A perfect realisation

Image of Peter Aspden

“Gray column” is a hefty sculpture made by the Colorado-born artist De Wain Valentine in the mid-1970s. It is shortly to go on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and will doubtless evoke some memories, not because anyone has seen it before – it has never been shown in public – but for its striking resemblance to the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. If the Getty produces a soundtrack of waltzes to accompany the display, the association will be complete and we will be whisked back to a time that dreamt vividly of a future that has yet to happen.

But there is a more prosaic point to the show than to provoke temporal dislocation. The display of “Gray Column” is presented by the Getty’s conservation institute and the work will be surrounded by exhibits that narrate the story of its making and maintenance. Valentine’s achievement was as much an act of technical bravura as imagination. The 3,500lb sculpture, 12ft high and 8ft wide, is made entirely out of a single pour of polyester resin, using a new technique devised by the artist and a local manufacturing firm.

The result is a smooth, highly polished work that tapers at the top to become translucent, a hypnotic visual effect. In common with other artists of the time working on the west coast, Valentine was fascinated by the finish that was being achieved in the aerospace and car industries. Even surfboards – what could be more Californian? – attracted artists for the sheen of their surface as much as for their symbolic power, speeding metaphors for the free-flowing lifestyle of LA beach culture.

The derogatory term “finish fetish” was devised to patronise those artists, who were deemed superficial for their excessive concern with surface. But that in itself was a superficial observation: it was only if the surface was perfect, the counter-argument went, that deeper resonances in a work could be observed. (The argument would have its musical equivalent when LA-based bands such as Steely Dan, fastidious in their perfectionism, were mocked for lacking “soul”, while their supporters argued for the transcendent effect of immaculate musicianship.)

It is one thing for a surface to appear completely smooth but quite another for it to remain in pristine condition. In the case of works such as “Gray Column”, because the chemically unstable resin continues to “move”, over time it develops slight ripples and, in the worst case, small cracks. And here is where it becomes a live issue for conservationists: should those blemishes be accepted as an organic evolution of the work, or should the “finish fetish” of the artist be respected and work carried out regularly to keep it as close as possible to its original condition?

Valentine and the Getty conservators had their differences as they planned the exhibition. The artist was in favour of a major restoration. Resanding and refinishing would make it pristine once more. But that worried the conservators, who argued against such a radical and irreversible process. For they would no longer be exhibiting an original piece from the mid-1970s. It would be a face-lifted version; a work that had undergone a kind of plastic surgery. “The surface was still beautiful,” said Tom Learner, part of the Getty team. “It may not have been quite as the artist intended but it was 35 years old. The ageing brings another level of beauty to it.”

In the end, the two sides reached a compromise. “Gray Column” was sanded very finely to smooth over scratches. But if you look very carefully, you can still just see the subtle rippling effect that testifies to the work’s age. In the part of the world that most champions the illusion of eternal youth, it is a powerful message in itself.

In the meantime, visitors will surely enjoy seeing a work that is standing as the artist intended for the very first time. When the company that commissioned it finally installed the column, it was in a room that had lowered its ceiling since the original plans, and it was forced to turn the work on its side. It was just a few weeks ago that the artist himself first saw its proper orientation. “There was a delayed response,” says Learner. “At first he did not seem completely bowled over. But then three days later he called us and was giddy with excitement.”

“Gray Column” is part of Pacific Standard Time, a series of exhibitions opening next month on the birth of the LA art scene. Valentine was in many ways a typical player on the scene: innovative, unafraid of pushing boundaries, exalting in the scientific advances of the time. “Finish fetish” might have been a movement of its time but also expressed a more timeless artistic concern: the desire to create a kind of perfection.

But we know, in our relativised age, that there is no such thing. The yearning for flawlessness will always be compromised. “Gray Column” movingly tells this story. Its otherworldliness is, after all, of the world. Its hypnotic translucence might captivate us but we are not in the presence of 2001’s monolith. Its ulterior concerns are human, all too human.

From Start to Finish, De Wain Valentine’s ‘Gray Column’, Getty Center, Los Angeles, September 13-March 11

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