To create translucent sculptures in the colossal proportions he desired, De Wain Valentine needed a new type of plastic. Valentine MasKast Resin, developed with Hastings Plastics in the 1960s, allowed Valentine to create huge resin works like the “Gray Columns” (1975–76), which at 3,500 pounds far exceeded the material’s previous breakage limit of 50 pounds.
The two towering pieces that comprise “Gray Columns” are displayed together as intended for the first time in De Wain Valentine: Works from the 1960s and 1970s at David Zwirner Gallery’s spaces on 19th Street in Chelsea. Although Valentine was a major figure in the California Light and Space movement, centered around Los Angeles and bent on altering perception through sculpture and installation, his East Coast profile has been low in recent decades — his last solo show in New York City was in the early ’80s.
Valentine is now 79 and still making work. Walking through the galleries, the sculptures feel fresh, their polished surfaces radiating prisms of color on the white walls and pedestals. It’s interesting to compare Valentine’s synthetic, luminous works with Richard Serra’s heavy metal pieces just a block away at Zwirner’s 20th Street space. Although both artists emerged in the ’60s and ’70s through their minimalist sculptural considerations of how to impact a viewer’s sense of space, Valentine was more interested in isolating some of the elusive nature of light from the sky, ocean, and city as opposed to Serra’s dark steel monoliths.
There are plenty of attendants stationed around the Zwirner galleries to assure visitors don’t smudge the Valentine sculptures or lean in too close, which is a temptation as each different perspective reveals a new quality of light. The slight tapering and delicate changes in pigments contribute to this illusion. “Circle Amber-Rose” (1970), for instance, fades up from yellow to pink like a sunset in reverse, while “Double Pyramid Fluorescent Green” (1970) is shaped like a clunky gemstone that seems to have some mossy cloud contained between its points.
The 12-foot-tall “Gray Columns” are definitely the show’s highlight, and you can watch the herculean task of their creation in this short documentary from the Getty Conservation Institute. The celebration of the once-newfangled plastic as a material, and its untouched, machine surface, may feel a little dated, but the colors Valentine encapsulated in the cast resin are still mesmerizing decades after he found a way to capture a slice of the sky.
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