David Nolan Gallery announces the death of Barry Le Va

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David Nolan Gallery announces the death of Barry Le Va
Barry Le Va installing a glass sculpture at Documenta, 1972.

NEW YORK, NY.- David Nolan Gallery announced the death of Barry Le Va on January 24th. A pioneer of process art, Le Va rose to prominence in the late 1960s through sculptures and installation work of unconventional materials made according to meticulous yet dynamic drawings.

Barry Le Va was born in 1941 in Long Beach, California to Arthur and Muriel Le Va. In his youth, he was greatly interested in cartoons, architecture, and the artwork of Frank Lloyd Wright, Öyvind Falhström and Roberto Matta as well as detective stories, all which would influence his work later in his career. Le Va attended California State University, Long Beach from 1960 to 1963, continuing his studies at Los Angeles College of Art & Design, and Otis Art Institute of LA County, where he received a Master of Fine Arts in 1967.

In 1968, Le Va received a Young Talent Award from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and graced the cover of Artforum, accompanied by an article by Jane Livingston. Le Va went on to mount solo shows at the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1969, just two years following graduate school, continuing his investigation of the floor as a field of vastness with unlimited potential. In the same year, he was part of the groundbreaking exhibition Anti-Illusion: Procedure/Materials at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which highlighted conceptual, process and medium driven artists such as Lynda Benglis, Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Keith Sonnier.

After teaching at Minneapolis College of Art & Design from 1968 to 1970, Le Va moved to New York City, where he met gallerist Rolf Ricke. Through Ricke, who began exhibiting Le Va’s work in Cologne, the artist was introduced to curator Harald Szeemann and invited to participate in Documenta for the first time in 1972, and subsequently in 1977 and 1982. In New York, he showed at Klaus Kertess’ Bykert Gallery from 1973 until the gallery’s closure, after which he was represented by Sonnabend Gallery.

Le Va taught advanced sculpture at Princeton University from 1973 to 1974. In 1974, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Sculpture. In 1976, he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and began teaching graduate-level classes in sculpture at Yale University, which continued for several years.

Part of a generation intent on knocking art off its conservative pedestal, Barry Le Va began experimenting in graduate school with the floor as a site for installations. His early creations were scattered soft materials he referred to as “distributions.” Works of this nature rejected the hard-lined, geometric forms and rigid industrial materials of Minimalism in favor of a more flexible, dynamic medium, notably felt, that could undergo instant transformation by cutting, folding and layering. Le Va’s particular emphasis on process and multiplicity within the horizontal orientation forged an uncharted, distinct path.

When conceptualizing a sculpture, Le Va began by creating a detailed plan on paper, flattening the plane in the same way of an architect would draft a plan. A long-time reader of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Le Va encourages the viewer to reconstruct the actions by which his composition was created, and contemplate the elements. The same way a detective story reader is presented with clues in a crime-scene, the viewer acts as Sherlock Holmes, extrapolating from material fragments.

Le Va’s material curiosity expanded to include chalk, flour and powder in installations that appeared as ephemeral and temporal as his felt works, despite the rigorous planning and drafting process. In the same years, between 1968 and 1972, the artist began experimenting with broken glass shattered to the artist’s specifications, meat cleavers hacked into the wall in various permutations, and bullets.

Spanning over fifty years, Le Va’s work remains still relevant and intriguing to the contemporary eye. Recently, works of his were included in Greater New York at MoMA PS1, 2015-2016; Piece Work, organized by Robert Storr at Yale University School of Art, and in Bold Abstractions: Selections from the DMA Collection 1966–1976, curated by Gavin Delahunty at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2015.

Le Va’s work has been featured in numerous solo exhibitions in the United States and Europe, and has been the subject of major survey exhibitions at the New Museum, New York, NY, 1978-79; Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, The Netherlands, 1988; Carnegie Mellon Art Gallery, Pittsburgh, PA, 1988; Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, CA, 1989; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, 1989; Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY, 1990; Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, Germany, 1993; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany, 1998; Cabinet des Estampes du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva, Switzerland, 2003; Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, PA, 2005 (curated by Ingrid Schaffner); Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, Porto, Portugal, 2006; and a large presentation of twelve sculptures at Dia:Beacon, Beacon, NY, 2019-21. Since 1989, Le Va has had 14 solo shows at David Nolan Gallery, New York, who represents the artist.

Permanent collections holding works by Barry Le Va include the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; mumok, Vienna, Austria; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Morgan Library & Museum, New York, NY; Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, Germany; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT.

I first met Barry in 1983 at Sonnabend Gallery. He was an intimidating bald man of large build, wearing a Borsalino hat, a tweed coat and Dr. Martens military style boots. After I told him, somewhat to his disinterest, that I was a fan who knew his work in Europe through Nigel Greenwood (an early mentor of mine) and from living in Cologne for the past three years, his scowl relaxed. We talked about jazz, movies and Irish literature—we discovered we shared a passion for Samuel Beckett—and after a few hours of chatting over a couple of martinis at Berry’s in Soho, he invited me to his studio, thus beginning our relationship. We spent much time together in New York but also in Germany, where Barry contemplated a full time move, and together we shared many stories in Munich, in the company of his friends at Charles Schumann’s restaurant.

As our friendship progressed through the decades, Barry remained the same, always wanting to escape the polite chitchat and art world banter of openings, dinners and events, preferring to sit alone with me at a bar where he’d break out his black Moleskine notebook and show me his ideas. This routine would persist till the very end, in hospital.

I became his manager, installer, advisor, friend and gallerist, in a deep and intense relationship that I treasured as unique and I never took for granted. In 2006, Barry entrusted me with installing his complete retrospective showcasing 40 years of sculptures from 1966 and hundreds of drawings at the Serralves Museum in Porto. Since the 1980s I installed together with Barry numerous exhibitions of his sculptures. Watching him at work was always an incredibly rewarding experience and a collaborative effort, which was unusual and gave me the opportunity to deeply understand his working process, almost like seeing inside his brain. For many years we met at least on a weekly basis, working on many shows and the most recent 3-year project with Dia Art Foundation. I have learned so much from Barry, about looking at art, architecture and space, as well as music, literature, and cinema. We’d always share thoughts and stories about life, family and personal relationships. I will miss his generosity, charm, courage, humor and brilliance. His absence in my and other people’s lives will be hard to deal with, for a long time. However, his work will emanate Barry’s spirit forever.

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