Accumulated Vision and Violence, Barry Le Va

Plates of glass are dropped into the midst of felt piled on the floor. Whole bolts of this cloth are slumped in together with draped sheets, scattered squares, and strewn particles. The felt absorbs light while the glass sharpens it, glinting off the edges of shards and broken sheets. One feels simultaneously repelled by the substance and enveloped by the scale of this strange distribution. It is one of the earliest works in “Accumulated Vision, Barry Le Va,” a survey exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), University of Pennsylvania. Spanning forty years, to include drawings, photographs, texts, sculpture, and installations in a variety of mediums, the show fills both floors of the museum, as well as its ramp and mezzanine spaces. At the opposite end of the gallery containing the 1967 felt piece is a more recent work, from 1995. Black and lying low to the floor, it consists of a phalanx of geometric forms. Tabular disks and rectangles flank a bevy of small cylinders, cast from a concrete like substance. To one side of this group is another set of forms—symbolic and structural in shape—clad in an industrial rubber skin. Certainly more organized in appearance than the mess of felt and glass one encountered upon first entering the museum, this work is no more a self-contained entity than the other—nor is the history they represent one that can be recounted without stepping out of the contemporary mainstream that Le Va’s art has advanced and participates in. These works strike trajectories into realms of math and architecture. They delve into the pages of Ellery Queen’s pulp The French Powder Mystery and Paul Virilio’s philosophical Bunker Archeology. And, most profoundly, they deliver up for view some of the darkness of our own times.

Let me return to the two works under consideration. One sprawls in all directions, the other clusters. Both command not only considerable floor space but also the nearby walls, ceiling, and all the empty spaces in between. Looking around, your eyes stumble across your own feet, planted next to the work of art, and realize that you, too, have been implicated, framed by this encounter. That is why it is essential to look around,to use your eyes and your mind, since your own body, its substance and proportion, perceptions and limits are part of the picture. From now on, you are the witness who has also been fingered as an accomplice. So, you must figure out what happened here, for something did occur. The clues are everywhere. (Upon considering the evidence, please remember that deduction is as much about adding things up as it is about taking things away.) You can see that each of the so-called sculptures is only a temporary arrangement. No sooner does this occur to you than you find yourself sweeping up the scattered materials and dismantling the component elements in your mind—trying to reconstruct how and why they landed as they did.

It may be hard to imagine that these two works—one so gory and explicit, the other cryptic and refined—were even created by the same person. Except that each is marked by that telltale sign of all of Le Va’s work—an implied violence. And on this count, the titles are more indictments than clues. Continuous and Related Activities; Discontinued by the Act of Dropping relates its procedure so methodically that you can almost hear the sound of breaking glass, silencing the scissors that were systematically cutting the felt into sheets and strips and particles. The title Bunker Coagulation (Pushed from the Right) is relatively more coded in its disclosure. But so is the work the title describes, which might now put us in mind of military and bodily fortifications under pressure from one side. The little cylinders suddenly look downright corpuscular compared to the architectural masses that they are being squeezed out from in between. It is an image of internal and external defenses against assailants that are, thus far, unknowable abstractions. With relative degrees of opacity, then, both of these works are images of cause and effect that demonstrate a moment of impact. Under this force, one work appears to explode while the other implodes, both with incredible power. As we go more deeply into our investigation of Barry Le Va’s art, we will encounter such violence again and again. It is the invisible content—the thing that is happening—the thing that both generates and disrupts this extraordinarily concise and expansive body of work.


Minor Cuts

A metal-clasp envelope in the artist’s studio contains his earliest extant work: a sheaf of cartoon drawings. Framed in black ink, the abstract imagery is funky, figurative, and painful. “I WILL ERASE,” cries “the living eraser” as, with the touch of a button, it removes a trestle from a bridge. “MINOR CUTS!” declares a hirsute man in the midst of scenes of institutional torture, involving straps, electrodes, hot coffee, and an amputation. “OUCH” goes the head with a straw hole poked in the side of it, while the “Snow Removal” service pulls out of the picture. Embedded in this dark comic of drugs and rehab are incubating elements of Le Va’s future art. “F!”: A body in headlong flight passes through a wall. “THONK”: Another body slams right into it. Glass shatters. Things get erased. Three empty canvases edge into sight. Most salient to his future art will prove the seriality of cartoons themselves, one action leading inexorably to the next, a story unfolding frame by frame. Or, as in the case of underground cartoons, shit just happens, in one space after another.

These drawings come out of Le Va’s youthful addiction to strips, which he started drawing in junior high school, and feed into his student works on canvas at art school. Born in 1941 and raised in Long Beach, California, Le Va’s first interest was architecture. One high school assignment was to design, draft, and construct a house (at reduced scale). If the teacher could stand on the roof and it didn’t collapse, you got an A; Le Va and his partner got As. His professional pursuit of architecture ended with his dropping out of college. But even after he reentered school to pursue a degree in art, he continued to take classes in architecture, and started to study psychology. The course that made the biggest impression on his intellectual development was a graduate seminar on aesthetics taught by Ralph Cohen. It started Le Va thinking about art in conceptual and metaphysical terms, as well as the artist’s responsibilities along those lines. (Cohen’s own scholarship advanced a literary history based on separate networks of activity, not linear continuity—a useful model to keep in view of Le Va’s future development along separatist lines.1) After a short stint at Los Angeles College of Art and Design (a place he later dubbed “brain-less and commercial”2), he transferred to Otis Art Institute, where he received his M.F.A. in 1967. He started out in painting and inadvertently moved to sculpture, when, to escape the canvas’s boxed-in parameters, he set out to make cartoons in three-dimensions, room-size. Constructed from painted Masonite and canvas elements, either stuffed or stretched, these tableaux set the household on edge. Mattresses consume a pillow. A yellow wall suffers a blow that sends a piece flying to the floor, where it lies like a missing puzzle part. “A literally negative space,” curator Marcia Tucker nailed it, in her 1979 survey of Le Va’s art.3 The issues may have been conventional to sculpture but the work—expressionist, surreal, and subversive—looked more like the stuff coming out of the ceramics studios of the California funk artists. A West Coast response in clay to the same underground impulses as Chicago’s “hairy who” painters, these artists were animating the domestic landscape with teapots, mugs, and other vessels gone bad. Le Va’s drawings expressed a shared interest in “abstracted household objects, concerned with the specific functions of an action, and resulting in movement around a page.”4 This emphasis on action over image drives a series from around 1965, in which the comic-book structure has been lifted as a framework for fragmentation. The title underscores the action: Paint Sprayed through Cut Out Areas of Comic Book Frames, with Ink Line Added. It also points to what’s missing: the cartoons, characters, and language, all of which were cut out of the comic-book frames and discarded to make way for Le Va’s abstraction.


Three Hours Later . . .

“I remember one day, after I’d been constructing a piece for about three hours, I suddenly became aware of all the debris on the floor, bits of canvas and other stuff, and this residue seemed so much more interesting and significant than what I was making.”5 From Le Va’s version of what transpired one day in his studio in 1966, you can see what’s coming next. In other words, maybe chance was not involved. He was bound, at some point, to look down and see the solution. It is remarkable how many problems and questions Le Va would subsequently formulate by way of the debris on that floor. What immediately interested him in the mess he had made was that it wasn’t a mess at all. It represented an orderly process that had taken place over time and, as such, marked both time and process, as well as space. It also created the anticipation, and, to some degree, the identity, of an absent presence. This is not to say, for instance, that if you analyzed the dust in Brancusi’s studio—where and how it was distributed—you could ever reconstruct that artist’s Sleeping Muse; however, you would know that something had been done to a block of marble, since removed from the scene. Indeed, the fact that you couldn’t make sculpture from its debris is exactly what must have appealed to Le Va, given the degree to which the three-dimensional objects in his own studio space failed to divert his attention.

Le Va’s first formulations literally toss around questions of perception. A group of works from 1966 consists of sheets of monochromatic canvas, mostly red and blue, draped on the floor, each with some key element, always yellow in color, scattered across the top. These yellow elements open specific lines of inquiry. In one case, jigsaw pieces lead one to puzzle over what to make of this material. Is the color somehow coded? In another, wooden tallies (a simple wooden instrument for measuring) cause one to wonder how, or if, the parts of the work measure up in relation to one another.

In one of these works, the title 114 Pieces of Paper Folded but none the same prompts us to contemplate a given set of possibilities. The keen observer might surmise, for example, that all the little papers flattened would equal the surface area of the sixteen-foot-long blue sheet of fabric they are lying on. Related drawings continue the game. Six Hands, 1966, shows squares of fabric being dealt out like cards in a poker game onto the floor. A set of working drawings in the studio shows the artist shuffling numbered index cards to arrive at sequencing structures. Clearly, much can be made of even the simplest materials scattered on the floor.



Having demonstrated that things are never as disorderly as they appear, Le Va was ready to frame his next question. But first he had to deal with the problem of unraveling. At the suggestion of “a girl I knew,” he ended up in the fabric district of Los Angeles buying felt.6 It was cheaper than canvas. Soft, but not without body, it was easy to cut. And, most important, since it was composed from boiled and pressed wool fibers, making it more like paper than cloth, it didn’t unravel when you worked with it. Back in the studio, he was drawn to its pliancy: “Then the question became: when is a piece in a state of flux, or how do you describe what state a piece is in? For instance, folded felt could be about folding, but it could also…be about waiting to be used, or waiting to be kept, or waiting to be cut, or just waiting.”7

The floor works he was making in his studio at Otis were not taken seriously by his teachers and peers; he was forbidden to submit them to the graduate exhibition. Sculpture, he was told, required a pedestal. Since participating in the show was mandatory for his degree—and a base was something he refused to even consider—Le Va submitted something in a frame—well, ten frames to be exact. Lobbed as a sculptural salvo at the Otis administration, Felt: Placed, Folded, and Compressed, 1966-67, is a fully realized work of art. Ten boxlike frames each contains a piece of folded gray felt. The frames can be lined up or shown in a grid, as long as the felt reads, in sequence, from most complex to most simply folded. A study in compression, you perceive this sequence as much with your eye as with your body: The squeeze of all those wrinkles pressing against the Plexiglas, relaxing frame by frame, ends like a smooth sigh of relief.

Upon graduating, the California art world of the late sixties was not where Barry Le Va wanted to be. He had been motivated throughout art school by a powerful reaction to minimalism, the dominant movement of an era predominated over by New York. Minimalism’s conceptual rigor, its adherence to rules of measure and sequence, appealed to Le Va’s analytical bent. But its emphasis on the object repelled him. He was “disgusted with the precious object, work primarily concerned with polished surfaces, color, plastic materials and small size—and the materialist attitudes that supported it.”8 Le Va may as well have been pointing at the work of Larry Bell. Bell’s anodized glass cubes made him one of the luminaries of the “finish fetish” group of artists (the yin to funk’s yang), who were applying the surface sheen and high-tech materials of the West Coast’s car culture, and air and space industry, to the minimalist gestalt. In recent conversation, Le Va has maintained dislike of the regional scene in which he found himself working. But he also conceded that certain art had stuck with him over the years—Bell’s cubes, for instance—as well as the importance of experiencing firsthand some of minimalism’s iconic works. He cites Sol LeWitt’s One Set of Nine Pieces, at the Dwan Gallery, in April 1967, and the work of Frank Stella, whom the Ferus Gallery had been representing since 1963, and whose monumental series of “Black Paintings” Le Va considers formative. Stella’s use of mechanical-drawing devices, such as protractors and French curves, to generate series of compositions would also seem relevant to Le Va. An exhibition he did not see was the 1963 Marcel Duchamp retrospective, organized by Walter Hopps, at the Pasadena Art Museum. Given the importance of the exhibition in relation to what was happening in contemporary art at that moment, it probably didn’t matter if one saw it or not. Marcel Duchamp’s art and ideas were just part of the basic atmosphere, like air.



Grids and sequences were the structuring devices of the day, as the landmark exhibition “Serial Imagery,” at the Pasadena Art Museum, in 1968, demonstrated. Going from Claude Monet’s “Haystacks” to Duchamp’s “Stoppages,” to Stella’s “Vee Series” (with Larry Bell’s boxes in between), curator John Coplans argued the ubiquity of the “repeated form or structure shared equally by each work in a group.”9 He cast the Impressionist haystacks in light of the nineteenth-century “theory of continuous independent variables” to show that serial imagery’s historic premises lay in modern math and science. He pitched its rhythms as the overtones to a contemporary American life based on capitalism, with “its highly systematic yet flexible process of production.”10 Serial art was also played as a form of cultural feedback: its internal logic of progression results in interdependent series that distort the concept of masterpiece. Ultimately, redundancy proves a radical means of artistic agency, “a positive act that continuously affirms the power and continuity of the creative process.”11

That’s one way to understand the serial nature of Le Va’s art. A more idiosyncratic—and revealing—note comes from Öyvind Fahlström. Throughout the sixties, this Swedish artist’s work was exhibited in the context of pop, a context that barely begins to contain the imaginative and mental sweep of a body of work that ranged in form from art to editorials, and in content from cold war gamesmanship to Robert Crumb. (In an article for the Swedish press, Fahlström reported “one of the truly major artists today” is ZAP COMlX’s Robert Crumb. “Really.”12) One need take only a cursory look at Fahlström’s art to appreciate the attraction for Le Va. To begin with, there is the cartoon imagery based on action cartoons and underground comics—as well as, WHUMP, their sounds. This imagery appears in the form of cutouts, fragments, even movable parts in paintings and sculpture installations that were fashioned after games, such as dominoes and Monopoly, and on pinball machines. In 1966, Fahlström’s work made the cover of Art News. Inside was a feature by Suzi Gablick, who wrote of the work’s “recurrent factors—proportion, size, color, topography, cycles….Lemon yellow, for example, denotes a kind of energy or high-voltage factor.”13 She describes a pressure building throughout compartmentalized pictorial elements, which are generating “shock waves, turbulence, inhibitory action, synaptic mechanisms, trigger phenomena,” a pressure that builds into “precisely what is called a time series by the statisticians: a discontinuous image…(like comic strips).”14 Gablik is describing Sitting…. a painting from 1962 that launched Fahlström on a four-year investigation. Based on pictorial fragments abstracted from Batman comics, the painting’s composition resembles a cross between a sectional view of a dollhouse and a page from a comic book. It is clearly a source for Le Va’s Painted Sprayed through Cut Out Areas. It also serves as a point of departure for Le Va’s own investigations of “time series,” such as Bearings Rolled (six specific instants: no particular order), 1966-67. These six sheets of paper bearing arrangements of black circles are the opposite of the ten-part Felt: Placed, Folded, and Compressed. That sculpture’s order was fixed to show a seemingly continuous flow of activity from (wrinkled) start to (smooth) finish. These drawings represent a nonsequential sequence of events: One action does not lead to another; in fact, it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. Events, however, are not random either; the ball bearings were obviously placed, or dropped, or rolled by some mysterious hand. And inasmuch as the study suggests no signs of completion, it builds the pressure of uncertain expectations.

This said, there is no stylistic similarity between Le Va’s minimal abstractions and Fahlström’s figurative pop fragments. And here lies an important clue to Le Va’s approach to the art of his day and to making art in general: Barry Le Va is very much a part of a generation making its moves in response to and as a reaction against minimalism. At the same time, he is an artist who resists moving in step, even with those who, like him, are in the advance guard. Le Va’s determination to set his own course leads him to establish very specific points of reference. These references are not necessarily unique to him—in most cases, they are part of the common reader of contemporary culture. But both the sources he elects and information he extracts are extremely specific to his particular interests. Thus, these references, or at least a sense of how they operate, become integral to both the content and meaning of his work, as well as to its self-positioning at a few decided paces remove from whatever appears to be its immediate context. Öyvind Fahlström is a case in point. Neither obvious nor esoteric, Fahlström’s art is not necessarily the first place anyone would look for information about open-ended serial structures and the transformation of physical turbulence and pressure into visual abstraction. Another unexpected choice is Jess, whom Le Va references, along with Joseph Cornell, Fahlström, and Larry Poons, among his other early predilections. The San Francisco artist Jess had, like Fahlström, also entered the art world through the gaping doorways of pop art by reassembling cut-up Dick Tracy and Krazy Kat cartoons into even deeper states of disorder. His use of puzzle pieces in the making of his collage-based work also would have interested Le Va. And while it is misleading to call Le Va an underground artist, his work draws its energy from subversive and inconspicuous sources and by setting itself apart—even periodically—from itself.


Rip and Kick

Perhaps it was resistance to his California context that fueled the incredibly concerted development of Le Va’s art over the next couple of years. According to his agenda, this development was essentially a campaign of destruction. His objective was to “eliminate a contained mass.” He says, “I wanted to rip out anything that in my eyes made traditional works of art, art, to get rid of any lingering object orientation by emphasizing horizontal scale.”15 Place supplanted the notion of mass: “I had a background in architecture—how things were located interested me.” And time, the great leveler, was to be contended with as a force of “continuous breakdown and disintegration” and as a principle “for change and instability to be inherent within the work.” What was the motive driving this disruption? Le Va says, “I wanted to reduce art to my terms, then rebuild it—my terms, with nobody else’s influence.”16 Influence was the enemy.

Campaigns require headquarters, and Le Va held a number of outposts. For daily work, there was his studio, located first on Western Boulevard, then off MacArthur Park, then in the Echo Park area. And there was the Lytton Center of Visual Arts, located in the corporate lobby of a downtown bank.17 On days when the gallery was closed to the public, Le Va had access to the terrazzo floor as a work space, where he could set up and photograph his distributions free from the distractions (and disorder) of the studio. This arrangement was to evolve into its own form of practice, in which temporary satellite spaces become the primary sites of Le Va’s production, and the studio all but disappears into a home office, or drafting room, from which to launch these schemes.

Le Va participated in his first exhibition in a group show, at the Lytton Center, called “New Comers ’67,” organized by Larry Urrutia. The curator had seen Le Va’s student work at Otis and invited him to exhibit what Urrutia anticipated would be funky soft sculpture. When he saw the debris that Le Va intended to exhibit lying on the studio floor, Urrutia lapsed into a turmoil that turned into an epiphany: “I knew he was right.” Urrutia credits Le Va’s art with a shift in his own attitude. Subsequent presentations of Robert Irwin’s installations of light and space and Chris Burden’s endurance art at the La Jolla Museum of Art, where Urrutia went to work soon after Lytton shut down, signify the wide range of new art that was coming up from the studios of Southern Californian artists, who, like Le Va, were shucking funk and fetish. Back at the Lytton Center in 1967, however, alternative approaches still landed on shakier ground. Urrutia says that on the morning of the opening of “New Comers,” he discovered that the janitor had swept up the art of Barry Le Va.

Working with specific “quantities of different elements” put down on the floor “in various locations,” Le Va likens the construction of his first felts to making a pizza.18 A drawing suggests just such a process, with the recipe calling for ball bearings and felt, and the process leaving room for improvisation. “If I wasn’t satisfied with the way it looked, I would kick the felt or shove it around,”19 Le Va says of his last-minute adjustments, evidence of which can be seen, for instance, in the sudden heave upward and over to one side that shapes Untitled #10, 1967. Under the impact of these gestures, the early floor pieces appear to open up, pull apart, and drift outward. Le Va says, “Gradually I became less and less concerned with the ordering of parts and more concerned with horizontal scale, vastness.”20 Four Sections; placed parallel, 1967, overtakes space. Four huge bolts of felt have been hurled open across the floor, which is littered in more fabric cut into smaller sheets and tiny particles, as if an explosion had occurred on impact. What were formerly discrete clusters of materials are now distributions of matter. The floor is now a field.



Photographs impart an image of Le Va’s installations literally spilling out of view. Having acquired his first camera as an art student in order to take pictures of his own work, Le Va’s studio is filled with black-and-white prints, contact sheets, and negatives of his early distributions. To study this material is to become expert in identifying the floors, baseboards, and radiators of Le Va’s various working locations with an eye toward reconstructing his art’s sequences and process. One sees, stop-action style, like a short animation, a bolt of felt, deposited next to a giant pair of shears, get cut up, dispersed, arranged, and rearranged. And so do the photographs begin to receive a similar treatment. In order to accommodate the spreading vastness of his work, Le Va started cutting up his snapshots and cobbling them together into panoramic views. Mounted on black photo-album paper and kept in binders, the original purpose of these montages seems to have been as ready references for future re-creations of works, which, out of necessity, had been destroyed shortly after they were made in order to make way for the next experiment. Or just to clean up the floor. Perhaps it was the later realization that these works would only ever exist as photographs that led Le Va to develop them into a body of work in their own right. This combined with his predilection for turning process into art, a predilection that routinely manifests itself in new bodies of work based on the source materials, scraps, and artifacts of his activities.

The photo albums were eviscerated and some of the contents were transformed into works on paper. He started to produce larger-scaled prints for the express purpose of making photomontage. And it makes sense that he would. Pictorial shards spliced together into synthetic though jarringly discontinuous wholes are exactly how one expects to see works that aimed “to destroy eye containment and focus. Fracture vision, structure and continuity.”21



The idea of making art that can no more be captured at a glance (of the eye) than with a shot (of the camera) implies stages of perception. These stages unfold significantly through the experience of Le Va’s work on paper. Although his photographs inform us of how he sees his installations, his drawings tell us how to read them. First, some general observations: Le Va’s training in mechanical drawing informs his art on every level, starting with the drafting table that is his studio furniture. Drawing on sheets of graph paper and rolls of vellum, using T-squares and templates, compasses and straightedges, and the facility of his own hand, Le Va works with a draftsmanly precision that renders every sketch a plan. For him, drawing is fundamentally generative. A piece of paper is working space, not just for the act of representation but for real activities. Look at To Re arrange (from a parallelogram to a rectangle), grey felt sheets, 1966, a plan view for a room-scale installation based on the movement of a parallel rule, sweeping at a fixed angle, across the surface of a drafting table. The translation isn’t always this direct. Even so, the more study paid Le Va’s drawings, the more keenly aware one becomes of his fluency in mechanical drawing—its tools and techniques, its standards of representation and points of view—and his aptitude for making drawings that read as installations that revert to plan.

The discipline of drawing also allowed Le Va to do something that his installations did not. “Somehow when I make a drawing, it allows me to see an end….No matter how tentative, unstable, etc. they seem, I can finish a drawing. In sculpture—a series is finished or completed when it starts leading to other ideas…no individual sculpture is ever finished.”22 Simply to experience the satisfaction of completion, then, drawing is essential to his practice. No wonder, Le Va confides, “I draw most of the time.”23


Willful Accident

And write, too. Part of being trained in mechanical drawing is to learn lettering. Le Va’s art makes this skill the bottom line of so many of his drawings in which inscriptions read as specifications. They call for felt, glass, and aluminum (rods or ball bearings), materials that are, as far as building goes, cheap and quasi-industrial—a legacy of minimalism, which transformed the local hardware into the art supply store. Judging from his plans, Le Va seems to have chosen his materials for their performance potential: Balls roll, rods frame, glass breaks, felt submits. You see it happening right on the drawing paper: When a ball bearing is dropped, it rolls practically off of the sheet. On paper was certainly a safer place than in the studio for testing the results of dropping and throwing sheets of glass, a material that, despite its fascinating violence, doesn’t actually show up in Le Va’s installations for several years after its first appearance in his drawings. And, in this respect, the drawings function like patents, by initiating bodies of work that Le Va keeps in circulation. Continuous and Related Activities; Discontinued by the Act of Dropping, as we see it here at ICA, with a sheet of glass dropped like an egg into an absorbent field of felt, wasn’t first realized until 1982. But the concept of disrupting one thing with another dates to 1967, when ball bearings and aluminum rods fell into the field. “From the very beginning,” Le Va told curator Marianne Brouwer, “I started to introduce other materials…because it was a way of interrupting, or disrupting, the piece by changing my activity….Also there is something about glass that has always interested me. It’s the inherent visual noise…The dropping of the glass is a fairly willful act and its configuration is just accident…It’s the decision made, it’s the end. It’s destruction, visual noise, yes.”24


Empty Corners

In terms of tracking the development of his work, Le Va’s drawings represent more of a time series than a sequence. Discrete arrangements don’t just flow over time into being allover expansions on the floor. Instead, vastness comes by filling the field in every way imaginable, including carpet-bombing the expanse with arrangements. Or by simultaneously throwing materials to eight different locations from eight different distances in the room. Simultaneity is Le Va’s operative mode. “I could never work on one thing at a time,” he confides, only to betray the nervous energy and tension behind his approach.25 “Daily activities, residue of change, of activities, causes and effects, elements in transit, debris, empty corners and places, waiting, etc., seemed to hold more potential and excitement for me.”26

Turning over the possibilities for covering more ground and getting into those corners that intrigued him, Le Va divided his approaches. There were arrangements to be made: “Arranged, de arranged, borrowed, exchanged,” a drawing is annotated. And there were deductive processes: Scatter particles over sheets of felt, then remove the sheets. As shown in both the drawings and the installations, the results are conflicting, but equally resolved sweeps of regimen and entanglement, fractures and blurs. And it’s as if from the fusion of these experiments over time that Le Va’s distributions appear to arrive at their next imagery of purely particular matter.

Focus suddenly shifts to just about the tiniest thing—poppy seeds. Like miniature distributions, the seeds were blown or scraped into different configurations, then photographed. The photographs were composed into grids, similar to the ball-bearing drawings, except for the incursion of an uncanny sense of scale. Even when you know you are looking at itsy bitsy seeds on a table, the pictures transform before your eyes into magnified magnetic dust, distantly viewed earth formations, or room-scale distributions by Barry Le Va. These disorienting views spin to mind another tabletop account, An Anecdoted Topography of Chance.27 This book by the Swiss Fluxus artist Daniel Spoerri, which first appeared in 1966, became an instant art-world classic. Le Va deems it one of his favorite pieces of Fluxus art, which he otherwise dismissed for its emphasis on object-making and audience participation. (A music lover, he does concede a fondness for John Cage’s ideas and writings, and “especially the pieces for prepared piano.”28) Spoerri’s book is basically a catalog of the kitchen tabletop, starting with a piece of white bread “cut only this morning by the actress RENATE STEIGER.” Each item is illustrated, with “Item 1a, Crumbs” adding another possibility for viewing Le Va’s poppy seeds as particles of bread fallen from an actress’s lips. Laid out on the tabletop like artifacts, Spoerri asks us to consider each item “the way SHERLOCK HOLMES, starting out with a single object, could solve a crime.”29 One appreciates the appeal to Le Va. Although his art operates outside the realm of anecdote, its premise is the same as that underlying Spoerri’s topography, in which nothing is left to chance.

At some time in 1967, one of his instructors at Otis, the printmaker Arthur Secunda, sent photographs of Le Va’s work to the art historian Barbara Rose. A founding editor of Artforum, Secunda was working on a series of prints in the aftermath of the violence of the Watts riots of 1965. In the April 1967 issue of Artforum, Rose had written an essay proposing a new category she dubbed “didactic art.”30 Exemplified by Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Bottle Rack, didactic art was said to have “no esthetic content” beyond the equivalent aesthetic pleasure of solving, say, a math problem. Its “primary intention is to instruct.”31 The essay prompted Secunda to think that one of New York’s most influential critics might like to learn about a young Los Angeles artist who seemed to be making some pretty convincing didactic art. Rose was impressed enough to feature Barry Le Va in “A Gallery Without Walls,” a roundup of young talent to watch that appeared in the March-April 1968 issue of Art in America. In it, Rose writes appreciatively of the “casual antiformal arrangements” that she sees in La Va’s art as a “reaction against conceptually predetermined composition.” With this brief characterization, she plugs the California artist’s work into the New York scene as it was being defined at that very moment in the April issue of Artforum. In an essay called “Anti Form,” the artist and theoretician Robert Morris declared minimalism’s “imperative for the well-built thing” a mission accomplished and issued “the process of ‘making itself’” to be art’s next mandate. Steps were already being taken, as observed by the tendencies of Morris and his peers to use materials “other than rigid industrial ones”—to dispense with tools and let gravity do the work of shaping “forms which are not projected in advance” and are then only temporary objects, “since replacing will result in another configuration.” Thus, it was by extrapolation, in print, that Barry Le Va’s work gained its first critical exposure in relation to the burgeoning terms of process art, and landed on target for its future reception in New York.

Back home in California, Le Va’s art was also gaining visibility. In 1968, he was the recipient of the Young Talent Award from the Los Angeles County Museum, an award he credits to the support of the museum’s curators Jim Monte, Maurice Tuchman, and Jane Livingston.32 When an article by Livingston ran in the November Artforum, the magazine featured Le Va’s work on its cover. Felt atomized over an expanse of wooden floor brought fully, though not incontrovertibly, into view “a personal stylistic history of extraordinary repleteness.” Livingston validated Le Va’s two-year campaign of ripping and tearing by staking his claim to the “distribution.” Quoting the artist, she wrote: “The distribution is defined as ‘relationships of points and configurations to each other,’ or concomitantly, ‘sequences of events.’” The work’s “antiformal” qualities, vast scale, and horizontality were emphasized. And Le Va’s investigations in felt were pointedly prioritized over Morris’s relatively incidental use of the material, which cropped up in his work in late 1967.33 Nevertheless, Livingston took issue with some of Le Va’s “assumptions and terms.” She posed, “One of the most controversial aspects of Le Va’s recent works, and what strikes one most immediately on seeing them in the flesh, is the question of rearrangeability.” By insisting that his installations were in no way random, Le Va went against the casual protocol of process art: Antiformalists tolerated chance, Le Va’s art resisted it. What happens, then, if somebody walks through a piece and inadvertently (or purposefully) rearranges it? One assumes that only the artist is allowed to kick his work. So, is the piece destroyed? After an exhibition, one has no choice but to sweep up a Le Va. How, then, does the artist re-create his work without changing it? In other words, Livingston implied, how can you deal with any aspect of randomness, even its absence, without admitting its inevitability?

Presented with his work’s inherent contradictions, Le Va claims to have “secretly enjoyed the fact that my pieces were impossible to own for any length of time.” His day job, working as a handler for the art-moving company Cart & Crate, resulted in a growing disillusionment with art’s commerce and containment. Le Va wasn’t alone in his resistance. In 1967, Lucy Lippard and James Chandler published their essay “The Dematerializaton of Art,” which called for, among other things, art that was so ridiculously cheap that anyone could own it. Or art that was so ephemeral, or so monumental, that nobody could. Such radically alternative art was to be equated with the radical politics of the day, as a statement, or, better, an act of refusal against the status quo. And while Le Va’s distributions and disillusionment seemed mostly right in keeping with its era, the issue of his work’s rearrangeability, far from dematerializing, only grows more persistent, problematic, and even emblematic of his art over time.

When Le Va’s felt distribution erupted onto the cover of Artforum, he was in Minnesota experimenting with powders. The magazine’s cover image, with its lurid yellow floorboards, was shot inside the auditorium of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Despite the prestige, Le Va had to be convinced by his friend the artist Bas Jan Ader to accept the school’s invitation to be a visiting artist. After paying his first visit to New York, in the summer of 1968, Le Va moved to Minnesota, where he was to spend the next two years, traveling back to New York when he was not teaching first-year foundation courses. As he later told the critic Robert Pincus-Witten, living in the Midwest was a period of relative isolation that turned into an opportunity to step back from his art’s process and reflect on its content—or the seeming absence of content, as the title of Pincus-Witten’s 1975 article, “Barry Le Va: The Invisibility of Content,” suggests. Going back to his own college days in Ralph Cohen’s aesthetics class, Le Va seems to have been answering his original question of “how” to make work by assuming responsibility for the next question of “why.” What followed was a two-year period of investigation to get at all kinds of possible ways of filling the distributional field with something as immaterial as meaning. Dust, text, and bullets would be involved. A typewriter, a tape recorder, and about twenty meat cleavers would be picked up along the way.



One of the first things Le Va acquired in his quest for content was a taste for mystery novels. “In 1968 I started to read Sherlock Holmes—in fact, I’ve been reading him on and off ever since—and that eventually permeated my thinking.”34 Like Spoerri, Le Va was fascinated by the process of analysis, association, and reconstruction that any given object or situation could trigger in the mind of a detective, for whom every item was a possible clue to an ostensible crime. In his apartment, Le Va continued to make distributions using felt. In his studio, he started using powders, like flour and chalk, which he threw, then shaped, in relation to the framework of the room: “I would stand by the wall and throw flour with two hands across the room. When it had hit the floor…I would scrape away about half the dust in relation to some architectural feature of the space, say in a diagonal line from one corner to another, leaving half the surface bare.”35 As usual. Le Va documented his activities with photographs. It’s almost impossible to look at the black-and-white pictures of these eerie and ephemeral studio pieces and not feel you’re faced with forensic evidence that something bad happened here.


Smoke and Liquid

To live in Minnesota is to experience winter like no Southern Californian knows. As much as mystery began to permeate Le Va’s work, so did the weather and landscape of the Midwest. (Is there a hint of exoticism about the word “permafrost” when it crops up again and again in Le Va’s notes and writings?) Between February and March of 1969, Le Va makes three environmental installations involving minerals and their potential reactions. The first, a commission by the State University of Wisconsin to work with students to create a temporary outdoor work, Le Va considered a failure, which makes it all the more telling of his intent. The project began with the artist marking a map of the River Falls campus with points derived from a plan of radiating circles and intersecting lines. He then instructed the students to mark the actual locations with wooden stakes, and, one day later, to place a bag of limestone concrete at each location. On day three, they were supposed to remove six of the stakes and sprinkle the concrete around the spot in a thinly layered circle. Instead, Le Va reported they just acted like “hippies having playtime—everyone’s an artist” and used the gray powder to draw pictures in the snow.36 Le Va’s piece, which was now destroyed, was supposed to have been completed by the weather (and its water) reacting with the powder to leave a residue of hardened crusts and bags of concrete located around wooden sticks distributed across the landscape.

In an exposé in Art News by the artist Larry Rosing, who was teaching at River Falls, the project was diplomatically deemed a victim of its own success as a challenging work of  contemporary art—something Rosing considered no small feat: “Even though we accept Oldenburg’s grave-digging gesture behind the Metropolitan Museum in Central Park, and the splashes of such an artist as Richard Serra, we felt attacked.” Le Va recalls being booed in the lecture hall by an audience that found his work to be just plain too “temporal, incomprehensible and immaterial.”37 When a student questioned him about  his art’s “substancelessness,” Le Va said that as far as he was concerned, if the work had been made of liquid or smoke, it would still have been too substantial to his liking.

His next works, executed almost immediately upon his return to Minneapolis, bring climatic changes indoors. On Tuesday, February 19, Le Va distributed paper towels,  mineral oil, and white powder all over the parquet floor of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The first of two consecutive installations, Installation #1: Outwards (from the left) jumped several claims.38 It was Le Va’s first solo exhibition and among the first presentations of process art within a traditional museum context. Mike Steele, of the Minneapolis Tribune, reported hearing “a good many titters…from people who felt the piece was out of place alongside Egyptian mummies and Chinese bronzes.”39 On the contrary, Le Va’s distributions would seem to be right at home within the museum context of interpretation and debris. His sticky towels sprawled as ceremoniously as any old bitumen and bandages of an ancient’s last rites. Steele commended the museum for “presenting a local talent who had just been cited in Newsweek’s review of the Whitney Annual as a notable absence from “the nation’s showcase for young artists.”40 From Le Va’s perspective, his museum show was just a sign of the times: “People are beginning to make room for these attitudes now.”41

Outwards (from the left) seems, nevertheless, to belong outdoors. (Presumably, excess linseed oil could be rubbed into wood parquet after the installation closed.) The mess of materials, combined with the absorptive interaction among them, makes the gallery floor into a volatile piece of ground. That Le Va was thinking about his work in such earthen terms is disclosed by a drawing on notebook grid paper. Inscribed “Seattle Museum,” the ink sketch was his proposal for “557,087,” Lucy Lippard’s great exhibition explicator of her concept of dematerialization, titled after the population of Seattle. Whether or not Le Va’s plan was actually realized is a mystery,42 but it called for a distribution of three materials, laid out in three horizontal bands: white flour, black magnesium dioxide, and black felt.43 Along the bottom edge of the drawing is an elevation view of the distribution, showing its topography. Adding a touch of climate is a note for the felt to be wetted, thus humidifying the room and filling it with the pungent odor of wet wool. The installation’s title: Bog.

The paper towels could very well have been lying wet on the institute’s floor when Le Va struck again in Minneapolis. His next multimineral installation occurred sometime around March 1969, at the Walker Art Center. The most secret of the three, it was also the most richly colored. Red iron oxide, an ingredient commonly used by ceramists in making glazes, is dusted over large areas of the floor. Pours of mineral oil soak into the powder and pool onto the bare surface. Pieces of glass lie scattered throughout. Seeing these materials flung around a room in big, performative gestures, one inevitably thinks of abstract expressionism—Jackson Pollock, especially. This reference came up in the early discussions of Le Va’s work as routinely as he quashed it. To the Minneapolis reporter Mike Steele, Le Va explained that was what teachers in art school were telling him to do: “Paint still life in the style of the expressionists,” and “that much of what he does is a reaction against it.” Having determined to rip art down to his own terms, Le Va was not about to be pegged as the progeny of “Jack the Dripper.”

Creating a reactive situation is what interested him. According to the title—Room 2 of a 3-room, 3-part installation utilizing various quantities of the 3 materials—Le Va originally envisioned his installation at the Walker as one of three parts. Three may be the smallest number one can use to animate a sequence and introduce an element of choice and confusion, too. Especially in Le Va’s drawings look for plans in which three identical rooms, drawn adjacent to one another, can also be read as three alternative outcomes to a single proposition. At the Walker, moving from one to the next would be like experiencing a chain reaction. Even without the other two rooms, the installation is a picture of flux and fluidity. Over time, the various materials in their different degrees of dispersal and saturation would slowly congeal, haze, seep, and, perhaps, inasmuch as there may have been chemistry at work, even smolder.


Accretion Veins

Missing from photodocumentation is the bitter cold. On the verge of destruction, the building had already been abandoned to make way for new construction when Walker curators Richard Koshalek and Christopher Finch approached Le Va with a perversely underground exhibition opportunity.14 Namely, would he consider working alone under extreme winter conditions on a major museum installation that only a few invited viewers would be able to experience before the work was destroyed along with the entire building? Naturally, Le Va accepted. Given free run of the empty museum, Le Va says he treated the building like “an extension of my studio.”45 His plan for three installations, “with varying quantities of humidity—dry, damp, and wet,” was tempered by the weather, which was nearly impossible to work in, and would have neutralized everything to “freeze” anyway. The panes of glass, scavenged from the wreckage of the framing department, did enable him “to set up a dialog between the inside and outside of the building by means of the skylight.”46 Photographs catch the ceiling panes reflected in the glass on the floor. One can readily imagine the play of natural light, softening and sharpening form and color throughout the (short) winter day.

Although not widely seen, the installation was well documented in a contemporary publication project by Le Va for Design Quarterly.47 Le Va’s contribution consisted of a portfolio of notes, photographs, and proposals related to his recent installations. There is a definition of the word “permafrost,” sketches around the notion of “absolute permeability,” and ruminations on “accretion veins,” or those “veins formed by the repeated filling of channel ways and their reopening.”48 The definitions come from the Dictionary of Geological Terms, a well-worn paperback “for the student, the rockhound, and the engineer” that the artist still has at his studio.49 Among the entries that have been circled or marked with an X are “air mass,” “bog,” “decrepitation,” “flood-plain meander scar,” “group velocity,” “impact,” “incompetent bed,” “wind shadow,” and “zero curtain.” One catches the poetry—both abstract and concrete—that scientific terminology readily transmits beyond its ken, and to which Le Va’s analytical mind and ear would have been especially attuned. For similar reasons, he likes scientific illustration and has collected, over the years, textbooks on biochemistry, electronics, physics, and neurology, among other favored subjects. He especially likes finding these books in German; since he cannot read the text, they become sources of pure visual information, which he abstracts into his art. Beyond the mixture of precision and obscurity, which Le Va obviously finds pleasing, these sources impart their own meaning to the artist’s visual lexicon. With a sense of the dictionary in hand, one sees Le Va’s distributions turn telluric, resembling earth matter and the forces, violent beyond comprehension, that it takes to shape it. At the same time, his choice of images—of veins reopening, for instance—blur the boundaries between earth and body. The external world collapses deep into an anatomical interior; the seismic and sublime share space with the surgical and psychopathic.


Hurting the Building

One only has to look at photographs of the Walker installation to get the visceral meaning of his words, when Le Va later says he wanted to hurt the building.50 Under the impact of his art, the room appears the victim of some environmental disaster, a flood or flames, or war. The room’s ghost slips from the wreckage into another work, a conceptual piece from roughly the same moment, entitled Walker Art Center: Information Tape Piece. A typewritten page of text by the artist represents the museum in transition: “ART HAS BEEN LENT OUT. PERSONNEL, RECORDS, FURNITURE, ETC., ALL IN TEMPORARY SITUATION.” It focuses on the switchboard: “ALL INFORMATION THAT GOES IN OR COMES OUT PASSES THROUGH THIS CENTRAL CHANNEL,” which the piece proposes to tap for a daylong tape recording. “NO EDITING.” When the new museum opens, this “DIARY OF ONE DAY’S INFORMATION” would be played as though streamed from some lost dimension in time into an empty room.


Omitting a Section

In addition to mixing materials to cause reactions, Le Va was also using pure white powders to overtake space through surface alone.51 Verging on immateriality, chalk dust and flour both had the ability to cover the floor in a way that enabled Le Va to assert a subversive new stature for his work. Even felt offered too much relief for what he had in mind: “The vertical provides too much visual relief, and enables one to determine height—I’m not interested in that aspect of scale.”52 When Le Va made his New York debut in May 1969, it was not with one of his signature distributions but with a radically low-profile work in an exhibition that continues to resonate with significance. Organized by the Whitney Museum’s newly hired curators from California, Marcia Tucker and James Monte, “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” gave institutional authority to an up-and-coming generation of artists who were not only the curators’ peers but also their allies in defiance of all institutional convention.53

On view from May to June, “Anti-Illusion” was a litany of risk. Almost all of the work was made on-site. None of it looked like what most people then (or now) considered art. Some of the artists had never shown before. One artist used hay and grease, another borrowed money and watched the interest accrue. There was a weeklong program of performance, film, and new music, which, like most of the rest of the art on view, was freshly imported from downtown. (Only a subway ride away, Soho was a cultural chasm away from the uptown scene of museums and galleries.) In all, process-based work by more than twenty-one artists—including Lynda Benglis (whose work was never finally shown), Philip Glass, Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Joel Shapiro, Keith Sonnier, and Richard Tuttle—was presented. Having achieved nothing short of an organizational coup, the curators became the artists’ coconspirators in a takeover demonstration of some fairly extreme propositions, which demanded from the museum and audience alike new forms of engagement with contemporary art and contemporary artists.

Le Va contributed Omitted Section of a Section Omitted, a distribution of flour dusted on the floor in the shape of a hard-edged wedge. Pointing sharply from the wall, it established a clear structural relationship to the surrounding space. “Basically all the pieces with fine dust became barriers. They had a kind of ambivalence about them,” said Le Va.54 The whitened floor called attention to itself, but to heed its beckon was to be marked in the act of vandalism by one’s own powdery footprints tracked through the work of art. The process of making this work was also a delicate operation. Curator Tucker recalls Le Va struggling with his studio-rigged sifter—basically, a tin can and a screen—to achieve an almost transparent but perfectly even layer so that the powder revealed as much as it concealed of the irregularly surfaced stone floor below.55 She also remembered that he was annoyed by the proximity of other artists’ work. A corridor piece by Bruce Nauman forms an oddly carnivalesque sidewall to Le Va’s white way. Countering less than optimum installation conditions was the positive affirmation of arriving within the art-world context that his work had, for some time, already situated him.

In her Artforum review of the “Anti-Illusion” exhibition, critic Emily Wasserman commented on the permeability of some of the works on view. “Le Va’s flour dusting was slightly shifted by drafts or the movements of viewers in the vicinity.”56 Tucker remembers worse: finding people’s initials in the flour. Perhaps it was in response to the material’s inherent movement that led Le Va to create a pair of installations based on an imagery of drifting lines. Both Six Blown Lines, 1969, and Extended Vertex Meetings: blocked; blown outward, 1969-71, were made by the same process of pouring lines of flour on the floor (yes, like giant lines of cocaine), then carefully blowing each line with an air compressor to create evenly modulated drifts. As ephemeral as they were, these works were rigorously planned in advance. (When starting over means kicking up a cyclone of dust, you want it to work the first time.) Plus, it was essential that the installation relate to its location. Three separate drawings of chalk blown outward show how Le Va typically conceived his installations along a number of different fronts. There is a concise sketch that gives the basic layout, with notes on the work’s “Physical,” “Visual,” and “Mental” objectives, along with abbreviated installation instructions. There are three variations stacked into a single rhapsody on the structure of the piece—each blown line articulated by an accumulation of the soft strokes of an ink marker. And there is a study of the process in which white spray paint brilliantly plays the part of dust blown across the surface of black paper. Note that Le Va blocked the lines of drifting particles with stencils, according to one of his earliest drawing techniques.

Extended Vertex Meetings: blocked; blown outward was realized, a couple of years after he quit experimenting with powders, in a two-part exhibition organized by the Nigel Greenwood Gallery, in London, in 1971. Changing weekly, four new “Centerpoint” installations were shown at the dealer’s permanent space in Sloane Gardens. This arrangement of presenting an earlier work simultaneously with a new one, as if to establish for viewers the continuity between them, suited Le Va’s investigative process and sense of sequence. For the flour piece, Greenwood requisitioned a warehouse building on Old Burlington Street. A beautiful brick industrial space, with wooden columns, skylights, and walls of windows, it took a lot of preparation to make it disappear. According to Le Va’s specifications, the walls were covered, leaving only a clerestory-band view of the windows, by white gypsum board. The artist’s installation made the walls recede even further, as if pushed by the tides of wide powder blown outward from the center of the room. From this point, standing in a clearing, shaped in a wedge coming off of the doorway, one viewed the piece. Or, as Le Va noted, “Audience stops where piece begins (entrance of work).”57 Imagine the tension of standing in that vast empty warehouse, having your vision pulled peripherally in both directions by a gigantic vertex pointing straight ahead through the wall and beyond the space itself. Meanwhile, you’re being physically held in place by some powder on the floor. Think of the vertiginous shifts in scale taking place between following the rush of lines and observing the particular details. Now, factor in the daylight streaming in from above, stirring up enough motes and luminous motion to dissolve the distinction between the installation and the architecture, collapse the two into one, and lift the powdery floor through the open ceiling.


Eliminating Eye Intimacy

Dust motes make one think of Dust Breeding, a photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass as it was pulled out of storage, in 1920, covered in a thick coat of dust. Although he didn’t see the 1963 survey of Duchamp’s work, Le Va treasures his copy of the exhibition catalog—a book that looks like a technical manual with a measured plan drawing of the Large Glass on the cover, which is protected by a printed Mylar jacket. In this book, one sees Duchamp’s work develop from relatively conventional painting and drawing to radically conceptual art. (Along the way, he adopted mechanical drawing as his preferred style of working on paper.) What motivated him was the idea of the “retinal,” a negative term Duchamp coined to describe art that appealed only to the eye. Echoing this in Le Va’s work is an “eye intimacy,” or the notion that you can know a work of art simply by seeing it. It, too, was minted as something to be eliminated. “I thought my 1967-68 felt pieces succeeded in reducing eye intimacy,” he says of his early distributions.58 And even though the blankets of powder reduced it even further, there was something to behold in their sheer blankness. Not the case with Le Va’s next major work, which effectively eliminated eye intimacy with a singular act of bodily violence.

As described in the related notes and drawings, Le Va’s next installation was to represent a movable object coming in contact with an immovable interior boundary. More specifically, the artist’s 170 pound body running as fast as possible into two opposite walls. With thirty-second intervals between each lap, the action was to endure for as long as was physically and mentally possible. Performed without an audience in the gallery where the installation was to be shown, and recorded in stereo, the piece consisted of the tape recording played continuously. The space was empty, except for a pair of speakers on the opposite walls and two strips of masking tape on the floor to mark the course of the “Impact Run.” Le Va executed the work on two separate occasions, each time with a somewhat different emphasis and title. Velocity: Impact Run, the first manifestation, took place in the fall of 1969 at Ohio State University, in Columbus. Here, it was the structure of the piece in relation to its location that interested him. The gallery ran parallel to a busy hallway trafficked by students traveling at different rates, randomly, and in groups of various densities and patterns. Referring to it as his work’s “substructure,” Le Va summarized this activity—“No energy drain (Continuous flow—No Barrier)”—as the antithesis of his own body running back and forth at full speed in a straight line.59 Indeed, it was these two parts, each audible to one another through the open door of the gallery, that formed the complete work—the noodling noise from the hallway adding a melody to Le Va’s pounding bass line. “I wanted to see if you could actually visualize a location through a sound,” Le Va told Marcia Tucker, to whom he described the students watching the piece by following the direction of the sound with their eyes and heads, while they reconstructed the artist’s performance in their minds.60

The following year, Le Va recreated the work at the La Jolla Museum of Art as Velocity Piece #2. Larry Urrutia had invited him to participate in a group show, which included Robert Barry, David Deutsch, and Sol LeWitt, among others, called “Projections: Anti-Materialism.” Buckminster Fuller’s catalog foreword says it all: “More than 99.9 percent of all the physical and metaphysical events which are evolutionarily scheduled to effect the further regeneration of life aboard our spaceship earth transpire within the vast non-sensorial reaches of the electromagnetic spectrum.”61 It was a show about the new nonretinal, and Le Va contributed his most successful elimination of eye intimacy to date.

Again, the run was executed by the artist and attended only by assistants. But, this time, the piece was extensively documented.62 A three-page typed transcription by museum staff member Sharon Fleming details what turns out to have been an extremely elaborate and exhausting process. Everything had to be done at night to ensure that sounds from the street did not interfere with the recording. There were hours worth of technical kinks to be worked out while Le Va performed “dry runs”: “1:44 a.m.—3 mikes used. Le Va runs 6 laps. Quality of replay inadequate.” By the time of the actual event, which was filmed by Urrutia and photographed by Fleming, it’s surprising he had any velocity left.63 The final entry reads: “11:43 p.m.—Le Va can no longer continue running. His last lap was timed at 7 seconds, almost double the time of the first lap. The piece has been created. The tape will run for 59 minutes.”64

At La Jolla, the piece was performed and presented in the museum’s Garden Gallery, a former conservatory that resembled the plan of the Ohio space minus the noisy, student-filled hallway. Without this “substructure,” attention focused less on the location and more on the absent presence of the object crashing back and forth through the room. Writing of the “artist’s presentation of sound as an aesthetic experience unrelated to music,” one critic described “a sound resembling running which seems to be coming from the speaker across the room…[and then] begins to fade away in the distance, and one suddenly hears a thud—as if some invisible object has struck the distant wall.”65 In her account of the piece, for one of the first critical essays on “Body Art,” Cindy Nemser called attention to the physical traces of Le Va’s exertions—“the blood spattered walls.”66 And she says that “upon hearing the playback recording of his bruised, bloody body plowing into the wall he could not believe it was he who was actually suffering.”67 Such blithe self-destruction Nemser found emblematic, in the extreme way the other artists she discussed—Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, and William Wegman, among them—were all able to detach themselves from the physical immediacy of working with their own bodies as material. She interpreted their detachment as a “message about the frightening and dangerous aspects of our own society.” As far as his own experience of the piece, Le Va says, “What basically interested me was my psychological response to the sheer physical experience of fatigue and pain.”69

Le Va does not consider the documentation of Velocity Piece #2 part of the work, although images have been widely reproduced, including making the cover of a recent history, The Artist’s Body.70 It might even be argued that within the context of Le Va’s art, the piece is ultimately more about an action and its reconstruction than it is an actual performance. Nevertheless, the only work he made using his own body stands as a major work of endurance art. Installed at ICA, the current version of the piece, titled Impact Run—Energy Drain, is pure sound. Using digital technology, Le Va had the 1969 recording (which seems to have been more successful than the 1970 version) calibrated to fit the specifications of the space. We hear a large man running and hitting the museum wall, pausing, then running, falling, getting up, and running, and his breath is growing more labored, and the leather soles of his shoes slide and squeal along the floor as he slams again into the wall. No visual evidence of his body can be found. The space itself has become a human drain.


Formalistic Violence

Ever since he dropped glass, with its “inherent visual noise,” into his felt distributions, sound had been part of Le Va’s plan. And now that he had used sound to eliminate “eye intimacy” in the form of material debris, he turned his attention to his art’s underlying actions. Dropping, placing, throwing, all entailed a moment of impact. This he would seek to amplify by using “materials, tools, and activities which are malicious, harmful and violent in nature when associated with flesh or the body.”71 This time, however, the results were to be completely bloodless. Starting with the floor of his own studio, he returned to his favorite victim: architecture.

On one of his trips driving back to Minneapolis from New York in 1969, Le Va picked up a bunch of cleavers. Big, heavy, 3 1/2-pound ones, with 9 1/2-inch-long blades, that he had obtained, appropriately enough, from a butcher supply store around the meat yards of Chicago. Le Va says he was looking for an object that would embody both velocity and impact: “The other alternatives I thought of were axes, which would have been too heavy and pretentious, or knives, which didn’t seem to have enough presence.”72 He started by sticking the cleavers into the floor. This made for some pretty vicious-looking distributions, but failed to convey the desired threat of bodily harm. Le Va achieved this with his next move into the realm of figurative reference, by cleaving the blades into the vertical field of the wall.

Le Va approached working on the wall with cleavers the same as working on the floor with felt—with deliberation. Using the cleavers and the marks made by sticking them into and removing them from the wall, he wanted to create enough of a pattern to induce viewers into reconstructing movement, sequence, and method. Where was the artist (attacker) standing? How were the cleavers thrown? In what order? Some of the plans were quite baroque. A drawing from 1970 calls for hacking out double cloverleaf patterns according to elaborate directions. More simply, the Cleaved Wall installation at ICA is twelve cleavers at floor level. To study their arrangement is to see that they have been put in at roughly one-pace intervals and that they must have been thrown underhand. In other words, to study them is to conjure the artist in action, working to the measure of his own body. This installation relates to the work Le Va contributed to the 1970 Whitney Sculpture Annual: rows of cleavers stuck along both the top and bottom of the wall. To protect against the liability of a cleaver coming unstuck and falling onto a viewer’s head, the museum cordoned off the piece—a measure Le Va considered destructive to the work, since it was, in part, about facing that very danger.


Shattered Glass and Bone

Between 1969 and 1972, Le Va experimented with different tools of violence. He went from using cleavers (“extensions of the hand”) to bullets (“travel…a short distance with high impact penetration”), to bricks (“crushes”), to glass (“disperses, shatters, cuts”).73 It was a timely investigation. Shortly after Le Va executed his impact run at Ohio State, in Columbus, on May 18, 1970, National Guardsmen shot into a crowd of students on Ohio’s Kent State campus, hitting thirteen and killing four. The students, who were protesting the bombing of Cambodia, were all taken at close range. As the war in Vietnam escalated, so did social upheavals across the globe. In America, especially, it seemed that the complacency of the fifties had bred nothing but contempt for the status quo. This was the era of a radicalized Civil Rights movement, women’s liberation, and the youth culture becoming a political force. Violence was bound to occur, and did, with numbing frequency; assassinations, kidnappings, bombings, gassings, hijackings, were the news of the day. In speaking to Elaine King, the curator of his 1988 survey exhibition, no wonder Le Va referred to the late sixties and early seventies “sarcastically as his ‘violent period.’”74

It would take an act of elimination of more than eye intimacy not to observe a correspondence between Le Va’s most explicitly violent art and its historic context of pervasive social (and cultural) unrest. At the same time, it would be misleading to interpret his art—along with so much of the process-based work of the period involving breakdowns, crack-ups, mutilation, and destruction—as being overtly political. As King writes, “Le Va was not intentionally making statements of social criticism.” Indeed, most of his surveyors have downplayed the violence of his work, especially when the bullets and cleavers start flying. For instance, King takes this moment in her essay to point out that “not all of the works executed during this time were about violence and destruction, even though the materials and procedures involved evoke such associations.”75

Upon reaching a similar point, Marcia Tucker emphasized Le Va’s interest in theater and movement. He had told her that at school, “Theater interested me the same way street traffic interested me…I suppose I would have liked to direct movement in some way.”76 Following this lead, Tucker viewed Cleaved Wall as “extremely theatrical in its final form, although its intentions were of a logical order,” having more to do with physical logic “than to violence per se.”77 I see exactly the opposite. Whether it’s suppressed within the plan of an apparently random distribution or as obvious as a meat cleaver hanging overhead, in Le Va’s art, as in life, violence is there. Methodically. Deliberately. Willfully. Inevitably. And without comment.

An empty envelope that once contained photographs of his cleaver installations is inscribed with some fragmentary notes. These prove useful to understanding more about what Le Va had in mind during his “violent period.” The notes read: “Formalistic Violence: A line becomes fragmentation. A cause becomes a result. An act starts an act. Violence is violence. Cleavers, Bullets, Glass: become each other.”78 Thus, it seems that Le Va was considering violence a formal issue, one which, like any other visual question, could be broken down in terms of materials, gestures, lines. Or, as he explains elsewhere, he wanted “to subvert or break down violent associations by emphasizing structure or procedures and locations.”79

From a formal standpoint alone, the most spectacular work of Le Va’s violent period was installation for documenta 5, the 1972 iteration of the international exhibition held in Kassel, Germany, every five years. Sharing space with works by Nauman (the backside of another corridor) and Ulrich Rückriem (a swag of fabric overhead), Le Va created a seventy-foot causeway of broken glass. A jagged path was left clear for viewers to walk through; what must have first appeared to be a monumental accident, quickly disclosed an intricate and lapidary design. Layers and edges emerge from the visual cacophony of one hundred sheets of glass placed, dropped, and thrown into a carefully composed crepitation of gestures and patterns. Photographs show that Le Va used wooden boards to frame sections and layers of the work in progress. (In these provisional frames, one catches a glimpse of Le Va’s forthcoming “Accumulated Vision” series.) And that he allowed others to pitch in: There is a picture of the dealer Rolf Ricke gleefully tossing a sheet of glass.80

Not everyone appreciated the work’s intentionality. Robert Pincus-Witten writes how “a negligent administration allowed the work to become damaged, first by hostile workmen who tossed beer bottles into the piece, and then by a public who walked upon the layers of glass, thus disordering every contextual reference of the fragments.”81 As it happens, there was hostility on both sides. Le Va’s name is among the ten artists who signed a manifesto that appeared in the June 1972 Artforum.82 “Prompted primarily in response to documenta 5, but pertaining to all exhibition conditions,” the statement called for the artist’s right to determine where and in what context his or her art would be shown. (It also demanded that an itemized institutional budget be disclosed, “including allocations to participants, transportation, curatorial fees, etc.”) As an image of protest, tinged with institutional paranoia against the man—or, in this case, men—the manifesto could practically be a work in the show. Organized by a team of four curators, led by Harald Szeeman, this first thematic documenta was conceived as an “Inquiry into Reality—Today’s Imagery.” Art and nonart objects were liberally mixed to picture a reality of images, in which yard gnomes, Coca-Cola trays, and contemporary art were as one. Both critical and utopian, the show fell subject to its own attempts at leveling art-world systems of validation and consumption. Half of the artists that signed the manifesto withdrew their art from the exhibition, including Robert Smithson, whose text against museums appears in the catalog. For the remaining five, the act of protest alone must have been sufficient expression of their autonomy from curatorial authority. For Le Va, the manifesto was an opportunity to register in print his dissatisfaction at having other artists’ work encroach upon his distributional field—and to voice his resistance to outside control of his work in any form.

Titled Within the Series of Layered Pattern Acts, the documenta 5 installation is named for the subtitle of a series of works that is represented at ICA by On Corner—on Edge—on Center Shatter (Within the Series of Layered Pattern Acts), 1968-71/2005. First installed at the Rolf Ricke Gallery in 1971, with the noisome subtitle Shatterscatter, this work is like a piece of jazz that takes on slight but significant variations every time it is realized. And this goes for its endlessly tweaked title. Of course, improvisation is a fundamental ingredient of every installation (and title) by Le Va. But there’s something about this work in particular—perhaps, simply, that it is relatively easy to interpret. Lay a sheet of untempered, nonsafety window glass on the floor. Now, take an approximately ten-pound sledgehammer, the long-handled kind used in breaking rocks or concrete, and smash the glass in the center. Next, lay another sheet of glass on top of the first. Repeat with sledgehammer. Do this until there is only one sheet of glass remaining. Lay the final sheet on top of the stack, untouched.

Anywhere between five and twenty sheets of glass may be called for. And there are various ways the artist has of stacking them. But one thing is certain about the Shatterscatter. As Le Va instructed the dealer Daniel Weinberg, “A most important aspect of this work is its location. Preferably by itself….It is an isolated contained act.”83 One of his suggestions is a doorway, a location that, when it turns up in a 1969 drawing called Glass Run Piece, makes a shocking connection between the Shatterscatter and Velocity: Impact Run. The annotated drawing shows a doorway covered by two layers of glass, and instructs a man to run through the glass, resulting in “residue in other room or hall.” Returning to the Shatterscatter installation, it’s difficult not to see the cracks as having been created upon impact with a man’s body, even when you know the fact of the matter. (Traces of Duchamp’s fatefully cracked Large Glass are also etched among the fracture lines.)

Related to Glass Run Piece is another drawing, Bullet Piece, which calls for a violent procedure to take place. This one begins: “Person shoots hand gun trying to get Bullets into hole of pipe (almost impossible).” Not only impossible, dangerous—given that the pipes are sticking up from the floor and the idea is to shoot down into them. Ricocheting bullets multiply by at least another round the factors of impact and velocity that interested Le Va. And, although a bullet ricocheting around a room seems random, it is a sharpshooter’s dream of calculating infinitesimal angles, trajectories, and contact. Shots from the End of a Glass Line, 1970, appears a rococo rendition of single-gun theory. Out of the wall projects a length of metal pipe surrounded by five bullet holes. On the floor, leading up to the target, is a snaking line of shattered glass, like a temptation to shoot the target that shoots back.

What exactly is involved in shooting a gallery wall? Le Va says that when the piece was first realized in Germany, it was a relatively simple process of calling up the local police, who fired directly into the wall, which was made of solid plaster construction. At ICA, after the installation was approved by the university, bulletproof vests were stuffed inside the Sheetrock wall, and tactical commander Joseph Hasara, a professional sniper and Penn security guard, did the job. Compared to the noise—each shot reverberated through the building for minutes afterward—the holes themselves are fairly anticlimactic. Bullets whistle through Sheetrock as cleanly as a drill bit; it was the shattered plywood behind the vests that really took the impact. “I don’t want anyone to get killed,” Le Va said.84 This, presumably, is what makes the violence in his work formalistic—its impossible procedures and highly controlled choreography. Death, however, was an unmitigated part of the plan in two works where violence slips the leash. Pity the unfortunate, who does not die from the hundred-foot drop into the tapering pit specified in the drawing for Slow Death Zone. Presented as the conceptual work Slow Death Piece at Rolf Ricke, in 1971, it consisted of a taped off location on the floor, just inside of a doorway—a threshold to approach with caution (and dread) in Le Va’s art. Truck Event, 1970, was his response to an invitation to propose a project to take place on a London pier.85 Notes on the drawing call for five “heavy duty diesel transport trucks with double trailers” to back up the length of the pier at full speed. If the jackknifing rigs didn’t kill the drivers, the carbon monoxide fuming up the enclosed pier would have done the trick.



Beginning in 1970, a remarkable year for Le Va, his art entered a range of contexts. It was exhibited for the first time in Europe, at Galerie Rolf Ricke, in Cologne. After sketching the possibilities of filling the gallery with lumps of coal or tons of powdered concrete, or perhaps shooting out all the windows with a high-powered rifle, the artist settled on making his international debut with this duet: Float, a flour distribution, and Shots from the End of a Glass Line. In April, a new aspect of Le Va’s art came to light in the hallway of another Ohio college, this time Oberlin’s Allen Art Museum.86 In response to all the new art that called out to be read like a book, the curator Athena Spear invited artists to submit text and photobased works for publication in a catalog that ended up constituting a good portion of the show. An unbound copy of Art in the Mind was “exhibited on the walls of a well frequented corridor in the Art Building.”87 Twelve pages were dedicated to Le Va’s Fictional Excerpts, a typewritten text that lifted four lines from every hundredth page of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. It was a typed confession of his addiction to Holmes, who was, in any case, the perfect inducement to thinking about “Art in the Mind.” A man incapable of mere retinal pleasure, Holmes told his partner, “I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix.”88 And he advised Watson to attempt to do the same, to use his mind in order “to see” what others just “observed.” In quoting from Sherlock Holmes, Le Va also prompted a detective reading of his own work. The sentence—“One night my cries brought Leonardo to the door of our van. We were near tragedy”—breaks off the action as puzzlingly as any other arrangement of fragments in Le Va’s art.89

“Art in the Mind” ran before “Information,” which opened, in July 1970, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, with another text-based work by Barry Le Va. This one consists of a single page of six short Notes for Possible Pieces. One note, for instance, reads: “A ROLLING MASS OF PARTLY CONDENSED WATER VAPOR, DUST, AND ASH, HIGHLY CHARGED WITH ELECTRICITY.” Based on the geographic definitions he was beginning to mine around the time of the Walker installation, it was typed, as all of these pieces were, on Minneapolis College of Art letterhead. (Once the incriminating address was removed, the stationery left Le Va with a readymade frame, elegantly pin-lined in gray ink.) Read as specifications, Le Va’s notes warrant one aspect of the anxiety roused in the curator by works that, for example, consisted of asphalt dumped over a hillside, imagining clouds dripping, push-ups on mud. In his catalog essay for what is considered the first full-scale, institutional treatment of conceptual art, the curator, Kynaston McShine, surmised: “What is the traditional museum going to do about work at the bottom of the Sargasso Sea?”90

Lead an expedition outdoors. Shortly after Le Va moved permanently to New York, in August 1970, he participated by long-distance in one of the first major outdoor exhibitions of site-specific art. Organized in and around Minneapolis by the Minnesota State Arts Council, “9 Artists/9 Spaces” produced pandemonium to match the conundrums of MoMA’s “Information” and the affronts of the Whitney’s “Anti-Illusion.” A billboard by William Wegman was taken down on the university campus after the FBI considered it a bomb threat. A neon sculpture by Fred Escher was removed from its spot after local African Americans protested its lack of relevance to their community. Ron Brodigan’s sculpture was destroyed by “some restless young people gaily bedecked with their long hair and beads,” for interfering with their park.91 A letter to Le Va from guest curator Richard Koshalek assured the artist that his work, Landscape View, was still on view.92 But there were some problems when the land it was located on was discovered not to belong to the man living in a nearby trailer. He was the one who gave them permission to use the property.


Stone Cold

Landscape View consisted of three stepped concrete platforms set in the terrain. The site, Le Va specified in his notes, should be “isolated, hard to find.” The steps, located roughly one thousand feet apart from one another, should be “discovered, stumbled upon, while walking in the area.” Le Va envisioned the platforms as recontextualized urban locations “minus architectural structures, noise, population, transportation, etc.,” and as activators of a human scale.93 To come across the steps, lying stone cold in the grass, would be a mysterious and vaguely disturbing experience. To mount the steps would be to assert your body and its measure over the landscape, while rising into view, like a target. To step down from the steps would be to deactivate the piece, which would disappear again into the landscape. At the close of 1970, Le Va was making notes for Stone Step: Twenty-six, another outdoor project, this one to be realized as a film—the beginning of several film projects by Le Va, most unrealized. The action of Stone Step consisted of Le Va throwing a medium-size stone, then taking a number of steps away from it, and marking the spot with a “clear, decisive footprint.” The action was to be repeated twenty-six times, with the number of steps, direction of throws, etc., to be “decided when time to do the piece.” Whatever the variables, the “entire situation would be scattered over vast area of ground”—ground marked by some more or less discernible pattern of footprints and stones. The action would be shot in color from two perspectives: close-up, showing just the artist’s hands, and far away, reducing the action to “about the size of a pin.” Both views were to be projected side by side at “slightly slower than normal speed and with a soundtrack.”94

Le Va was planning to realize this project on his next trip to Germany, working with the visionary filmmaker and dealer Gerry Schum. Schum’s mission was to turn every West German home with a television into an art gallery by broadcasting films and videos by artists—many of whom might not have otherwise ventured into the medium.95 His video gallery first aired in April 1968 with a program called “Land Art.” Le Va worked with Schum and his partner, Ursula Wevers, in their souped-up, high-tech Mercedes van on another film project. Despite the simplicity of its conception—a metal bar appears stationary although it is actually being carried parallel to the ground—the piece turned into an endurance feat for Schum of handheld steady camera work. Listed in several exhibition catalogs, the work was never completed or shown,96 nor, says Le Va, were any of his film or video projects, because they proved too costly, complex, painful, or dangerous.

The first attempt at filming Stone Step, Le Va says, was with a Hollywood cameraman who offered to do the work for free, until Le Va decided to cast twenty-six extras instead of doing the action himself. The artist admits that his script for a forty-minute film of a woman’s mouth reciting a list of numbers, according to a ridiculously impossible rule (which might not even have been followed), would have been unbearable torture for all involved. Four tapes syncopated into one video of a woman loudly slapping her stomach was never finished: The woman refused to submit to the necessary retaping. Le Va’s potentially most lethal unrealized work in this vein centered on a cleaver being rapidly stuck and removed from between the outspread fingers of a hand lying on a table covered with powder that would billow up and obscure the action.97 As performative as they were, none of these projects was intended to be seen as documentation—a form that Le Va consistently rejected; it simplified, down to a picture, art that had to be experienced as a form of complexity. Rather, they comprise a discrete investigation of “certain filmic issues,”98 presumably those having to do with sequence, narrative, and location—structural issues consistent with his work as a whole.


Evidence of Past Occurrences

As in film, establishing location is an important aspect of Le Va’s work, one that he has researched extensively using photography. “I think a lot of my ideas come from experiencing different kinds of spaces and what goes on in them,” he says.99 Since moving to Minneapolis in 1968, he had adopted the habit of scouting the city and surrounding countryside with his 35mm camera in tow, looking for places with “a ring of science fiction to them: places where particular events occur and then dissolve into the environment.”100 Places like parking lots and underground garages, seedy city parks and spaces that feel like someplace between here and there. These subjects form Le Va’s ongoing picture research, a process that tends to pick up momentum whenever he travels to Europe, which he routinely does. Returning from his first trip, in 1969, he reported: “Was impressed by European trains and layout of cities. Looked at no art.”101 There are many journeys worth of photographs of empty hotel lobbies and blurred landscape views taken through the windows of moving cars and trains. For a number of years, he has made it a project to get out at every station, stand on the platform, and shoot the tracks. Recently, his photographs, which have been accumulating in boxes, envelopes, and albums to form a scattered picture archive at his studio, have been making their way into his “scrapbook” projects and photocollage drawings.

Around the same time he started taking photographs, Le Va was developing a text-based work with a similar purpose in mind, called Fiction. Each typewritten page reads exactly like it was composed, as fragments streamed and gleaned from newspapers, the radio, and other media. For example: “MATTER IN THE CENTER OF THE GALAXY IS EITHER COLLAPSING OR BEING REARRANGED ON A GRAND SCALE…37 STEPS. $10,000. A DAY…ON CHINESE WRITING…FROM ONE OF THE STONE WALLS 400 ARMS PROJECTED AT THE POINTS NEAREST THE BROKEN SLABS…FLOORED SMOOTH…VEST POCKET OPTICAL SYSTEM.” Littered with the kind of information that captures Le Va’s attention, the work is an imagery of incidents and locations that never settle into place. Even the contents are fluid: Pages can be added or subtracted and still constitute a complete work of Fiction.

Le Va called this text “a science fiction novel in which thoughts are assigned fluctuating positions in space.”102 Referring to his photographs in the same manner, Le Va may have had something more specific in mind than just “a ring of science fiction.”103 As much as books serve as studio references, so do films. Le Va recently replaced his much-viewed video of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville with a DVD copy. Equal parts science fiction, detective novel, and comic strip, this 1965 French New Wave film instantly entered the cultural currency. (See, for instance, artist Mel Bochner’s Alfaville, Godard’s Apocalypse (Project for a Magazine), in the May 1968 issue of Arts Magazine.) Hardboiled, gun-toting private detective Lemmy Caution is sent to the Outlands to destroy the computer Alpha 60 that controls a dystopic future in which any form of human tenderness is punishable by death. This future, filmed in black and white, mostly at night, looks nightmarishly familiar. It’s the everyday reality that Le Va captures in his photographs—photographs in which light becomes the fugitive element by glaring artificially out of darkness or dimness, and flaring up and ricocheting off reflective surfaces. The perfect narrator of Le Va’s Fiction would be the croaking mechanical voice of Alpha 60.

Cultural critic Ross Gibson writes about a photograph from a forensic archive, trying to deduce what makes the picture of a tree and a sidewalk so disturbing: “For as long as I look at it or remember it, this image unsettles me in the way its composition is so brittle, ready as it is to craze at several points of stress.”104 Whatever it is, Le Va frames it, too, often by strictly enforcing the laws of perspective. Looking down a railroad platform, the intersecting tracks and overhead wires appear prone to a disastrously wrong switch. Peering into the gloom of a basement hallway, the dumpster hides as much as it contains. This is no science fiction, just the ordinary stress of seeing something could happen here—if it hasn’t already occurred.


Maiden Lake

Something is definitely going on in three photographic series that Le Va directed. Working with his companion at the time, Carol Sullivan, Le Va instructed her to move in a straight line through grass, brush, and water, while he shot Surface Crawl. He considered the images Muybridgelike studies of motion. For Forest Run, he had her dart into the woods. More research: “I wanted to take a vast situation such as a forest…and create an awareness of its constituent elements—volumes, edges, height, width—by means of a specific act.”105 The third series, Extensions, shot in the summer of 1971 on the shores of Maiden Lake, Wisconsin, however, became a photographic work in its own right.106 Sets of pictures of a woman’s hands and feet are laid out in grids—“poppy seed” style—with no readily discernible sequence or correspondence. Even when you know what’s going on—first, the artist posed the hands, then he photographed the feet wherever they happened to be—It’s impossible to put the hands and feet together; Le Va shot them at thoroughly incompatible angles. Lying in the grass, grabbing at tree trunks, floating in the water, the limbs have been spliced from the woman’s body. In its absence, a person might think of another female nude sprawled in the grass, the one in Duchamp’s secret last work, Etant Donnés. Discovered in the studio after his death, this disturbing tableau went on view for the first time in 1969, when it was permanently installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—around the time Le Va started working with a woman in the woods.


Practice Range

The diversity of Le Va’s practice around 1970—taking photographs, conducting research, typing, drawing, making installations indoors and out, working with a range of materials that included his own body—was essentially the practice of the day. One can quickly garner this from an essay Lucy Lippard wrote in 1985, “Intersections,” which looks back on the period she critically helped to shape.107 Lippard describes an intensely experimental culture in which the general deemphasis on form “led to the kind of literalism that also made dictionary and thesaurus definitions popular.” There was “much talk about serial relationships—one to one to one” and “a mania for math books.” Artists were “making ‘invisible pieces’ that emphasized and/or incorporated the room itself,” then using words to say what was there. Artists were “replacing the ‘furniture’ of art with place,” and making art by performing everyday tasks and procedures. Deadpan objects (like guns), B movies, science fiction, geological time, duration, and boundaries all enter into Lippard’s account of the general consciousness of artists whose collective aim it was “to expand the axes and vortices of art into the ‘real world.’”108


One-man Operation

Le Va seemed to be operating within the context Lippard outlined, in every way but one. He wasn’t interested in making his art part of the “real world.” He was interested in working in his studio—a space contained not by four walls but by the issues and problems inherent to his work, wherever and however he created it. When pressed by Avalanche interviewer Liza Béar to discuss his recent work in relation to outdoor projects by Dennis Oppenheim and Robert Smithson, Le Va responded briskly. “I think the photographs I was taking related to my own interests more than to Oppenheim’s or Smithson’s work—scale, perspective, the lay of the land, or evidence of past occurrences.” As far as he was concerned, Le Va was carrying out his work in a field that had been greatly expanded by postminimalist practices, but he was not one of its practitioners. Lately, he wasn’t even sure about making art. After being hospitalized with cancer, Le Va entered the year 1971 by moving through a slow zone of recovery. He told Béar that he had just “spent four months watching TV, taking tranquilizers, and drinking whiskey.” (“Goodness,” she demurred.) And now he was contemplating leaving the studio entirely. “Maybe I’ll go around the city and stage little crimes, he joked.110 Fortunately, his work had already embarked on its next trajectory.

In The Life of Forms in Art, the French art historian Henri Focillon argues the limits of visual knowledge: “[Man] does not measure space with his eyes, but with his hands and feet.”111 Artists, especially, he writes, understand this. “Without hands there is no geometry, for we need straight lines and circles to speculate on the properties of extension.”112 As if demonstrating Focillon’s theory, Barry Le Va’s photographs of hands and feet extend into a realm of pure geometry.


Connecting the Dots

Beginning with simple circles on the floor and developing into complex three-point perspective in space, Le Va created a series of installations during the seventies based on geometry. These installations consisted of largely empty rooms, in which some form of physical marker had been distributed to indicate a process or plan. “Of course it’s essential for people to know the title, or it doesn’t make sense,” Le Va reasoned.113

Even so, these works were deliberate challenges to the art of mental reconstruction. In his written instructions on how to install Intersection: 7 Circles, 3 Varying Sizes, all Tangent only to Two opposite (opposing) walls. None to both, Le Va precisely specified the arrangement of circles to be drawn in chalk (“white or whatever is easiest”) and the eighteen points of intersection to be marked. The markers (1 3/8″ in diameter) could be wood, or they could be “stone grinding gears…they have a little hole in the middle (very small).” Anything but metal, which “I would prefer to stay away from.”114 Once the points were marked, every trace of chalk was to be cleaned of “(absolutely) all traces of drawing procedure.” The perpetrator of Le Va’s piece was then instructed to “place a small title card on wall in space—5 x 7″ or smaller, whatever is usually done in group shows like this.”115

There were no telltale chalk lines to erase from the “Traveling Lengths” series, which Le Va introduced with his first New York one-artist exhibition, at Bykert Gallery, in 1973. (Gallery director Klaus Kertess was cocurator of the aforementioned group exhibition at Yale University.116) These works marked their own procedure. Walked end-over-end, a wooden dowel, of specified length, was shortened by a segment every time it touched the floor. Think of it as “impact run, energy drain” for sticks (or tallies), which, unlike people, travel with increasing velocity the closer they get to being completely run down. And while it may be easy to discern that one stick had petered out in its peregrinations around the room, imagine trying to reconstruct the route of 12 lengths in 3 areas: walked zig-zag, walked end over end. (Ends touch; ends cut). Such was the subtitle of the Bykert installation. From photographs, it looks like an explosion in a hockey puck factory.

As much as they describe procedures and actions, these works were, for Le Va, not about systems. At least, not in any fixed sense of the word. But not all systems turn out the same way each time they are applied. There are relational systems, as Marcia Tucker discovered when she picked up a well-worn book about advanced physics at Barry Le Va’s studio.117 In his copy of Hans Reichenbach’s The Philosophy of Space and Time, Tucker found a passage tellingly underlined: a definition of “content” as “‘the system of relations common to a given set of symbolic systems.’”118 By extension, she deduces the content of Le Va’s works that use geometry to such elusive ends. As he confirmed, “If there is any point of view in the work as a whole, it’s relational. To change one thing is to change the whole thing….People assume it’s a system, but it’s not. However, within the construction or operation of the work, there are clues to every decision made, and to why it’s been made.” 119In other words, these works create the image of a system at work without creating a working system—at least, not one that anyone could envision or control but Barry Le Va.

The notion of contingencies constantly at work, and beyond one’s control, is dangerous and unsettling, as Le Va’s drawings make apparent. Circling a room inevitably results in cutting intersections. Sticks zigzagging and arcing their way at varying rates of speed are bound to collide. For Le Va, there was more than geometry at stake: “I am always conscious of different rates of people walking at the same time… they all have their own tracks…but they are also mentally in proximity to me…is this person or thing going to crash into this other person or thing, is this person going to shoot this person?”120

Suddenly, the dots become victims, as the dots of humanity did in this passage from another of Le Va’s studio references, the 1949 film The Third Man. “Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to eat my money—or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend?” Chilling words written by Graham Greene and spoken by Orson Welles’s character Harry Lime, who has been selling fatally watered-down penicillin in postwar Vienna. The scene was shot from high atop a Ferris wheel, a contraption that some of these drawings of Le Va’s inadvertently resemble. “All about collision and interruptions and disruptions,” is how he describes these ambulatory networks, which demonstrate the almost mathematical probability for violence to erupt.121 Not that this should be any cause for alarm. Le Va observes, “It’s catastrophic because it changes something. Not necessarily because the results are catastrophic. These are unrelated things that become related by proximity.”122

At ICA, three different relational systems collide in a single installation called Circular Network: Objects 1971, Area 1972, Activities 1973. When first compiled in 1988, for a survey exhibition of his work at the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, the piece wheeled over two distinct areas. Concrete blocks marking Centerpoints and Lengths and Intersecting Circles sat adjacent to the wooden logs representing Traveling Lengths. Now, at ICA, all three areas are superimposed, like the vellum overlays of a mechanical drawing. Indeed, in the process of reconfiguring it to suit the proportions of the second-floor gallery, Le Va returned to his working drawings for a 1990 installation of the piece, using this version to generate a new set of graphite-on-vellum plans. This hybrid installation raises the issue of reconstruction, another area, like photography, rife with questions and potential gray zones in Le Va’s art.


Reconstructing the Scene

Hardware-store materials and cheap lumber gave Le Va’s installations of the seventies a scrappy look that is at odds with today’s beefy manifestation. When asked about this by Kröller-Müller curator Marianne Brouwer, Le Va said, “I wanted to find out whether they still hold as markers, or whether they have become so much of an object that the underlying network is not important anymore.”123 Thus, Le Va has maintained the mutability of his work on every level, including his shifting interests in relationship to it, along with his abiding interest in control. “If the drawings are scripts or scores, they are for me to improve on,” Le Va recently said in an interview with his friend the artist Saul Ostrow.124 “I don’t trust other people’s critical decisions about installing my earlier work. I’m the controlling factor and I don’t like relinquishing control. This is true even with the recent works, which can be set up by someone else, but that’s only because they come with a set of floor plans with exact measurements and instructions.”125


A Maze of Thought

The most difficult of Le Va’s works to reconstruct belong to the “Accumulated Vision” series for which this exhibition is named. Like all the installations of the seventies based on invisible geometry, these involve some minimal means of marking points in space. In this case, sticks on the floors and the walls indicate angles of perspective. And although they appear relatively simple—even straightforwardly constructivist—the drawings for these works belie an almost bizarre degree of complexity and subjectivity at work. Drawn diagrammatically and in perspective, the space appears as a cubic mass penetrated by lines projected from various points outside of it. It’s an application of the research he conducted with Forest Run, research on a volume being broken down by a pathway through it. But, now, there are many, many paths being drawn simultaneously and from points above and below, as well as directly outside of the volume/room. Marks have been made to connect these lines at specific intersections and angles. And it is the designation of these networks, or sites of accumulated vision, that the wooden sticks correspond to in the actual installation.

The drawings for “Accumulated Vision” also show how intensely Le Va worked and reworked these studies to arrive at an approach—and only an approach, since, of course, the actual installation would be subject to change. A group of six drawings, from what could easily be a series of three times as many more (judging from the numbering in their titles), shows relational content in action. Each time a point changes position, all of the networks shift. The sequence appears animated by Le Va’s quest for an installation plan. The final drawing reveals his objective: a condensation of marks arranged evenly and not too dynamically throughout the space. Even as drawings, these works are much more computational than Le Va’s studies of circles, tangents, and traveling lengths. These geometries were evidently based on the mechanics of compasses and T-squares—tools that extend the artist’s eye to his hand. But the “Accumulated Vision” series goes straight to the mind, demanding that we engage in a form of mental surveying—a kind of cubist activity—that attempts to line up variables within space, which are fluctuating even while we attempt to analyze them. No wonder Le Va himself is the first to acknowledge of the “Accumulated Visions,” “They are almost too complicated to talk about, because their compounded perspectives form a maze of information—a maze of thought.”126

In an era of high tolerance for seemingly empty galleries and the enigmas they entailed, the critical reception for Le Va’s “Accumulated Vision” series was just short of irate. Writing favorably, in 1973, of “Traveling Lengths,” critic Kenneth Baker appreciated the challenge of Le Va’s work for viewers: “We are becoming very sophisticated, through shows such as this, in the use of ‘neutral’ artistic situations which tend to minimize incident and coach our perceptions in the most subtle and testing of ways.”127 But even the most avid aficionados of what Baker dubbed the “low key perceptual arena” were stumped by Barry Le Va’s “Accumulated Vision” installations. As critic David Bourdon summed up his experience in the title of a 1976 review: “Is This a Geometry Class?”128


Impenetrable Web

The first “Accumulated Vision” to be shown in New York was also Le Va’s first exhibition at Sonnabend Gallery, in January 1976. Nancy Foote begins her Artforum review by stepping straight “into two scatterings of wooden dowels” and marching up to the wall label.129 There, she found the information she was looking for—sort of. “A notice explained that the sticks represent sightings, taken from points below the floor, along lines demarcated by the dowels and projected on the wall. This information conjures up an image of Le Va, downstairs [from Sonnabend] in the Castelli Gallery, standing on a stepladder, and, with X-ray vision, penetrating the ceiling/floor to delineate the resulting angles.”130 Trying to envision this complicated setup, Foote writes, “I found myself increasingly sucked into the piece—bending, leaning, squatting and squinting to try to figure out what marked what.”131 Only after she resorts to asking for help does she learn the futility of her investigation. “It turns out that Le Va took his hypothetical measurements, recorded them with sticks, and then packed up the dowels and moved to another spot!” The drawings, which “spelled out the results that remained so elusive in the actual installation,” confirm her suspicion. The artist was messing with his audience. And the audience didn’t appreciate it. Foote concludes, “l came away…with the feeling that he may have outsmarted himself as well, becoming so involved in multiplying the layers of complications that he lost his grip on the overall results.”132

For Le Va, this was exactly the point. He says of the labels, “Though it’s simple enough information that’s being presented—you can’t retain it because the concepts overlap and cancel each other out.”133 And, as Foote found out, even if you could figure it out, the concepts had subsequently been short-circuited during installation by the artist himself. Having canceled out the possibility of a system or solution, Le Va leads the viewer to experience complication for its own sake. One imagines the lines shooting off from the wooden markers creating a tangled web, like the one Duchamp actually made using a mile of string to render the installation of a 1942 exhibition impenetrable. Or, given Le Va’s record of past violence to buildings, the invisible lines may be seen to map a hail of bullets fired through the walls, floors, and ceiling by high-powered weapons, ultimately destroying the gallery and anyone who happened to be inside. Even from the perspective of pure draftsmanship, the tracery of lines projected within an “Accumulated Vision” quickly turns from reverie into brutality. Architecture is extinguished by such relentless penetration and absurd complexity. And here we arrive at the crux of the matter: In the critical heyday of constructed space, Le Va’s installations would only frustrate viewers who attempted to piece together what was on every level a work of deconstruction.


False Clues

After they failed her as leads, Nancy Foote categorized the wooden sticks in the first “Accumulated Vision” as “red herrings,” or false clues.134 Suddenly, it seemed every viewer was a gumshoe, primed to solve a mystery, often based on directives from the artists themselves.135 For instance, in an essay entitled “Mystery Under Construction,” Alice Aycock compared her outdoor sculptures to archaeological sites, haunted by events that called out to be reconstructed.136 A 1976 installation by Dennis Oppenheim is actually entitled Search for Clues. Detective metaphors had been part of Le Va’s work since he purloined lines from Sherlock Holmes to make Fictional Excerpts. In 1977, he returned to his mystery library, this time taking a page from Ellery Queen, literally, and inserting it, like a textual found object, into the catalog that accompanied his installation of Accumulated Vision: extended boundaries at the Wright State University Art Gallery, in Dayton, Ohio.137

As opposed to the literature of Holmes, Ellery Queen was pulp fiction written to an addictive formula of suspects and clues that always culminated in a one-page “Challenge to the Reader.” Le Va enjoyed the game in these books as much as the time travel back to noir New York they offered. The appropriated page in question comes from The French Powder Mystery, of 1930, a mystery that hinged on things that were significant by their sheer absence from among the clues, which included, coincidental to Le Va, a bullet, fingerprint powder, and felt. But when “silken Cinderella” Marion French is found dead, where is the “divine ichor, which by all laws of physics…should have gushed forth”?138 To prompt the reader to look for what was missing, a one-page definition of the word “clue” appears, cribbed from a criminology handbook and inserted into the novel, like a page in a police file. And so it appears in Le Va’s catalog, performing a similar function, to remind viewers challenged by the mystery of “Accumulated Vision” that a clue “in the detectival sense” is both tangible and intangible: “It may derive from the absence of a relevant object as well as from the presence of an irrelevant one….But always, whatever the nature, a clue is the thread which guides the crime investigator through the labyrinth of nonessential data into the light of complete comprehension.”139 Or, complete incomprehension, as is the case with Le Va’s “Accumulated Vision” installations and their deliberately broken threadwork of clues.

In 1978, Le Va introduced Accumulated Vision—Blocked, an installation featuring barrierlike elements that ostensibly obstructed the passage of information through them. In art, this baffling notion relates to Duchamp’s “Stoppages”—his 1913 experiments using dropped pieces of thread to challenge (or block) the concept of a straight line. In life, this imagery of obstruction corresponds to the real-life detective story that had recently unfolded over the Watergate scandal—a story of spying and surveillance that left the whole country washed in paranoia, itself a form of destructive illogic. If the president couldn’t distinguish between national security and his own obsession with illegal information-gathering, who could draw (or, again, block) the line? To look at Le Va’s “Accumulated Vision” and not factor in the elements of deception and disruption, distrust and paranoia, is to miss out on the frustrating truth that violating our trust as viewers was just part of the plan.


Wet Newspaper

The end of the “Accumulated Vision” series marked the completion of Le Va’s agenda to reduce art to his own terms. Eye intimacy, contained mass, horizontal scale, were all successfully wiped out by works that compounded the impossibility of seeing what was being indicated by a distribution of sticks and boards around a room, with fresh information, borne by the title; some of what was (or wasn’t) there was actually blocked from view. Appropriately enough, Le Va concluded this investigation as part of the first museum survey of his work, which opened, in December 1978, at the New Museum, in New York. Organized by Marcia Tucker, the museum’s new founding director and Le Va’s supporter since their California days, the exhibition was also one of the last institutional expressions in its day of process art. And, since its museum debut in 1969, it was more poorly received than ever by the mainstream press.

Curmudgeon extraordinaire Hilton Kramer groused in the New York Times about every aspect, save that part of the show on view at the Parsons School of Design, where, if you went during the appointed hours, you could be fairly sure of seeing a survey of drawings by Barry Le Va.140 Not so at the museum, where four installations were presented sequentially, making it impossible to know what, if anything, would be there to see, especially since the museum hours were also “uncertain at times.”141 Le Va is described as “an artist who executes so-called ‘on-site’ installations, upon which some critics confer the honorary name of sculpture.” Kramer, in detective mode, doubts that “a pair of shoes and a very damp newspaper (it was a rainy day)” are part of the installation, “but then again, without information from the artist, who could tell for sure.” The review concludes: “ So if you want to know where the tattered old banner of avant-garde aspiration still waves at the end of the 70’s, this is apparently its current address.”142

Hilton Kramer’s rhetoric is, well, Hilton Kramer’s rhetoric—always useful for exaggerating one’s point. The review is a sneering testament to why Le Va has always been so resistant to having his work interpreted in a group context. Without writing one word about Le Va’s work specifically—what did it look like? What, exactly, was it about? Why was it or was it not interesting? ––Kramer dismissed the entire exhibition as the last flutter of life from a (thankfully) bygone movement. On the other hand, despite Le Va’s nearly dogmatic claim that he and he alone was responsible for his creations, nobody works in a vacuum. Perhaps it’s because of the degree that he protested and rallied so strongly against it that his work cannot be seen without factoring in its postminimalist context. Now, the good news: According to the Times obituary, postminimalism was dead, leaving all of its practitioners free to strike out on their own—or forcing them into obscurity. For Le Va, this was the moment he had been working toward: Having eliminated any vestige of what makes “traditional works of art, art” (including, it seems, an audience), he was ready to start rebuilding, “on my terms, with nobody else’s influence.”143


Casing the Joint

Typically, it’s easier to tear something down than build something up. Not the case with Barry Le Va’s art.  It’s as if, through a concerted, more than decadelong process of elimination, he had been identifying his work’s objectives. Starting around 1980, all the interests and strategies that he had been pursuing towards destructive ends, now begin to resonate as positive means. Of course, this entails major contradictions. Most conspicuously, whereas Le Va had once disdained the practice of art as object-making, his installation-based works now appear blatant works of sculpture––sculpture in which horizontal scale, order, and instability all play a role, but sculpture just the same. So, too, changes the role of process in relation to these works.

In this catalog, each illustration of Le Va’s early installations is presented with a battery of notes, sketches, and related documentation, providing a sense of the physical actions and conceptual process these works represent. After 1980, however, as the work becomes increasingly more self-contained, the role of process changes, becoming absorbed into the making of the work itself. Process continues to play a critical role in Le Va’s art, although the conceptualism of Duchamp and the calculations of Holmes both disappear, henceforth, as points of reference. Le Va, an artist who is constantly drawing, specifying, adding, subtracting, tweaking, ripping, kicking, and otherwise doing whatever it takes to keep his work in flux and under his control, remained true to a process-based approach and to process in general.



His process of rebuilding begins, naturally, with architecture. Starting with the series of “Expanding Foundations; Eliminating Foundations,” Le Va’s work in the eighties transforms the invisible geometry of the seventies into fully constructed and ambiguous circumstances. Just the idea of an expanding foundation conjures a frightening sensation of the ground shifting below one’s feet—as it must have seemed to viewers while standing on the powdery precipice of Extended Vertex—and of dropping through space. And so do these installations of low-lying channels, running along the floor, butting into walls, and passing through doorways make it unclear how to position oneself, where to stand, and whether it is permissible to walk among them.

“I think the history of sculpture should involve the notion of city planning,”144 Le Va has said of his interest in formally studying the relationship between physical movement and location. When the Fairmount Park Art Association, in Philadelphia, invited him to come up with an outdoor project, Le Va looked at the available plazas (too many trees) and selected instead a bleak stretch along Front Street.145 There, he proposed to build a concrete corridor that would engage pedestrians in the perceptual game of walking toward a wall with a window that framed a view to the next of three corridors. As elegant as the renderings show it to be, the prospect of this corridor as urban space has more than a ring of science fiction—where events occur and dissolve. It’s the perfect stage for little crimes. Each transitional wall stands to screen an unsavory encounter along the pathway. Needless to say, the 1981 proposal was shelved.



Constructed in galleries, for the most part, from inexpensive building materials, the installations of the early eighties saw the introduction of fabricated elements: spun aluminum spheres and plaster cylinders that sat on top of, or were framed within, the horizontal tracks. They contained movement as it had been implied in the “Circular Networks,” researched in Surface Crawl, and was now articulated by Le Va as an  “abstraction of general activities of the kind that is always going on around you, interfering, interrupting that which you are doing…But it’s not people or activities, it’s balls now. You don’t know what’s going on, you don’t have a standard to make them clear, so they become a kind of confusion.”146 The confusion was intentional, of course. Le Va considered these works encoded situations; one installation could represent the same situation encoded three different ways.147 What kinds of situations did he have in mind? The phrasing of the titles suggests ones in which there is an element of contingency—“Revolving Standards,” “Standard Tasks,” “Observation, Isolation, Examination,” “Future Drops,” “X-Ray Perspective”—but keeps things vague. Which is, no doubt, how Le Va wanted it. But when you have information, you have to use it. In conversation with the artist, Saul Ostrow refers to this period of “work based on walking around hospital corridors.”148 Le Va, whose health is always at issue, spent the year 1985 recuperating from open-heart surgery. So with a mind towards decoding, we now may regard these installations as being not exactly situations of life and death but harsh approximations of the tedium, confusion, powerlessness, and dread that come when the two are in the balance.



Barry Le Va has always made consistently good use of his scraps; after all, he launched a whole career by taking note of what fell on the floor. Stenciling through and around cut paper, too, is another related mainstay of his practice. In the eighties, he merged the two—scraps and stencils—to arrive at a new approach to his work on paper. “Most artists see collages as a painting notion…I see collages basically as a building notion.” 149The building of Plan View from Ceiling Observer/Participant Part of One/Part of the Other, 1983, began by rolling yellow printers’ ink over the entire sheet. Indeed, no actual painting was involved: While the surface was being built up in layers of darker ink, stencils and masking tape were used to create lines and silhouettes. Applied to the surface are sculptural forms, cut from heavy paper, and then inked. The resulting construction, viewed up close, is a work on paper with topography.  Speaking of these works with Marianne Brouwer, the artist said, “To me the whole thing is positively built on negative impressions.”150 The same might be said of Le Va’s entire oeuvre.


Negative Impressions

These works on paper started large, and they got bigger. The diptych Diagrammatic Silhouettes: Sculptured Activities (TB Rust), 1988, is a gaping maw that opens up whatever wall it hangs on like rusted gates from hell. It is part of a series that appears to flip, turn, repeat, rotate, and shuffle the movement of disks and cylinders moving on tracks in a form of visual playback––complete with its own static of squiggly lines filling the background––of the movements and objects Le Va had been working with in his installations. He recycled the imagery again to create eight sets of woodblock prints. You can almost feel Le Va bridling against the rules of mechanical reproduction, as it pertains to printmaking; instead of making eight identical ones, the blocks are inked in different colors from set to set. Too large for the press, the blocks had to be printed by hand by rubbing the back of the paper with spoons. Although each set is supposed to contain five prints, for this installation at ICA Le Va arbitrarily selected six. All the better to see the sculptural power of color radically alter the shape of an image.


Mechanical Drawing

The architectural scale of Le Va’s collages declared a newly dominant role for drawing in his art. No longer plans, these works take form in their own right; they also suss out territory for his installations. (If his “Accumulated Vision” allowed us to see through the wall, now we were going to look at it.) In 1987, with the exhibition of a work called Quartet, at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, Le Va started making distributions that claimed the wall as well as the floor within the field of operations. The imagery was a continuation of the constructions of corridors and spheres, but the experience had evolved into a new realm. Enveloping and confrontational at once, these works positioned the viewer in the midst of a work that also faced one. In a way, it was like vivisection of the distributional field, separating mental puzzle from physical immediacy. Of his designation of the two parts, Le Va explained to curator Michael Semff, “The one on the floor is the more physical one, and the one on the wall…is more about your brain.”151 The results, experienced as a toggling back and forth between different sets of sensation and scale, were viscerally felt, according to Le Va: “Again, I don’t know if it’s emotional, but it seemed to hit people on a gut level. If drawing all these configurations were just an intellectual act, it would never have that effect.”152 No, it takes a different kind of activity to make diagrams into situations that are engrossing enough to inspire a feeling of dread.

The encrypted situations of the eighties led to the “Dissected Situations—Institutional Templates” of the early nineties. Using the diptych form, to compose both sculpture installations and works on paper, this body of work is less architectural and more symbolic in nature. Not that the work is any less physical. Made of cast black hydrastone, the sculpture elements are brooding and massive. But as shaped forms, they clearly signify. (And they anticipate the Bunker Coagulation, which we encountered upon first entering the exhibition, at the very start of this essay.) This time Le Va didn’t want to leave the situation vague. A statement in Dreaded Intrusions—Institutional Templates, the catalog publication of related lithographic works, unlocks the iconography.153 Introduced by the terms “dread” and “bewilderment,” the statement presents a lexicon of ten key terms, including Dissected (Dissect), Template(s) (Stencil), Close-up(s), Distance(s), Observer (Observe), Participant. As a textual companion, this dictionary has much to say about Le Va’s art in general. In particular, it informs the reading of four of the drawings in this exhibition. The artist’s definition of the term “Abbreviate (Abbreviation)” is especially illuminating: “Floor plan views of specific places in a medical institution (patients’ rooms, recovery areas, intensive care units, corridors, etc.) are combined with letters, numbers, or symbols that are common abbreviations in clinical medicine. These abbreviations are commonly found in patients’ records and on their medical charts.”154 Thus informed, one learns to discern the structures of sine waves, of electrocardiogram reports, of the letters CPE (Chronic Pulmonary Emphysema) and MDD (Major Depressive Disorder), and to see those lozenge shapes and rectangles as laboratory stools and counters viewed from above, as the doctors and nurses confer over data in an attempt to reach a diagnosis, or at least a prescription. It is the dreaded intrusion of the institutional upon the intimate that is taking place in works, these encryptions of clinical space through the marks on the chart at the end of the hospital bed.


Studio References

Reading along amidst the fragmented data, one comes across the phrase “Reading Beckett, Reading Bernhard.” In a subset of the “Institutional Template” drawings, Le Va translated excerpts from two writers’ works into passages of abstract code. Quotes from various works by the great Irish existentialist Samuel Beckett are identified by the use of ellipsis. A novel by the Austrian-born writer Thomas Bernhard, who recently died, at the age of fifty-eight, after suffering a lifetime of tubercular disorders, is marked by the frequent appearance of a cone shape. One only has to read a few pages of Bernhard’s Correction to appreciate the uncanny appeal for Le Va. The main character, Roithamer, is a mathematician whose great works are an essay, which he destroyed in the process of correcting, and an architectural folly in the shape of a cone. (Roithamer himself would never have used the word: “He hated the word architect, or architecture,” but spoke, rather, of “the art of building”; “the word B U I L D I N G is one of the most beautiful in the language.”155) And, indeed, it is in the process of reducing these two writers’ distinctly different texts to equally illegible abstractions that Le Va seems to be offering the existential meaning of all such endeavors—including his own. When Roithamer finishes correcting his essay, it literally means the opposite of what he wrote originally. But he doesn’t care: “Because in the end nothing matters all that much . . . it’s all the same.”156 A person may as well scatter particles of felt around a room or arrange massive constructions on the wall as throw oneself into the next all-consuming project. It’s process itself—and the degree of one’s engagement in it—that matters.


Underground Cartoon

In April 1992, Le Va spent three weeks in Munich, staying in an apartment where his German dealer, Fred Jahn, stored much of the African tribal art that he also represented. These objects made an immediate and deep impression, prompting the artist to make studies of them almost daily in his sketchbook during his stay. One hundred twenty-eight drawings, annotated with the date and a brief description, form a monumental suite called Munich Diary—African Sketchbook.157 It starts with relatively abstract fragments of patterns and objects (dots and lines), then grows more representative of the objects themselves (outlines and silhouettes), only to continue as a fully operative code in which both forms of representation are merged into a language of signs of pots, masks, chairs, cups, axes, throwing knives (yes, a kind of cleaver), fly whisks, and figurines. A narrative in itself, this evolution describes the day-to-day relationship Le Va was having with these objects. As he told curator Michael Semff, at first they were just things to draw, but the more he looked at (and lived with) these objects, the more he said, “Drawing these things took the frightening power away…I was trying to take whatever spirit within them out and just objectifying them.”158

Of course, this is one of the primal tales of modernism. Picasso was so struck by his first encounter with African art (which he apparently found to be as frightening and powerful as sex), he worked feverishly in his studio to exorcise it. And so did Le Va continue to work almost obsessively with African imagery for a number of years, using photographs that he took of the material at Jahn’s, as well as pictures from books, to prompt his memory, to generate more series of drawings, as well as photo-based collages, some involving stenciling. These series generate an imaginative energy of their own. As Le Va explained, “Your mind comes into play, which activates the drawings.”159 Just as he had once turned photographs of poppy seeds, drawings of ball bearings, and paint sprayed through a comic book, so did he now turn his impressions of African objects into animated sequences of pictorial compression. Only this time, the subject matter came charged with an emotional intensity. Especially the masks, which Le Va often depicted from the back, as if to emphasize the eyeholes penetrating with light something as unfathomable as the countenance of death. Indeed, the African sketchbook series, taken in all its extended forms, comes packed with the subversive and sinister darkness of Le Va’s very first drawings, those underground comics of abstracted violence.


Violent Period

Around 1995, Le Va’s African imagery began to merge with another set of forms, this one abstracted from military architecture. The “Bunker Coagulation” series of drawings brings the painterly aspects of the mineral distributions off the floor and onto the page. The red oxides and black magnesium powders, combined with the viscosity of linseed oil, are translated into richly colored earth-toned mediums, loosely washed and densely applied, along with ink and graphite, into these most painterly of works. The imagery is based on photographs taken by Paul Virilio from his book Bunker Archeology.160 Completely saturated with the smoke of cigarettes and filthy with ink stains, smudges, and random telephone-pad notes (“Rolf R Paramount”), Le Va’s copy is covered with signs of active duty served in his studio.

Bunker Archeology begins with a preface that recounts Virilio’s discovery, in 1958, of something that had always been part of his native beachscape—in fact, he had just been using one as a cabana.161 Virilio called it a “discovery in the archeological sense of the term” and set out to reconstruct the history that was, in fact, “one of the rare modern monolithic architectures.” Built by Hitler’s army to be an impenetrable rampart, concrete bunkers and submarine bases line the European littoral to form what was designed to be an “Atlantic Wall” against Allied invasion of occupied France. The architecture is characteristically massive, with rounded edges to deflect bullets and bombs. Built without foundations, they may heave over slightly should they be pounded or, say, pushed from the right. Some had steel beams bristling out from them, in order to detonate projectiles before they made contact. It’s an image that should immediately conjure, in this context, the pipes projecting from the walls and floors of Le Va’s Bullet Piece. And when Virilio writes of industrial warfare turning the world into a “carpet of trajectories,” how can one not see the lines of perspective ricocheting throughout the “Accumulated Vision” series?162 In turn, then, how can one not hear Virilio saying: “Vehicles and projectiles are but particles that endlessly develop energy’s area. The conquest of the earth thus appears above all the conquest of energy’s violence.”163

Bunkers, inasmuch as they deflect, launch, and absorb the energy of vehicles and projectiles, are the ultimate architecture of violence. And they have animal eyes. In one series of images in Virilio’s book, he trains his camera on the slitlike apertures and heavy brows that zoomorphize and anthropomorphize these facades of war into terrifying visages. As a viewer commented, “I wouldn’t want to have this looking at me when I hit the beachfront.” In Le Va’s drawings, bunker faces and silhouettes jostle around the “coagulations”—pictorial abbreviations for the “divine ichor” of human blood. And, together, they crowd the paper, saturated with ink and graphite medium, into deathlike darkness. It was an imagery that clearly preoccupied the artist, as a battery of works installed at ICA show: Row after row of drawings stand by the sculpture Bunker Coagulation (Pushed from the Right).



In the field of archaeology, the process of reconstruction involves cataloging, a process that also proves fundamental to Barry Le Va’s recent work—first, in terms of the archaeology of his own studio, and, second, to set up a new metaphorical framework for the visual reconstructions his works entail. Around 1995, Le Va began to harvest material, which had been accumulating in his studio for decades, into a new body of work—folios of collages. He refers to these as his “scrapbooks.” Using photographs he’s taken, and Xerox copies from his sketches and notes, as well as the technical and scientific diagrams he has amassed over the years, each scrapbook has a distinct composition.164 Collectively, they form a catalog of projects and themes within his art. There are books devoted to film that are based on his habit, at one point, of shooting roll upon roll of snapshots from videos of favorite movies, watched repeatedly in order to capture what represented essential moments of interest. These invariably have to do with strange camera perspectives within the movie and rarely show what the rest of us might identify as iconic moments in the work of, for instance, Peter Greenaway or, another of Le Va’s favorites, the sci-fi action film Event Horizon. His quest for puzzling angles, he says, was especially enriched by a number of Japanese films, in which Hokusi-like feats of pictorial abstraction seem basic to the camera work of even the most violent B-grade yakuza gangster films.

Loosely gathered as portfolios, the scrapbooks were bound with thread—using the simple stitching technique of Japanese notebooks—on the occasion of their 2003 exhibition in the rare-book room of the Musée d’art et d’histoire, in Geneva.165 In general, the books are the scale of portfolios, with at least one exception: When its vertical pages of brown butcher paper are open, one measures six feet across. The imagery is monumentally tragic. Black-and-white surveillance-style photographs give furtive looks at what we can barely stand to see: severely deformed inmates of some clinical institution. These shots appear in tandem with annotative drawings of chemical compounds, abbreviated versions of the simple chain of events that stands between normalcy and crippling breakdown. Like a misthrown switch on the railway, it just takes one broken synapse to throw the whole system into violent disorder.

We have arrived at just such a scene with Barry Le Va’s 1999 installation at the Malmö Konsthall. Identified—Catalogued—Encased, 7 Families: Partially Accounted For transforms the gallery into a bunker of cast-concrete blocks, proportioned to represent the heads, trunks, and legs of various size figures. Le Va likened them to mummies at an archaeological dig, where “you find the head of a mummy, a limb of a mummy, you have to put them back together. It’s really about putting things back together, and that’s why the title is Partially Accounted For…It could be that they haven’t found all the parts to complete them yet. That’s the ambiguous part.”166 And it’s the opening for disaster. Le Va speculates, “In the process of moving things from one place to another, the groupings change. It’s like in a disaster or at a dig, information is being assembled, so that parts get tagged, just to identify the groupings—so this means sometimes you have to put elements aside so that later you can assemble them all in one place.”167

This is a distributional field that calls upon us not to reconstruct what happened here but to catalog what remains…to be buried. Le Va specified in a studio note: “Cataloguing Contaminated body parts encased in concrete for mass burial.”168 As someone who, like the artist, was living in New York, breathing the contaminated air, this perfectly stone-cold work anticipates a monument for the awful events and aftermath of September 11, 2001. It also proves that the violence of Le Va’s art is being abstracted from contemporary life in general, not specific events. At this very moment, someone is cataloging body parts in the fields of Iraq, on the shores of Indonesia, in Chechnya.

From mortar fire to mortuaries to music, the survey of Le Va’s work concludes with an installation entitled 9g—Wagner, 2005. The first work to refer explicitly to it, music has always been in the background of Le Va’s art. As much as certain books and films have served as clues to the thinking behind his work, so do the recordings that fill up shelves in his studio. The artist and critic Stephen Ellis, whose essay “At Order’s Edge” Le Va considers one of the most sympathetic readings of his art, started with Ornette Coleman’s improvisational jazz and finished with Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal music to describe the trajectory from Le Va’s early distributions to his “Accumulated Vision” installations.169 Indeed, Le Va himself seems to be continuing this trajectory into the present by invoking Wagner’s melodious epics and operatic scale to correspond with the profoundly symbolic nature of his most current art.

The sculptural distribution of floor and wall elements that comprise the new work are in the process of being fabricated even as I finish writing this essay. But this is part of the suspense in making a show with Barry Le Va: His works take final form only in the installation process. First created in his studio and swept up, or made for temporary exhibitions and destroyed, his early distributions represent artistic freedom in the extreme. Yet, the reality of reconstruction can loom like back taxes, not only for Le Va but for a whole generation of process artists. Materials that were once readily available, like wool felt, for instance, are now hard to find or extremely costly. (The cheap stuff today is all polyester; the woolen goods have to be imported from Germany, from the same place that supplies “Beuys” felt, which is much thicker than the easily cut cloth weight that Le Va works with.) Imagine the challenge of re-creating plans and proportions that were part of a mindset one has not engaged in for decades.

In the course of developing the checklist for this survey, Le Va’s reluctance to consider including certain past works is as understandable as his desire to focus on the prospect of making a new installation. His overall ambivalence was evidenced by the fact that he had kept no record of his exhibition history. The chronology in this catalog represents a feat of detective work—reconstructing the paper trail of shows and dates that vanished with every announcement card and catalog that Le Va never kept. He out-and-out refused to make a powder piece, after the inclusion of one in his 1988 survey only served to bring back the nightmares of drafts and doodlers. The felt-and-glass distribution Continuous and Related Acts; Discontinued by the Act of Dropping was selected not only because it is a major early work but also because its installation is relatively routine. When the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired the piece after its reconstruction for a show in 1990, Le Va drew up the requisite specifications. In granting it an institutional life of its own, however, the artist essentially relinquishes his involvement. This is an interesting conceit to keep in mind: As long as a work belongs to him, it remains subject to the state of flux in which Le Va keeps all aspects of his art. Everything from titles to materials, to arrangements, to scale, is subject to ongoing change—making this very exhibition of Barry Le Va’s work one massive process piece. There are decisions that won’t be made until the actual installation is under way, titles that may be altered at the last minute. This is why it was so important for the catalog to document the show with new photography. Every time a work is installed, it becomes a new snapshot of itself, temporarily suspended in that ongoing process of change.


Sinister Profile

The new work, 9g—Wagner is being created for the tall space at ICA, a double-height gallery with walls that rise thirty feet. Based on the artist’s first rounds of preparatory drawings, I sense it will relate to his recent installation at the Judin Gallery, which involved abstracted diagrams of proteins exploded exponentially in scale. But I am not clear what form the final work will take. Especially the floor elements, which Le Va is having fabricated from a resin that will resemble concrete without being so friable. The wall elements have been charged to ICA’s crew, headed by Robert Chaney and Shannon Bowser. Le Va provided the schematic drawing for a configuration of thirty-five elements. He instructed that they should appear to have been die-cut from a solid, black material, but provided no further specifications for achieving this machine-shop effect on a wood-shop budget. Nevertheless, the results, built from wood and coated in a rubber compound, are seamless. With all the authority and anonymity of industrial objects, they imbue the general question, What do these shapes represent? with the menacing notion, What are these things for?

In drawings, the wall configuration recalls somewhat the silhouetted plans of bunkers in Virilio’s book. One of the shapes has a distinctive curved cutout that gives it an anthropomorphic cast, vaguely reminiscent of faces in the African sketchbooks. Its profile appears encoded in the title as the number 9, which could also be the letter g—a key to the general confusion Le Va likes his art to instill. There is something dark about an installation that will confront us with black runes while surrounding us with cryptic building blocks. For some, the reference to Wagner may be shadowed by his most infamous fan, Hitler, as well as the composer’s own alleged anti-Semitism. These last inferences would seem more extraneous if the word that Le Va has been most apt to use in recent conversation about his work wasn’t “sinister.” And as sinister, even cynical, as this sounds, there is a positive sense of assurance in Le Va’s installation that also comes through in reading the title. By combining a musical reference along with a numbering system, suggestive of a sequence, Le Va says he wanted to underscore the way he sees all of his work—in terms of major themes with minor variations. The overall composition may be difficult, struck as it is from a bass line that echoes with the sounds of shattering glass. But it is being worked with the intensity and eloquence of a lifetime of hitting limits (cultural, physical) and pushing forward. Too deeply resonant of its own darkness to be transcendent, Le Va’s art accepts with realism the boundaries that it pounds against to realize maximum velocity and impact.


Noir Light

Looking back on this survey is more than forty years’ worth of work in which nothing random has occurred, and everything, including violence, mystery, and confusion, has been subject to the artist’s control. The most abrupt-looking changes and apparent contradictions turn out to be the results of decisions and actions that can be accounted for within the larger plan of Le Va’s accumulated vision. This plan, which asserted itself at each step in the process of the exhibition, disclosed a critical sense of motive one day. Because of the controlled nature at every level of Barry Le Va’s art, this was not a project one could achieve with any curatorial distance. Working with the proximity of an accomplice, l clocked a good many hours at his studio, sifting through and organizing boxes of photo documentation to familiarize myself with past jobs. In the process of piling pictures according to groups, it occurred to me how dramatically the work changes from one decade to the next. With this in mind, the shifts suddenly began to seem less jagged and more as if the artist was adhering to a schedule. Looking through various undated notes he had kept over the years in a box, I discovered a pair of clues that led me to believe that perhaps this is exactly what Le Va has been up to. “In sculpture, a series is finished or completed when it starts leading to other ideas, etc., and I have become bored with repetition,” he wrote in a statement.170 On another paper, I read what sounded like further inducement for surprise. “If you aren’t making art that challenges you, you aren’t making art that challenges anyone,” Le Va began in a manifesto to himself.

Resistance, challenges, pushing, shoving, rearranging—how else would one expect Le Va’s art to develop, except with the frequency and force of seismic disruption?


  1. Robert Pincus-Witten, Postminimalism (New York: Out of London Press, 1977), 120.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Marcia Tucker, Barry Le Va: Four Consecutive Installations & Drawings, 1967–1978 (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1978), 5.
  4. Ibid., 5.
  5. Liza Béar and Willoughby Sharp, “Discussions with Barry Le Va,” Avalanche, no. 3 (fall 1971): 66.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. John Coplans, Serial Imagery (Pasadena, Calif.: Pasadena Art Museum, 1968), 10.
  10. Ibid., 18.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Öyvind Fahlström, “Invasion of the Underground Comics” (1969); reprinted in Öyvind Fahlström, Another Space for Painting (Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2000), 23.
  13. Suzi Gablik, “Fahlström: A Place for Everything,” Art News 65 (summer 1966): 62.
  14. Ibid., 38–41.
  15. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 66.
  16. Pincus-Witten, Postminimalism, 121.
  17. Bart Lytton, a filmmaker prior to entering the banking industry, collected contemporary art by Southern Californians as well as precinematic devices. His collections were on view at the Lytton Savings and Loan, which also housed a public gallery for temporary exhibitions of contemporary art and a movie theater.
  18. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 66.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Marianne Brouwer, interview with the artist, in Barry Le Va (Otterlo, Netherlands: Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, 1988), 4.
  22. From “Why I Make Drawings,” an undated statement by the artist.
  23. From Notes: Barry Le Va (p. 89).
  24. Brouwer, interview, Barry Le Va, 7.
  25. Ibid., 4.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Daniel Spoerri, An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (Re-Anecdoted Version), (New York: Something Else Press, 1966). I am (still) grateful to Barbara Moore for introducing me to one of her favorite books.
  28. Saul Ostrow, interview with the artist, in Barry Le Va: A Survey of Drawings 1966-2003 and Two New Sculptures (Zurich: Verlag Judin, 2003), 27.
  29. Spoerri, An Anecdoted Topography, xv.
  30. Barbara Rose, “The Value of Didactic Art,” Artforum 6 (April 1967): 32–36.
  31. Ibid., 32.
  32. Artist’s bio in Avalanche, no. 3 (fall 1971): 64. The award earned him a feature in another roundup of young talent: Fidel A. Danieli, “Some New Los Angeles Artists,” Artforum 6, no. 7 (March 1968): 44–48.
  33. Morris may well have been aware of Le Va’s felt distributions as early as 1967. He was living with Barbara Rose when she was first introduced to Le Va’s work by mail.
  34. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 66.
  35. Ibid., 67.
  36. Barry Le Va, in conversation with Ingrid Schaffner. This and other uncited statements by the artist are taken from conversations with the author.
  37. Larry Rosing, “Barry Le Va and the Nondescript Distribution,” Art News 68, no. 5 (September 1969): 52.
  38. The second installation was a chalk distribution entitled Right Angular Section (on a diagonal).
  39. Mike Steele, “Le Va’s Art Floors Most Institute Visitors.” Minneapolis Tribune, undated clipping.
  40. Ibid.
  41. David L. Shirey, “Sculpture 1968,” Newsweek (28 December 1968): 54.
  42. The 1969 exhibition was accompanied by a catalog in the form of a box of index cards submitted by the participating artists. Le Va is listed among those whose cards had not been received by press time. Whether or not his proposal for a wet “bog” of felt was realized remains uncertain, though unlikely. In a recent telephone conversation with Lippard, she recalled that because the show’s budget was too small to bring in artists to fabricate their work, in many cases they were represented by less ambitious works that could be easily realized by her and the museum’s crew. From the museums documentation. it is also uncertain how Le Va was represented.
  43. Le Va says he was getting his powders from ceramics supplies stores, where, for instance, magnesium dioxide is a common glaze ingredient.
  44. I am grateful to Martin Friedman for sharing his unpublished manuscript, “Barry Le Va’s Sculptures, Secret and Otherwise,” a firsthand account (slated for publication in a forthcoming issue of Art in America) of the Walker Art Center installation. Friedman was the museum’s director at the time.
  45. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 68.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Barry Le Va, “Barry Le Va,” Design Quarterly 74-75 (1969): 46-57.
  48. Ibid., 56.
  49. Dictionary of Geological Terms (New York: Dolphin Books, 1962), prepared under the direction of the American Geological Institute.
  50. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 68.
  51. The second part (March 12-26, 1969) of his Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibition was a flour installation, Right Angular Section (on a diagonal).
  52. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 67.
  53. It held its punch; twenty-one years later, the Whitney mounted “The New Sculpture 1965–75,” a 1990 group show featuring Le Va among other “anti-illusionists.” This show critically impacted on an emerging generation of artists involved in the scatter gesture, the abject body, and institutional critique, among other current images and issues. It is where I became introduced to the art of Barry Le Va.
  54. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 67.
  55. Marcia Tucker, in conversation with the author and Susan Harris, 2004.
  56. Emily Wasserman, “New York: Process, Whitney Museum,” Artforum 8, no. 1 (September 1969): 57.
  57. Annotation on the drawing.
  58. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 66.
  59. Ibid., 65. Le Va uses the term “substructure” in his interview.
  60. Tucker, Barry Le Va, 9.
  61. Buckminster Fuller, Foreword, Projections: Anti-Materialism (La Jolla, Calif.: La Jolla Museum of Art, 1970).
  62. Besides sketches and drawings, I found no photographic documentation of Velocity: Impact Run. There are, at the studio, contact-sheet prints of a series of text panels for the work, which Le Va recalls being shown at Rolf Ricke Gallery.
  63. See photographs of Velocity Piece #2.
  64. This document is reproduced in the picture chapter.
  65. Joseph E. Young, “Los Angeles,” Art International 15 (January 1971): 51–52. In his review of the exhibition at the Garden Gallery, Young entertains that Le Va’s work “might easily be regarded as a satire of Conceptual Art works which rely so much…[on drama]…that one wishes their creators would become playwrights, join the theater crowd, and leave the creation of visual art works to artists.” But he concludes by finding it to be an “enigmatic and stimulating” sound piece.
  66. Cindy Nemser, “Subject-Object Body Art,” Arts Magazine 46 (September 1971): 41. Le Va also referred to the gore of his own bloodied handprints, along with other signs of his body’s impact with the wall, when he described the Ohio piece in Avalanche. Indeed, Nemser probably based her article on Le Va’s account.
  67. Ibid., 42.
  68. Ibid.
  69. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 65. Although Le Va is describing the 1969 version of the piece, it seems that the 1970 version would be closer to mind. In other words, there appears to be a shift in interest from the work as structural piece to endurance work
  70. Tracey Jones, ed., The Artist’s Body (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2000).
  71. Artist’s statement, entitled “Excerpts,” in Barry Le Va: Glass, Bullets, Cleavers, 1968-1970 (Mönchengladbach, Germany: Das Museum, 1989), 4.
  72. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 68.
  73. Ibid.
  74. Elaine A. King, “Logical Interferences,” in Barry Le Va: 1966–1988 (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon Art Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1988), 13.
  75. Ibid.
  76. Tucker, Barry Le Va, 28.
  77. Ibid.
  78. Edited for the sake of reading, this is not a facsimile transcription.
  79. Le Va, Glass, Bullets, Cleavers, 4.
  80. Illustration in the essay, Ingvild Goetz, “Rolf Ricke––Künstler, Kuchen, keine Moden,” Einfach Kunst Sammlung Rolf Ricke (Nuremberg: Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2002), 151.
  81. Pincus-Witten, Postminimalism, 125, n. 3.
  82. The other signers were Carl Andre, Hans Haacke, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Dorothea Rockburne, Fred Sandback, Richard Serra, and Robert Smithson; compare Lawrence Alloway, “‘Reality’: Ideology at D5,” Artforum (October 1972): 21–22.
  83. Artist’s draft of notes for an installation at Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 1990.
  84. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 75.
  85. The drawing is in the collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
  86. Athena Spear, introduction to the exhibition catalog Art in the Mind (Oberlin, Ohio: Allen Art Museum, Oberlin College, 1970), n.p. Spear acknowledges the indebtedness of the show to Lucy Lippard’s and Seth Siegelaub’s publication-based projects.
  87. Ibid.
  88. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, quoted in David Grann, “Mysterious Circumstances: The Death of a Sherlock Holmes Scholar.” The New Yorker (13 December 2004): 62. As a non-Sherlockian, I was happy for the coincidence of this informative essay on the internecine world of those who are.
  89. Spear, Art in the Mind, n.p.
  90. Kynaston McShine, in the exhibition catalog Information (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1970), 141.
  91. Mike Steele, “On the Yahoo Trail in Minneapolis”; reprinted in Landscape Architecture (July 1971): 313. I am extremely grateful to archivist Jill Vetter at the Walker Art Center for providing this and other material.
  92. Letter from Richard Koshalek to Barry Le Va, 22 September 1970, Walker Art Center Archives.
  93. Barry Le Va, in conversation with Ingrid Schaffner.
  94. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 74.
  95. Schum’s work was the subject of a 2003 exhibition and catalog, “Ready to Shoot, Fernsehgalerie Gerry Schum/Videogalerie Schum,” organized by Ulricke Groos, Barbara Hess, and Ursula Wevers, at the Städtischen Kunsthalle Dusseldorf.
  96. It appears as Untitled (Parallels) in the catalog for the 1971 exhibition “PROSPECT 71 Projection,” at the Städtischen Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, where it is illustrated with a still (a photo that Le Va recalls providing in time for publication while the video was in the process of being made). In the 1972 documenta 5 catalog, it is referred to as Parallelen, Le Va is unsure to what extent the projects with Schum were realized, although the television gallery’s November 1970 program “Identifications” is part of Le Va’s early exhibition history. Subsequent research suggests his work may not have actually been aired. Clearly, more remains to be learned about the artist’s involvement with film and video.
  97. The artist Michael Smith vividly remembers that when he was in the Whitney Independent Study Program, the group paid a studio visit to Barry Le Va. The artist demonstrated his idea for this film with a student volunteer. who came perilously close to losing a finger.
  98. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 74.
  99. Ibid., 69.
  100. Ibid., 71.
  101. Ibid., 64.
  102. Ibid., 69.
  103. Ibid., 71.
  104. Ross Gibson, “Where the Darkness Loiters,” History of Photography 24 (fall 2000): 251–54.
  105. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 71.
  106. In her essay for this catalog, Rhea Anastas discusses Le Va’s publication of these images as Extensions (of the hands and feet), in the layout for his 1971 Avalanche interview.
  107. Lucy Lippard, “Intersections,” Flyktpunkter/Vanishing Points (Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 1984), 11–29.
  108. Ibid.
  109. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 71.
  110. Ibid.
  111. Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms In Art (New York: Zone Books, 1989), 163.
  112. Ibid.
  113. Béar and Sharp, “Discussions,” 75.
  114. From Le Va’s copy of his undated instructions for setting up Intersection: 7 Circles, 3 Varying Sizes, 1970, as part of the 1973 group exhibition “Options and Alternatives: Some Directions in Recent Art,” at Yale University Art Gallery.
  115. Barry Le Va, in conversation with Ingrid Schaffner.
  116. "Options and Alternatives: Some Directions in Recent Art” was held that same year at Yale University Art Gallery. Cocurated by Kertess and Annette Michelson, the show invited artists working in various mediums––from installation to film––to create experience-based work. Organized in conjunction with an undergraduate seminar, students wrote the catalog entries. In his own catalog essay, Kertess called the show “partial repayment for the rich solitude the museum provided” him when he was a student at Yale.
  117. Hans Reichenbach, quoted in Tucker, Barry Le Va, 51, n. 23, n. 25.
  118. Ibid.
  119. Ibid., 20.
  120. Brouwer, interview, Barry Le Va, 6.
  121. Ibid.
  122. Ibid.
  123. Ibid.
  124. Ostrow, interview, Survey of Drawings, 27.
  125. Ibid.
  126. Ibid., 28.
  127. Kenneth Baker, “Barry Le Va at Bykert,” Art in America 61 (September–October 1973): 117.
  128. David Bourdon, “Is This a Geometry Class?” The Village Voice (26 January 1976): 101, 103.
  129. Nancy Foote, “Barry Le Va, Sonnabend Gallery,” Artforum 14, no. 8 (April 1976): 67–68.
  130. Ibid., 66.
  131. Ibid., 67.
  132. Ibid.
  133. Ostrow, interview, Survey of Drawings, 28.
  134. Foote, “Barry Le Va, Sonnabend Gallery,” 67.
  135. The art of detection was Ralph Rugoff's premise for “Scene of the Crime,” a brilliant survey of conceptually based art, including work by Barry Le Va. Held at the Armand Hammer in 1997, it was accompanied by a catalog with essays on art from a number of forensic perspectives.
  136. Margaret Sheffield, “Alice Aycock: Mystery Under Construction,” Artforum 16 (September 1977): 63–65.
  137. This is not the first time Le Va used this quote. It seems to have been a touchstone reading that he shared with, among others, Robert Pincus-Witten, who quotes it in full in his 1975 essay on Le Va.
  138. Ellery Queen, The French Powder Mystery (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1930), 83.
  139. Le Va uses the quote “From William O. Green’s Introduction to Ars Criminalis by John Strang” in facsimile fashion. Indeed, the catalog itself may be compared to a Queen novel, which includes such references as maps and lists of characters. The catalog included not only the suggestive quote but also reproductions of the drawings, which were purposely not part of the exhibition. The curator explains: “Because the referential activity that would have ensued” would have distracted from the experience of the installation in real time and space. See William Spurlock, “Le Va/ Position/ Location/ Time Space,” in Barry Le Va: Accumulated Vision––Extended Boundaries (Dayton, Ohio: Wright State University Art Gallery, 1977).
  140. Hilton Kramer, “Art: Exponent of Hard-Edge Abstraction,” The New York Times, 5 January 1979.
  141. Ibid.
  142. Ibid.
  143. Pincus-Witten, Postminimalism, 61.
  144. Brouwer, interview, Barry Le Va, 6.
  145. FAF: PFPAFP, Form and Function: Proposals for Public Art for Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Fairmount Park Art Association and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1982).
  146. Brouwer, interview, Barry Le Va, 5.
  147. Ostrow, interview, Survey of Drawings, 33.
  148. Ibid.
  149. Brouwer, interview, Barry Le Va, 7.
  150. Ibid.
  151. Barry Le Va, quoted in Michael Semff, Barry Le Va: Munich Diary—African Sketchbook; Drawings 1965–1993 (Stuttgart: Edition Cantz, 1993), 29.
  152. Brouwer, interview, Barry Le Va, 7.
  153. Barry Le Va, “Notes by the Artist,” Barry Le Va: Dreaded Intrusions—Institutional Templates, Munich: Verlag Fred Jahn, 1992, 7-12. From 1989 to 1991, Le Va worked at Karl Imhof’s print studio in Munich to make a suite of lithographs. The leftover debris of the process, the proof prints were used to make a series of collages. Both of these related bodies of work are represented in this book.
  154. Ibid., 9–10.
  155. Thomas Bernhard, Correction, Sophie Wilkins, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 8.
  156. Ibid., 63.
  157. This suite is in the collection of the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München, and is reproduced in its entirety in the catalog that accompanied its 1994 exhibition.
  158. Le Va, quoted in Michael Semff, “Dialogue––Subversion––Objectification: Elements of Continuity in the Graphic Works of Barry Le Va,” Barry Le Va: Munich Diary––African Sketchbook, 31.
  159. Ibid., 30.
  160. Paul Virilio, Bunker Archeology, George Collins, trans. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press), 1995. The book was first published in French as a catalog to the 1978 Paris exhibition of these photographs, which were taken between 1958 and 1965.
  161. Ibid., 10.
  162. Ibid., 19.
  163. Ibid., 20.
  164. The first books were made with actual drawings, but Le Va started using copies instead; the originals made the results overly precious and he wasn’t producing the scrapbooks he had intended.
  165. A catalog of this exhibition is forthcoming. It will include reprints of all of Barry Le Va’s interviews and a new interview with the artist by the exhibition’s curator, Christophe Cherix.
  166. Ostrow, interview, Survey of Drawings, 32.
  167. Ibid.
  168. Artist’s notes, in studio.
  169. Stephen Ellis, “At Order's Edge,” Art in America 74 (July 1986): 98-107.
  170. The two-page note that begins, “Why I make drawings,” ends: “I guess that I see my work as a long, long paragraph. And each sculpture is only a word, punct[uat]ion, etc., out of that paragraph. When I die the paragraph may be finished and complete or unfinished, incomplete––with another word to add.”