The Filipino-American artist Leo Valledor (1936-1989) has never quite received his deserved place in the history of Postwar American art, especially as that story is told in New York. The reasons for his invisibility in New York are both obvious and inexcusable, especially in light of the prominent role that shaped canvases have played in this city’s history of painting, and all the discussions it has engendered.
In 1955, at the age of 19, Valledor had his first painting show, at the Six Gallery, a co-op started by four artists (Wally Hedrick, Hayward King, Deborah Remington, and David Simpson) and two poets (John Ryan and Jack Spicer). On October 7, 1955, Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading of “Howl” at the gallery. The sculptor Peter Forakis, a friend of Valledor’s, designed the poster. During this period, Valledor was associated with artists such as Jay DeFeo and Sonia Gechtoff, and, as history would tell it, was considered part of the “Beat” movement.
Valledor moved to New York in 1961. Two years later he was one of the co-founders of the Park Place Gallery (1963-67), which collectively represented five sculptors (Mark di Suvero, Peter Forakis, Robert Grosvenor, Anthony Magar, and Forrest “Frosty” Myers) and five painters (Dean Fleming, Tamara Melcher, David Novros, and Edwin Ruda, along with Valledor).
During Valledor’s time with the Park Place Gallery, he participated in important group shows, in which he exhibited shaped canvases, such as the visually dynamic “Skeedo” (1965), acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2015. As far as I know, there is no other shaped canvas that looks like it. In 1968, he returned to San Francisco and seldom showed in New York again, but never stopped employing vector geometry to further his exploration of forms within space.
Perhaps the exhibition Leo Valledor: Dimensional Space at David Richard Gallery (March 4-March 27, 2020) will help clarify what is unique about Valledor’s shaped canvases, as well as further distinguish his work from that of artists who investigated this territory under the signs of Donald Judd and Clement Greenberg — Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland, respectively.
By being part of a gallery in which di Suvero played an important role, Valledor was already somewhat at a disadvantage in the highly partisan New York scene. In the June 1966 issue of Arts Magazine, Mel Bochner wrote of the show Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum (April 27-June 12, 1966):
In this exhibition, sculptors such as the Park Place group, the Richard Feigen group, and the Pace Gallery group are seen to be manipulating streamlined versions of outmoded forms. They may be dismissed in a discussion of the New Art.
As we know, the argument between “Specific Objects” (Judd) and space, infinite space, and the fourth dimension (di Suvero and the Park Place painters) was won by those who sided with actual objects and the formalist insistence on flatness.
This is what Judd wrote in his essay, “Specific Objects” (1965):
Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors — which is riddance of one of the most salient and objectional relics of European art.
These events and responses convey the circumstances in which Valledor’s shaped paintings were received in 1960s, as well as how one-sided the argument was in the art world while he lived and showed in New York.
I was further reminded of how partisan the scene was when I read the important essay “Park Place: Its Art and History” by Linda Dalrymple Henderson in the catalogue for the Blanton Museum of Art exhibition Reimagining Space: The Park Place Gallery Group in 1960s New York (September 28, 2008–January 18, 2009), curated by Henderson.
The 10 shaped paintings in Leo Valledor: Dimensional Space date from 1980 to ’84. “The Impossible Dream” (1981), the largest overall work in the show, is composed of three monochrome panels, “Zam” (1984) of two two-colored panels. Each work matches a different composition with a particular color palette. He repeats a format, inverting it. His method alludes to a deep, restless sense of inquiry, enhanced by his resistance to a signature style.
Valledor’s interest in peripheral vision and vector geometry set him apart from his New York counterparts in the 1960s. He did not believe, as Judd claimed, that the shape of the canvas determined what was inside, nor was he content to obediently reiterate painting’s flatness. He wanted to evoke what was beyond sight.
Whereas Noland’s internal shapes underscore the painting’s overall shape, and Stella’s use of the protractor echoes the painting’s shape and emphasizes the stability of the form and the flatness of the plane, Valledor’s work from the 1960s deliberately establishes a tension between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional through its illusionism, while lines suggested by the contours of the directional shapes point to an unknown space — the reality beyond the painting’s borders. One may say that the difference between Valledor (and many of the Park Place artists) and those aligned with Judd and Minimalism is that the former group was interested in how we see and the latter was focused on what we see.
The three shaped canvases in “The Impossible Dream” start with a yellow isosceles trapezoid at the bottom. Directly above it is a gray parallelogram, whose right and left edges are aligned with the top left and right edge of the yellow trapezoid below. Above these two canvases is a large black parallelogram whose right and left edges align with the base of the yellow trapezoid. If we connect the edges in our mind’s eye, as we might instinctively do, we will recognize that the three forms add up to a rectangle made of three distinct but related shapes.
Valledor’s ability to activate the space in which a painting sits is what holds the viewer’s attention. The yellow trapezoid suggests a receding plane, while the bottom diagonal edge of the gray parallelogram echoes that illusion. This is contradicted by the horizontal top edge of the gray parallelogram. The black parallelogram (whose bottom edge reflects that of the gray parallelogram) contrasts strongly with the gray parallelogram, yet connects color-wise to the bold yellow at the bottom. What space does the gray parallelogram in the middle occupy? Is it the literal space on the wall or is there another space, one beyond it?
Valledor does many unlikely and unexpected things with color as well. The vertically oriented trapezoid “Sunstrut” (1982) includes three different yellows, dividing two closely related hues with a metallic silver band. The right-most yellow section becomes a sharply tapered isosceles triangle separated from the three parallelograms defined by the two bands and the yellow form they frame. Internal rhythms and disruptions are key to Valledor’s paintings; here, the slanting silver band undermines the stability of the shape.
In each of the 10 paintings, Valledor optically activates the surface, suggesting space or seemingly bending a plane, all while working with solid color and clearly defined shapes.
Coincidentally, while Valledor was making these painting and continuing this trajectory, Mel Bochner was working on shaped canvases replete with linear structures rendered in what could be called a faux Abstract Expressionist style mixed with geometry — a savvy mixing of hot and cool. Influenced by Judd’s thinking about actual space, Bochner was playing with both perspective and illusionism.
But Bochner was not really interested in painting or composition, most likely because they did not constitute not “New Art.” While he worked this way for a number of years (examples were included in the survey exhibition Mel Bochner: 1973-1985 at the Carnegie Mellon, organized by Elaine King), Valledor, whose rigorous, decisively animated paintings are superior to Bochner’s loosely painted geometric paintings brimming with illusionism, has not gotten his due. Is it because Valledor’s paintings don’t qualify as “New Art?”
Leo Valledor: Dimensional Space continues at David Richard Gallery (211 East 121st Street, Harlem, Manhattan) through March 27.