me. I never use these terms.

SO As merely the study of events. How we come to know an event physically, and the relationship between that information and our mental reconstruction of it. Whereas other things are constructed conceptually, or they’re constructed as a text. The easy way out of your work …

BLV … is not to deal with it. That’s a very easy way.

SO Well, let’s say the next step up from dismissing the work would be to develop some sort of overriding concept that explained it away. I don’t have to see how it’s overlaying systems, and I don’t have to see how the field is constructed. I don’t have to see the relationship between the processes. This is processed work. One of my favorite Donald Judd reviews from the 1950s from Art News was: “There’s a red one and a yellow one. Don’t miss the brown one on the way out.” (laughter) But really, it seems that the critical language for your work has just caught up with the work.

BLV Does that mean I’m a contemporary artist now?

SO Deleuze talks about things like trace and mapping and trajectories. I would make the argument that people like yourself, Gordon Matta Clark, and Bruce Nauman, that whole group already was postmodern, but the theory hadn’t caught up. The work existed only in terms of modernism, and then could only be explained in terms of anti-form. Which was just another formalist reading in which the complexity of the work got shunted away for …

BLV Anti-form, another silly notion. I didn’t see it that way, but did you see it as formal sculpture?

SO No.

BLV I didn’t either.

SO Well, that’s why I asked you about putting these in somebody’s home. I was curious, what would happen to a wayward cube? In a domestic setting, the cluster would read as one thing, but the wayward cube …

BLV Would read as another. Yeah, the only way you can make that so-called wayward cube interesting is in its relationship to what’s around it or in the context of the situation in which it’s presented. That’s why I use templates, it’s my justification: It’s not a cube, it stands for something else. Ultimately, some people say, “That’s a cube.” “Well, for God’s sake, no, that’s the symbol for a chair or a table …” (laughter) “See, it says so right there!” It all changes within many contexts.

SO Again, that split between the literal and the abstract.

BLV And one of the things that I’ve noticed, or probably everybody’s noticed, is that I do not make sculpture that consists of one thing, nor am I interested in doing so.

SO You mean an isolated object?

BLV Yes, it calls attention to its self. If we go back to the felt pieces, they contain hundreds of elements. The new work is still related to the old work in terms of this quantity of things.

SO You studied mathematics. Does that come out of set theory?

BLV Oh, I don’t know. I had to take a lot of mathematics to become an architect. However, I didn’t sit there and do mathematical theory. Just working man’s math: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, etc.

SO This idea of sets of things seemingly playing themselves out. You bring a type of surrogacy to it that I’ve never seen before.

BLV If we have to use a phrase—it’s an unspecified situation.

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Barry Le Va, Silent Diagram, 1995, cast hydrastone, cast ultra cal, lutes, sand, 132 x 155 x 20 inches. Courtesy of Sonnabend Gallery.

SO Early on, you went pretty quickly through painting to the notion of sculpture as a situation.

BLV The sculpture actually did grow out of a dissatisfaction with painting, but in looking back possibly my dissatisfaction with painting was because I didn’t understand what the issue was. My paintings had abstract symbols in them, very isolated, on a raw canvas that summed up a situation. People then said “pop art,” but now people would maybe say “postmodernist.” (laughter) It was the ’60s, of course they’re going to say it’s pop art. I just assumed they were diagrammatic information. Then, I started doing large three-dimensional situations made of canvas, three-dimensional cartoons of cut-up material. So eventually, it was just easy to get rid of the cartoon images. One time I looked in my studio and said, “I don’t need to make anything. It’s all just accumulating through time…” That’s the affect it inspired. Meaning here I was making these large, three-dimensional situations that were mimicking cartoons, which implied physical activity, only related through time in a specific space. So I just went to that directly.

SO That was a big jump.

BLV Very big. People’s biggest criticism was, “It’s not art or sculpture.” I’d say “Why not?” Their reply was, “It can’t be owned or sold.”

SO That should have been a warning, Barry.

BLV That became a big issue to me. If ownership implies artistic merit, all art is about ownership. I don’t believe that. Art is something else. So I started thinking along those lines. Ownership doesn’t seem to be about art, but about buying something. These thoughts made it easy to make art. Also at this same time I was becoming interested in the Fluxus artists.

SO Did you know Fluxus?

BLV Only through their books. Books were very important to me in art school. I became partially self-educated by their information—certainly wasn’t going to rely upon my instructors as the source of the spirit and ideas of art. The librarian at school was one of my most valuable instructors. The Fluxus artists such as George Brecht, Allison Knowles, Dick Higgins, and many others fascinated me both because these artists were writing down ideas and making books. In some cases I found the ideas in the books more interesting than the work. I really wasn’t that interested at that point in seeing Charlotte Mooreman playing the cello naked with a television, but I could find it interesting politically, in terms of performance.

SO In the early work, from your pop cartoon-like constructions to some of your actions that resulted in pieces, like running into the wall or the broken glass, there seems to be a kind of violence.

BLB Violence became attributed to them, but I didn’t think of them as violent. Somewhere along the line, I called them, quite sarcastically, “my violent pieces.”

SO You were running into a wall.

BLV I didn’t see that as violent, others did. I thought of it in terms of architecture, the acoustics of the space, materials making up the space, floors, walls, physical activity, time, stereo sound, the mathematics of a specific space: information present through sound. Let me describe it as procedure—a procedure someone must absolutely adhere to. The someone being me. I would have used someone else, but I only trusted myself to carry it out, as scientifically and clinically as possible. You have a space, a point A and a point B, points being the walls at opposite ends of the space. You have an activity, running between points A and B. You run at thirty second intervals into the wall/boundaries. You start the clock. You run to point B (the wall), wait thirty seconds from when you began the clock at point A, and run back. Eventually it takes longer to run (energy drain) and the rests at the points become less and less. The longer it goes, the more you are always running, although much slower—eventually no rest. The work ends when activity can no longer be done. (No energy left.) Now the exhibition consists of two speakers, one at point A, one at point B (left and right); a tape line showing the track run, soiled walls where the body hit, and the stereo play back. A play, activity etc. without a performer—just information to constrict what is not seen—that’s why I don’t see it as violent. Somehow I see it as an activity, architecture, acoustics of the space and stereo. I just wanted to bring all this to the space and have it be taken into account as sculpture. In some cases, this is no different from the recent pieces.

SO Marshall McLuhan talked about how media transforms time, space, duration, and process. Temporality and process replace time and space. Obviously, all of the pieces are temporary.

BLV Yes, but the early pieces were time based and also exist in time and space. An aspect that came into play for me in terms of process was spans of time, meaning that if something takes ten minutes, is it better or worse than something that takes ten hours? Probably both will look the same.

SO Coming out of this architectural background, which is more about permanence and space, defining space rather than process, creating permanence rather than transition; it’s like turning architecture inside out. At least the early work was.

BLV There’s something else. One of the reasons I disliked painting was that I could never figure out when I was finished. I dislike the notion of knowing there is a finished stage. In all the work, I have elements that I can constantly change: the arrangements, their spatial relationship, the content … So, in a sense, they’re never finished. This still exists in the show that’s coming up. I have my script, and I’m going to work with it, and play around with it, and set it up. There’s no sense in worrying about what it’s going to look like beforehand. If you have your elements that mean something, it’s arranging them to focus in on what you want them to do: it’s three-dimensional work, but it’s closer to musical composition.

SO Seemingly, the problem was how could you get it to do that all at once? How do you get something to stand out against that field of noise? In terms of the late ’60s and early ’70s, this period of transition, I began to think of your work as a hypertext, which is a form that a text may take on the World Wide Web, where literally you’ve got this text, and within it there’s a reference to somebody or something, and you don’t know who that person is, so you hit the name and it automatically takes you to another text about that person. Hypertext is the notion that no text is ever closed. No text is ever independent and self-sufficient. It always refers to other texts outside of itself.

BLV It’s like cross-referencing in the card catalogue in the library. It builds a network that constantly shifts and leads you someplace else.

SO So with the pieces at Sonnabend Gallery in 1996, seemingly, in terms of your description, pushed from the outside—so on and so forth—they literally construct this sort of hypertext: the notion of the plan, of social relationships. The source of the imagery is not a subtext within the work, but literally other texts outside the work that it connects to. The work is never self-enclosed. One of the things you said earlier that stuck in my mind was that with a certain amount of work from the early ‘70s, late ’60s, the critical language for it didn’t emerge until much later. No one knew how to talk about it. I went back and looked at the Artforum article on your work, and at old arts magazines from when you were still a California artist. It was all being contextualized, not in terms of how this work differs from other work, but literally, how it’s similar.

BLV It was always collective criticism, which I don’t particularly like. We were all doing something different. Collective criticism is a very lazy way to deal with the artists and their work.

SO The show that Richard Marshall and Richard Armstrong curated at the Whitney, which focused on ’70s sculpture, got ignored. Nobody knew how to fit it in, and the language was still: Is it formalist or not formalist? We didn’t know what to do with Barry Le Va, Gordon Matta Clark … even people like Michael Asher have suffered from this.

BLV Critics weren’t writing about artists’ work as well as the artists were writing about it. They didn’t know the terms. At that time in the United States it almost seems like we all got closed out because we were considered a group of eccentrics. We were much more welcome in Europe.

SO Actually, what I really started to talk to you on the phone about was the disappearance of sculpture. Things had already begun to make the shift from sculpture to the object, the readymade. What became lost was how to talk about sculpture.

BLV Now or then?

SO Let’s say mid-’70s on up until recently. What had happened was that abstract sculpture, or sculpture that wasn’t based on the readymade, had set the terms by which an object could fill the space of sculpture. There don’t seem to be any sculptors after the ’70s in the way that we talk about you as a sculptor, as someone making things that are relational or exploring formal parameters.

BLV I’d have to think about that. There’s a lot of good three-dimensional work with different concerns.

SO I’m not talking about three-dimensional work because three-dimensional work is any object that fills the space of sculpture. Everybody in the mid-’70s announced the death of painting, and that became an issue, but nobody noticed the passing of sculpture. (laughter) Because there was always something to put in its place. The type of work that you, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, Carl Andre, and Smithson were doing, literally left it open, the work had become so close to the everyday. You’d walk outside a gallery, see a construction site and free associate.

BLV Bring it back inside.

SO Yeah, bring it back inside. Never worked as good inside as it did outside. (laughter)

BLV No, no, trash was better as trash, but something to think about.

SO And, to a certain degree, I think that’s true with any three-dimensional object.

BLV Or group of objects.

SO Bill Bollinger played with that when he brought the boulders into the Whitney for the Anti-Illusion, Process show in ’69.

BLV I think it was one boulder, which I never found very interesting. To me, it was just an extension of a found object. If it was many boulders I might have found it more interesting.

SO What I’m saying is that it set up the situation where sculpture became anything that wasn’t a painting. For Bollinger, a lightbulb could fill the place of sculpture. He literally defined sculpture as a situation. And this became the prevalent approach. People started presenting objects rather than making objects which would either embody or be used to reference the relationships they were interested in.

BLV Sorry I am not familiar, so no comment. I’m trying to figure out why I started calling myself a sculptor. At one point, I used to say I just made three-dimensional things. Then, they would ask, “Oh, like what?” Then, I would have to start explaining everything. So I thought it was easier to just say, “I’m a sculptor.” Now they ask, “Oh, what medium? Do you cut, or mold, or carve?” I’m still stuck in the same situation of having to explain. Maybe sculpture is only there in the sense of a word. It’s useful and useless at the same time. It means nothing.

Saul Ostrow is an artist, critic and curator, as well as editor of the Critical Voices Series published by G+B Arts International, art editor for BOMB, and the co-editor of Lusitania Press. He lives and works in New York and teaches theory and art history at The School of Visual Arts, New York University and Parsons School of Design.

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Originally published in

BOMB 60, Summer 1997

Featuring interviews with Barry Le Va, Jane Dickson, John Lee Anderson, Lydia Davis, Judy Davis, Peter Greenaway, Roger Guenveur Smith, David Del Tredici, Alfred Uhry, and David Armstrong.

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