Art And The Importance Of Materials: Part 2

In our previous post we discussed the artwork of the Italian based Arte Povera movement – how they used raw and cast off industrial materials to bring a new urgency to their sculptures. You can read that post here.

Today let’s look at the work of another group of artists from the same time who used a totally different set of materials as their primary means of expressing form and content.

These were artists working in Los Angeles in the 1960s and early 1970s. They used cutting edge materials and technical processes to create work that was immaculate – clean and pristine. Art critics referred to their obsession with ideal forms and perfect surfaces by using the term Finish Fetish.

Like the Arte Povera artists in Italy the Finish Fetish artists in Los Angeles were responding to the prevailing art of the time (including Minimalism) but with a unique LA twist.

These young LA artists looked at the physical and cultural world directly around them and saw a beautiful landscape and a world bursting with possibilities.

Unlike urban centers back east, the west side of Los Angeles (where most of these artists lived and worked) was a short walk from postcard perfect beaches bathed in sunlight. It was a laid back culture of Hawaiian shirts, customized cars and surfboards.

By the 1960s Los Angeles had also become a new super city ready to give New York and Chicago a serious challenge. LAs population was enormous. Its entertainment and aerospace industries were among the most important in the world. And its real estate developers and deal makers were defining what the world would look like far into the future.

It was in this forward looking, beach world context that these artists began creating a uniquely West Coast style of minimalism – art that captured the spirit of Southern California. Let’s look at a few examples…

art by Billy Al Bengston

Billy Al Bengston, who once raced motorcycles on the competitive circuit, used automotive lacquer and a spray gun to create this image on an aluminum panel. You can see in the reflective surface that the metal has been distressed with hammer blows. Bengston has long been fascinated by shimmering reflections inspired by his own interest in surfing and observing how sunlight bounces off the water’s surface. Describing his other inspirations Bengston says, “My earlier work took off from things I saw in the streets: cars, signs etc… and Los Angeles of course, was, and is, a car culture…”

art by Larry Bell

Another artist interested in reflective surfaces is Larry Bell. He uses a hi-tech process of depositing micron thin layers of metallic film on sheets of glass suspended in a vacuum chamber. The density and gradation of the filmy layer is controlled by the angle of the glass in the chamber and the number of times it goes through the process. He also uses stencils to mask out areas. Talking about the importance of his immaculate process Bell says, “I don’t want you to see stains on the glass. I don’t want you to see fingerprints on the glass… I don’t want you to see anything except the light that’s reflected, absorbed, or transmitted.”

Resin sculpture by DeWain Valentine

DeWain Valentine had a history of using polyester resins and fiberglass in industry before becoming a visual artist. He worked with chemists from PPG to modify existing formulas and eventually develop a new resin that would allow him to fabricate large scale forms in a single pouring. His large forms have weighed as much as two tons. Valentine says of his art, “all the work is about the sea and the sky. And I would like to have some way, a magic saw, to cut out large chunks of ocean or sky and say ‘here it is’.”

Resin sculpture by Helen Pashgian

Helen Pashgian works on a much smaller scale but her pieces are equally complex to fabricate. For this artwork she first cast a solid resin sphere that was carefully sanded and polished. It was then dipped in multiple baths of resin – each slightly tinted with different colors. After more sanding and polishing the globe is a jewel-like finished object. Talking about her inspiration Pashgian says, “Light and water, those two things sealed my fate… and you could only experience it in that way in California.”

Looking at the artwork of both the Arte Povera and Finish Fetish artists you can see how important materials are for conveying an artistic vision. Young artists and designers should not settle for what they have at hand, but should insist on materials that are appropriate for what they want to express.

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