The Meaning of Silence

Accumulated Vision, Barry Le Va
Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Philadelphia

January 15-April 3, 2005

Barry Le Va, “Cleaved Wall” (1969-70), Installation view at ICA, 12 meat cleavers. Collection Rolf Ricke. Loan to the Neues Museum in Nuremberg. Photograph by Aaron Igler. Institute of Contemporary Art.

Some artists who are on the margin of mainstream movements tend to get overlooked because they are somewhere in the penumbra of the action. The terms of their project may connect with the momentum of a particular set of ideas, but in a way that either verges on the eccentric or represents a unique and individualistic approach to abstract representation. By “margin” I mean the place where artists are not easily categorized in terms of a movement or style or ideology that appears visible or pragmatic. However, some of the most remarkable achievements in art—both materially and conceptually—have been made indirectly by artists whose work appears on the cusp of a particular movement, or by artists who may be recognized but who are somewhere near, not centered on, the mainstream discourse (that is, the discourse that commercial art media likes to present). Barry Le Va’s work aligns itself with the instrumental language of a unique discourse that slides unnoticed to another level of signification.

After seeing Accumulated Vision, Barry Le Va, a finely tuned series of installations at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Philadelphia, I was somehow persuaded by the artist’s purposeful but obscure methodology and by the agonizing complicity of working between a system and a nonsystem. Le Va functions as a purveyor of matter that is moving both into and through a constant state of entropy and disintegration. He is an artist whose self-appointed task has been one of distributing parts or extending the properties of materials into chaos and engaging this chaos visually as an extreme form of dematerialization. There is a good argument that Le Va’s perennial project involving “distribution” and “accumulation” mixed with certain aspects of bodily and architectural violence holds an existential tendency—at least, in the phenomenological sense—and more than a conscious obsession with the parameters of language or with the foregrounding of semiotics. Whether he is a postminimalist or a neoconceptualist is scarcely the point. His destructive architectural premise—a thread that runs throughout his work—exists in the in-between sense; that is, between the object-ramifications of structure and the temporality of corporeal thought, but never in the object itself.

Le Va evolved his concerns as an artist in the context of a formative time—a time when reductive concerns were being widely discussed by artists like Robert Morris and critics like Robert Pincus-Witten in the mid-1970s. Now, through this exhibition, they have come under a new light. What may not have been clear at the outset or what became obscured in the intervening years suddenly becomes clear again, but in a different way. Like the Buddhist monk who saw the mountain at first glance and was confused by it, only to realize years later the meaning of the mountain as being in perpetual transition yet unwavering, the work of Le Va has taken on a renewed meaning in recent years. The physical manipulation of his materials retains an uncertain structure, but it does not appear as futile as it once did. The context is different: the politics have changed, the technology has changed, and the market has gone from collecting to investing, where it remains inexorably in control of taste.

Le Va’s seeming futility of arranging, plotting, distributing, and destroying objects while manipulating synthetic materials disparately across the surface of a temporal ground has suddenly awakened our consciousness to see what is really in front of us, essentially where we are: in the rubble of the present. Le Va has become more tenable over time and more accessible on a visual level. The obscure signs within his earlier intentionality as an artist have come back into focus. They appear more factual, if not aesthetic, and more in evidence of what Duchamp once expressed as the “art coefficient.” From Duchamp’s point of view, the viewer fills in or completes the work based on the missing synapses, the neurological electrons and protons that charge the current along the path between an artist’s concept and the realization of the actual work. To connect these charges is precisely what Barry Le Va asks of us—to become engaged with the time of the installation as well as its space, to enter into a dialogue, to sense the matter equivalent to the ideas that constitute the reality of art. A work such as “Circular Network: Object 1971: Area 1972: Activities 1973” (1988) presents a fundamental, insubordinate, and elemental placement that is unequivocal yet inevitably and paradoxically pertaining to flux. Here lies the unmistakable irony in Le Va.

The exhibition instigator and curator Ingrid Schaffner, who is also director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, bravely took on this important show at a time when few may have thought to consider it. The kind of intellectual/architectural, mind/body strategies present in Le Va’s work are a far cry from the kind of hyperkitsch abject body art given to large-scale color photographs offered in Chelsea, Berlin, and London in recent years. Prior to the recent ICA exhibition, Le Va had three previous surveys, one curated by Marcia Tucker at the New Museum in 1978, another more complete exhibition by Elaine King at the Carnegie Mellon in 1988 (that traveled to the High Museum, the Newport Harbor Art Museum, and the Neuberger at SUNY Purchase), and a third at the Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller in Otterloo, The Netherlands, curated by Marianne Brouwer, also in 1988. Schaffner’s most recent incarnation of Le Va’s work operates less as a survey than as a retrospective of the artist’s forty-year career. It has been seventeen years since the previous two exhibitions in the United States and Europe. Indeed, Le Va began thinking in terms of three-dimensional structure in the mid-1960s shortly after he abandoned studies in architecture in order to pursue a career in art in Southern California. While he was tempted by painting at the outset—given that most of his work eventually came to deal with surfaces—he finally rejected it. In an interview with Saul Ostrow in Bomb in 1997, Le Va claimed, “One of the reasons I disliked painting was that I could never figure out when I was finished.” Thus Le Va’s gravitational pull toward sculpture was a natural extension of his earlier pursuit, but not in the predictable or expected sense of making sculpture that most observers would identify as “sculpture.” In that he had initially given up the frame in painting, he also wanted to abandon the traditional support in sculpture—the pedestal—in favor of a more open ground. From the late 1960s through the early 1970s, he worked with various powders and scrap materials, felt, and broken glass, and eventually wooden dowels. This pursuit is what eventually connected him to the “process” and the “anti-form” movements in New York, particularly when he appeared on the cover of Artforum in November 1968. One year later he would be included in the important groundbreaking exhibition Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, curated by Marcia Tucker and James Monte at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This was the moment when his career began to ascend into prominence.

Whether Le Va was wedging meat cleavers along the length of a wall, shooting bullets through plates of glass mounted along an eighteen-foot steel pipe, systemically breaking plates of glass according to the four cardinal points, or running full-force back and forth in a corridor, allowing his body to become a bloody pulp as he crashed into the walls, one can no longer assume these actions were purely literal in the formalist sense. Through a consensus of denial in the critical community, these actions and interventions, executed between 1968–70, were seen bereft of any interpretative content for fear that they would imply an expressionist impulse in their undertaking. But times change, and with the times come different ways of seeing, different angles of vision. For example, works that were initially sited in terms of specific places and durations have now been realized in Philadelphia as being capable of existing in another place and time and with another meaning.

In one of the catalogue essays, there is an implicit suggestion that immateriality is equal to absence of meaning, an inference that unwittingly reifies a typically understated misunderstanding emanating from the obverse canon of postmodernism. It would now appear that Le Va’s drawings of inscrutable floor plans do indeed have meaning—not just implications of “formalist violence” —through their stated immateriality and dissembled manifestations on the floor. The repressive urge to destroy one’s space, to tumble down the ramparts of being into the pitiless glut and froth of empty desire, thereby gives allegiance to the violent self. Here lies the narcissistic miasma of the self, drowning in meaningless ciphers through the perpetuation of execution strategies that are unworkable, untenable, and implausible. Indeed, this is a fantastic project for an artist, especially one in the throes of a repressive bondage that is precisely equivalent to an absence of governance with all its concomitant mindless, political turmoil. The process of thinking through form, through the psychic dematerialization of space, and through the violence of the political self has overwhelming consequences for the current moment, as Le Va’s cursory scattering of constant debris strongly implies. It reifies a particular moment where we are haunted and transfixed by rubble, by the ashes of conflagration, by parts of bodies once loved and now welded down into machinery, melted down into bunkerlike monuments, coffins made for pillaging, and further incarceration and misery for the human race. How can these issues not be felt in relation to Le Va’s Wagnerian installations in the present moment? I have to say that all great art is the result of insurmountable conflicts that are somehow confronted—where the imposition of formalist resolutions can no longer hold sway over the subtle strife of bodies, the tumultuous agony brought on by excessive bartering for power at the cost of losing a sense of the quality of life—maybe, of civilization itself.

As I walked with my daughter around the bits of felt, the cut pieces of aluminum, the shattered glass, and the incurable and oblique forms on the large wall of the downstairs gallery, the black cylinders of varying height, the angular neoprene and cast black hydrastone, as we listened to the thud of the artist’s body, digitally remixed after thirty-five years and resonating through the upper galleries, she confessed that she did not understand. But I could see she was visibly moved—as was I. The art of Le Va is not as ephemeral as it may have once appeared. There is a deliberate ambiguity about these shapes and spaces that questions the very nature of reality. They are complex and interwoven, but not elegant. The installations, reinstalled and resuscitated from an earlier era, somehow held our attention. There was a strange silence in these spaces, the silence of time gone by. I reflected on my first experience when I entered into the Hagia Sofia in ancient Constantinople, where destruction and reconstruction were absolutely linked to the history of this place going back to the fifth century. For me, Accumulated Vision, Barry Le Va constituted a kind of total event, a Wagnerian opera, but it was completely silent for the first time. It was the end of something, and the birth of something new.


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.