In the 1960s, after graduating from Indiana University and moving to New York, sculptor Wendell Dayton worked as an informal studio assistant to Robert Grosvenor, a guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and a maintenance painter and carpenter at the Museum of Modern Art. While many artists begin their careers with such peripheral positions, Dayton remained on the sidelines. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1972, and submitted work to galleries here but met with no success. Feeling rejected, he began displaying his sculptures in the driveway of his Silver Lake home and then on the two-acre property he moved to on the edge of San Fernando Valley horse country in 1999. Strewn about the grounds and emptied pool, his sculptures have long had a viewership mostly of neighbors and passersby.
This summer, however, the octogenarian received a solo exhibition—his first—at Blum & Poe, one of LA’s largest, most long-standing blue-chip galleries. For the career-spanning survey, the sculptures took over the entire two-story, twenty-one-thousand-square-foot space, and even, recalling their display on Dayton’s property, spilled into the parking lot and garden.
Dayton’s sculptures are composed primarily of cut and welded-together pieces of stainless steel salvaged from landfills and bearing dents, evidence of previous welds, and other signs of their former lives. Dayton has definitely produced some clunkers in his time, but in general his work is elegant and urbane. The downstairs galleries contained relatively large-scale works, most of them set on low bases or placed directly on the floor. A number of these works conveyed an alluring sense of agility and motion despite their size and stationary quality. The spare but expressive Formula One (2017) combines a ring, a triangle, and two wavy bars that resemble abstracted ribbons of exhaust or racing stripes, transmitting a sense of velocity. In Meteor (1974), a long segment of what looks like the stainless steel trim used on corners of tiled bathroom walls shoots diagonally upward, as if directing our gaze to the cosmos. Turnstile (2011), a mass of curved bars, begs to be spun.
Comprising more than three dozen smaller-scale, widely varied sculptures shown mostly in groups on long tablelike plinths, the presentation in the upstairs gallery had a workshop-type atmosphere. Some pieces demonstrated the same sort of elegance as the works downstairs. Ballet Dancer #2 (ca. 1975), for instance, unfurled across a plinth to suggest a ballerina in a stunning pose. Other pieces were less successful. Racer (2018), bearing a vehicular form and a candy-colored paint palette, is overliteral, while the machinelike, rusted-steel Smoke and Rider (both 2018) might be steampunk decor. The refinement and conceptual shrewdness found downstairs were sorely missed in this gallery.
Two of the simplest sculptures in the exhibition were among the most evocative. The first, Female (2016), comprises two circular, craggy-edged forms roughly six inches across attached to each other, with a space left between them. Even while evoking a macaron sans filling, the work, with its unadorned surfaces, rough edges, and dark interior, remains reticent and mysterious. The second sculpture was among the large-scale pieces downstairs. For it, Dayton shaped two long metal rods just so, producing what appears to be a doodle in space or a giant scrawled “n.” Titled, appropriately, Beauty, this 2014 piece demonstrates the grace that is Dayton’s finest asset.