Barry Le Va: The Aesthetic Aftermath
by Michael Maizels
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2015
240 pp., illus. 53 b/w. Trade, $90.00; paper, $30.00
IBSN: 9780816694686; IBSN: 9780816694693.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
This is a great and exemplary book on an artist of little renown, who even in the heyday of his career has never really got the critical attention he deserved (a 1968 Artforum cover illustration brought him sudden fame, but this fame did not last). First trained as an architect, Barry Le Va turned to art because he was looking for a practice that could offer him the opportunity to fight whatever reduced the eternal motion and mobility of things. He is often described as a minor post-minimalist in the line of post-studio and process art, whose work was considered too radical and too hermetic to make it in the art world, to which one should add that Le Va himself proved always quite reluctant to participate in the inevitable commercialism of this art world. Michael Maizels' study, which is anything but hermetic and which takes great care of explaining how Le Va's work is deeply rooted in all fundamental questions and traditions of modern art, in the very broad sense of the word, is therefore the ideal occasion to come back on an amazing artist and his coherent and illuminating struggle with the formal, thematic, ideological, and institutional limitations of art.
Le Va's art is generally described as belonging to the field of sculpture, but such a label does not really do justice to the complexity and intensity of his actual questioning of sculpture and art. Obviously, Le Va's work is not alone in questioning the definition of sculpture in the modern Western tradition, at least since the major theoretical interventions by Lessing and Herder: three-dimensionality, monumentality, immobility, rigidity, eternity -all these features were heavily challenged by most progressive artists of the 1960s and 1970s. Le Va's work is both representative of these tendencies (one should not forget that he was always in very close contact with most of his better-known colleagues, some of them close friends such as Mel Bochner) and more radical in his attempt to dismantle the most essential characteristics of sculpture as an artistic form as well as an artistic practice.
The notion of 'aftermath' is used by Michael Maizels as the key to a better understanding of Le Va's work. The repeated use of this term emphasizes three major ideas. First, the idea that all works by Le Va should be seen as the trace of a process that the spectator has to read as if it were a cue. In that sense, the enigmatic and definitely fragmentary structure of most works can no longer simply be approached in terms of incompleteness, but as elements that trigger the critical participation of the spectator. Second, the idea that these works have a very powerful sense of the historical context they are reacting to. This context is not only a contemporary one (the destructive aspect of many installations and interventions cannot be separated from the agitation that characterized the progressive art world during the Vietnam war, for instance), but also a much larger and longer one (Le Va, who worked as an art teacher in college, linked his work with all critical debates in the field of art theory and art history; as an avid reader of popular science, he was also extremely aware of discussions on science and the relationships between art and science). Third, the idea that his work has always remained so typically avant-garde (as an attempt to supersede the difference between art and life and thus as an attempt to do away with the autonomy of art) that it could only be understood as being a kind of belated and deferred form of avant-garde in an era that was witnessing the impossible rebirth of the avant-garde.
This general approach of Le Va's work is analyzed by Michael Maizels in a chronological order. The author distinguishes five major periods in the artist's career (although the term 'career' may bear certain connotations that do not really match the relative critical and financial failure that characterized his work), each of them clearly seen as ever-changing responses to always new issues and problems that menaced to reduce the work to 'something one can own and sell'. The refusal to produce sculptures that can become objects for exhibition as well as sale brings Le Va to various experiments. In the first years, he is searching for materials that resist sustainable materialization; he replaces materials by performances and events, shifting the focus from object to focus; and he creates works that are so enigmatic that they avoid any globalizing and totalizing deciphering. Later, however, he will directly tackle the solidity and materiality of sculpture and its countless relationships with architecture, always in the same dematerializing and critical spirit of his early works. The return of the third dimension and the blurring of boundaries between sculpture and architecture is then the starting-point of a renewed reflection on the move from object to event (in the post May 68 thinking of critical theorists such as Guy Debord and Bernard Tschumi the 'event' is less what happens than what escapes any kind of programming, but happens nevertheless).
For all the works produced throughout a period of more than four decades, Michael Maizels reconstructs with great care the artistic, ideological, and above all intellectual context Le Va's art is reacting to. In this regard, Maizels pays great attention to scientific discussions, such as the lasting impact of relativity theory or the concept of entropy in information theory in the gradual replacement of traditional sculpture, that is the ideologically burdened symbol of a no longer acceptable mechanic worldview, by sculptural installations that defy the quest for order and sustainability. At the same time, Maizels foregrounds also the importance of literary texts, a less common feature in thinking on sculpture. The analysis of the work as clue is analyzed as a critical dialogue with Conan Doyle's belated mechanistic worldview, whereas other works are studied as special forms of ekphrasis prompted by the reading of authors as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Bernhard.
There are many reasons to quote Michael Maizels' book as an example of what serious and enlightening art theory can be today. It pays a well-deserved tribute toward a great but underestimated artist. It gives an excellent and well-exemplified reading of the essential debates of modern sculpture. It underlines the necessity to go beyond issues of art historical influences and institutional relationships in order to understand the dynamics and transformations of an artistic practice that interacts with totally different fields (in this case: science and literature). And it does all these things in a very didactic way, which make this book the perfect mix of monography and textbook.