Barry Le Va, Whose Floor-Bound Art Defied Boundaries, Dies at 79

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 on Jan. 24 in hospice care in the Bronx. He was 79.

The cause was congestive heart failure, according to the David Nolan Gallery, which has represented his work since 1989.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Le Va worked in the process art mode, along with the 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 Mr. Le Va’s practice for his entire career.

Tall, bald, of sizable build and gravelly voice, Mr. Le Va could be intimidating in person at first. His manner was one of friendly imperiousness and skepticism, with a hint of misanthropy. He could be charming, but he was pleased when one critic compared him to Colonel Kurtz, the army officer, portrayed by Marlon Brando, who goes rogue in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now.”

Artistically, Mr. Le Va was influenced by boundary-pushing Fluxus artists like Allison Knowles and George Brecht and occasionally by painters like Oyvind Fahlstrom and Roberto Matta, whose work implied infinite detail. He also admired the sequential action of comics.

A jazz aficionado and an admirer of the dense writing of Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, Mr. 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, N.Y.

Mr. 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.

In the early years, a typical Le Va might involve felt in various states — thick rolls of it, or swaths cut into small rectangles, streamers or little shards — all accented with clusters of silver ball bearings that he spread over the felt like a second organizational system. At least one such piece was discarded by museum janitors after it had been installed.

As he said of his early work in the Dia interview, “To look like a work of art was bad.”

Image“Animations: Frame by Frame,” 1967/2019, shown at the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, N.Y.
Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times

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.

“Scatter art is a made-up thing by art magazines,” he said.

Mr. Le Va wanted to engage viewers so that they could walk through a work, look at it from different angles and, like detectives at a crime scene, reconstruct the mental and physical processes that had formed it. (He admired Sherlock Holmes.) So essential was the viewer for Mr. Le Va that he made sculptures only for public display, never in his studio, tailoring them to the spaces in art galleries or museums where they would be shown.

He drew incessantly in his studio, starting with sketchbooks and progressing to enormous drawings that could match the actual scale of the finished sculpture. The drawings were compared to scripts or musical scores. The titles of his pieces often reflected his process, like “Equal Quantities: Placed or Dropped In, Out, and On in Relation to Specific Boundaries,” from 1967.

Some works were extended arcane puzzles that took time to make and time to think through. Others were more obvious, instantaneous and even violent, like one consisting of multiple meat cleavers thrown and lodged in a patch of wall or floor. Equally compressed were his plate glass pieces, in which sheets of glass, stacked one or a few at a time, were smashed with a sledgehammer after each addition.

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Credit…Estate of Barry Le Va, courtesy David Nolan Gallery

Mr. Le Va used his own body as material, violently, with “Impact Run Velocity Piece,” an audio work that he performed just once — and recorded — at Ohio State University in 1969. Here he ran repeatedly at full speed into opposite walls of a gallery until he was unable to proceed. The recording was then played in the open gallery, leaving visitors to deduce his actions from sound alone: footsteps, impact and slowing pace.

He allotted 30 seconds for each run. In one interview he said he had kept it up for an hour and 45 minutes (more than 200 sprints), at which point friends ended the performance, fearing for his health. The recorded piece is in the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

By contrast, some Le Va works were overtly gentle, even serene. An especially beautiful example, from 1968-69, was made entirely of chalk dust. (It was recreated for the Dia exhibition.) The material, gathered into dunelike drifts, resembled an indoor earthwork. It was swept up and discarded when the show closed this month.

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Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times

Barry Edward Le Va was born on Dec. 28, 1941, in Long Beach, Calif., 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. Mr. LeVa became known for his ever-present Borsalino hat, well-cut jackets and occasional walking sticks. (For his sculptures in felt he used only 100 percent wool, produced by a German factory.)

Mr. Le Va once said that the greatest single influence on his work was watching his mother make her own clothes, laying paper patterns on fabric on the floor and cutting around the edges.

Between 1960 and 1967 Mr. 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.

The Artforum article launched Mr. Le Va on a critically respected, if never very lucrative, career. He lived mainly on the sales of his drawings, which museums purchased more often than his sculptures, although the glass pieces enjoyed a certain popularity.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Le Va concentrated on his art to the exclusion of much else in his life. His first marriage, to Britta Schmücker, ended in divorce in 1975. In 2004 he married Lisa Rubinstein, and they maintained separate residences. She survives him. He died at Calvary Hospice in the Bronx.

Throughout his career he maintained a heavy schedule of gallery and museum exhibitions in the United States and Europe, where most of his patrons lived. In a catalog for a 1973 show of his work at the New Museum in Manhattan, this man of solitary habit explained that his work was about “relationships” — the viewer’s participation.

“What you give the work, it gives you,” he said.

Artistically, Mr. Le Va was influenced by boundary-pushing Fluxus artists like Allison Knowles and George Brecht and occasionally by painters like Oyvind Fahlstrom and Roberto Matta, whose work implied infinite detail. He also admired the sequential action of comics.

A jazz aficionado and an admirer of the dense writing of Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, Mr. 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, N.Y.

Mr. 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.

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