Sixteen years after it first opened, the Wright Exhibition Space is still on the list of Seattle’s best-kept secrets. It is without doubt one of the city’s most beautiful places for looking at art, and you could not choose a better time to seek it out. The current exhibition is an excellent example of what the Wright Foundation does sublimely well.
Sitting pretty between the economic pressures of a commercial gallery and the civic or academic obligations of a museum, the foundation allows Virginia Wright to curate according to her very particular passions. The resulting exhibit delights and fascinates in equal measure.
“9 from L.A.” looks back quite consciously to a 1966 Seattle Art Museum exhibition called “Ten from Los Angeles,” although it adopts a rather narrower stylistic focus. Apart from two deliberately contrasting pieces, everything here is thoroughly abstract, utterly minimal, and concerned with nothing so much as the play of light off or through its surfaces. In the days when art seemed to need a groovy stylistic tag to merit attention, the movement that produced this work was dubbed “Light and Space” or, rather less respectfully, “Finish Fetish.”
The key work here is De Wain Valentine’s “Gray Column.” Just shy of 12 feet tall and more than 7 feet wide, it gradually tapers from about 9 inches thick at its base to something like an inch at the top. It is fabricated from a polyester resin of Valentine’s own invention. This allowed him to create sculptures of this size and translucency which — with a great deal of sanding and buffing — could be given a near-perfect finish.
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The column is surrounded by other Valentine pieces, by Robert Irwin’s clear resin “Pillar,” by one of Larry Bell’s signature glass boxes, by Mary Corse’s (somewhat more recent) “White Light Painting,” by three John McCrackens, and by a number of other pieces that are frankly easier to enjoy than they are to interpret.
Their shared ambition appears to be to offer untroubled contemplation. When New York minimalism migrated to sun-drenched Southern California, this was what emerged: L.A. Zen.
Without a great deal of meaning to contemplate, it is the quasi-industrial nature of the column’s making that engages much of our intellectual interest. This is the subject of the engrossing subexhibition that shares the Wright Space and which draws upon work done by the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. Put this together with the serenity of the sculptures and paintings, and you get a poignant reminder of a time when art was high and the world in which it was made and contemplated was far simpler, and a great deal more exclusive, than it is now.
Robert Ayers: email@example.com