Barry Le Va, an artist whose sculptures included arrangements of ephemeral materials like felt and flour spread across the floor and, more flamboyantly, works involving meat cleavers, bricks and even his own body, died Jan. 24 in hospice care in New York. He was 79.
The cause was congestive heart failure, according to the David Nolan Gallery, which has represented his work since 1989.
Le Va (pronounced luh-VAY) was a member of the post-minimalist generation that emerged in the late 1960s. Partly in reaction to minimalism’s sleek metals, the post-minimalists played down or completely abandoned finished art objects, branching out instead into performance, earthwork, video and process art.
Le Va worked in the process art mode, along with artists Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier, Lynda Benglis, Alan Saret and Dorothea Rockburne. They began their careers working with temporary installations that were executed anew each time they were exhibited. This would be Le Va’s practice for his entire career.
A jazz aficionado and an admirer of the dense writing of Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, Le Va wanted his work to challenge and disorient his viewers — to present them with a surfeit of information and materials but without a fixed viewpoint.
Having been drawn to dance and theater as a student, he sought to make art that “wasn’t static” but rather was “in a state of flux,” as he put it in a video interview last year during an exhibition of his work at Dia Beacon in Beacon, New York.
Le Va was in some ways a radical sculptor’s radical sculptor, one who brought the conceptual and the physical into unusually equal balance. He made his first temporary floor-bound pieces in graduate school, calling horizontality a revelation that had prompted him to destroy all his previous artworks. He used pedestrian materials, including felt, ball bearings, paper towels, mineral oil, wood dowels, chalk, iron oxide and flour.
His materials became more substantial later on, sometimes including black blocks of cast hydrocal, a lightweight plaster, resulting in arrangements that resembled dour architectural models. The addition of shiny aluminum spheres on raised channels suggested an enlarged portion of a pinball machine. He called his efforts “distribution” or “dispersal” pieces, though “scatter art” became the popular label, a term he disliked.
Barry Edward Le Va was born on Dec. 28, 1941, in Long Beach, California, the only child of Muriel (McCullinan) and Arthur C. Le Va Jr. His mother was a teacher; his father owned a clothing store and imbued his son with an appreciation for fabrics and style. Barry Le Va became known for his ever-present Borsalino hat, well-cut jackets and occasional walking sticks. (For his sculptures in felt he used only 100% wool, produced by a German factory.)
Between 1960 and 1967 Le Va attended three art schools: California State University, Long Beach; the Los Angeles College of Arts; and Otis College of Art & Design (formerly Otis Art Institute), where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts.
He studied architecture and mathematics at first but switched to art, focusing on painting and then on sculpture. In 1968, after a visit to his studio, Jane Livingston, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was impressed enough to write an article about him for the November 1968 issue of Artforum, the leading contemporary art magazine. A Le Va felt piece was pictured on the cover.
Le Va’s work was included in “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials,” a groundbreaking exhibition of process art at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1969. He moved to New York the next year. He had his first gallery show in Cologne, Germany, at Galerie Rolf Ricke; his first gallery show in New York was at Bykert Gallery in 1972.