In 1961, De Wain Valentine came to New York with slides of his work. When he showed them to gallery directors, the first response was always some variation on, “This is really interesting work. What is it?” So Valentine told them: these were sculptures made of polyester resin and fiberglass, a medium that few artists were using at the time. Then came the second response: “Oh, galleries would never show art made of plastic.” He left New York in 1965 for California without any gallery representation.
Over the past few years, as museums and galleries have staged more shows of work by West Coast artists who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, there has been a renewed interest in the Valentine’s work. He has been seen as a forgotten Light and Space artist—one so underrated that, before this month, he hadn’t had a solo show in New York since 1981. David Zwirner’s new survey of Valentine’s sculptures marks a major re-introduction into the New York art scene.
Earlier today, wearing blood-red snakeskin boots and a ten-gallon-hat to tame his scraggly gray hair, Valentine spoke at Zwirner about how thrilled he was about the new show, the centerpiece of which is not one, but two 12-foot-tall Gray Columns (1975–76), which are perhaps his landmark works. (One was shown at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in 2011, which also helped to reignite his career.) There are also a few of his “Circles”—translucent, vibrantly colored sculptures that somehow don’t roll away.
The mystery of the installation of the “Circles” is part of their impact—they are beautiful because they are sometimes tough to suss out mentally. For Valentine, these works verge on having supernatural power. Inspired by the Hawaiian sea and sky (Valentine works out of Venice, California, and Hawaii), they “were like big pieces of atmosphere—like if I had a magic saw that could take big pieces of the sky and the ocean,” he said. “I love this, and I want to objectify to it in some way. Polyester resin allowed me to objectify this, to put it out in a solid form.”
Smoky and opaque, the sculptures are like cut-out areas of the sunset or the ocean. Regarding one crystal-blue circle, Valentine said that it was done near a bay in Oahu. “If you look straight down on that crystal-blue water with the white sand on the bottom, you can kind of see the white dappling of the sand as you’re looking through it,” he said. “I was able to theoretically take a piece of that and stand it on edge.”
Whereas the “Circles” are soft and quasi-mystical, the Gray Columns at the center of the show look more like the Minimalist sculptures that New York had a love affair with during the late 1960s. At 12 feet tall, the two jet-black works loom high over viewers’ heads, their smooth surfaces slightly distorting reflections. As they rise toward the ceiling, they become gradually more see-through.
The Gray Columns were commissioned for Baxter Travenol Laboratories, in Deerfield, Illinois. Meant to accommodate a 25-foot-tall room, they were never shown after the company’s owner lowered the ceiling to 12 feet. As a compromise, Valentine tried to show them on their sides, but that diminished their effect, so he gave up on installing them. When the Getty Center in Los Angeles tried to exhibit them in 2011, they could only show one of the columns. “This is the first time I’ve seen this work, done in 1975, the way it was proposed to be, which is totally thrilling for me,” Valentine said with an ear-to-ear smile.
Installing Gray Columns is no easy task. (While Valentine never mentioned how much the sculptures weigh, 1,500 pounds of resin alone were sandpapered off when he made them.) After the Getty’s complicated installation, Valentine insisted on installing them “the Egyptian way” for the David Zwirner show. They were taken out of the crate, put on timber, and rocked back and forth until they were set down. “And no blood!” Valentine exclaimed.
“As a maniac-kid artist, I always wanted to do things bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger,” Valentine said. At age 79, not much has changed. Gray Columns is the kind of project that is so big that it would be almost impossible to achieve without the help of a mega-gallery like David Zwirner.
Even more generally, Zwirner has been instrumental in raising the profile of Light and Space artists in New York (along with Tim Nye), and in 2010 staged a show of material from the 1960s called “Primary Atmospheres.” Valentine said that he helped supply the gallery with information when needed for that endeavor. But Valentine’s friend, the fellow Light and Space artist Douglas Wheeler, was apparently less willing. “Doug Wheeler wouldn’t take calls, so I called Douglas in New Mexico. I said, ‘Listen, Wheels, you’re going to be in this exhibition, whether you want to or not. You get serious, because this is so serious for the reopening of our careers,’ because we’ve both had difficulties over the years,” Valentine said. “We both pulled out [of the gallery system, in the ’70s] and were just like, ‘I’m doing it my way.’ And we did, for 40 years.”
Then, gleefully referring to working with David Zwirner, Valentine added, “This is the way to do it!”