Monday, February 12, 2018

Ideal geometry

l-r: East-West (diptych), 48 × 88 in, 1968; Sunstrut, 108 × 48 in, 1981; San Francisco Spring (Sweet Rain), 108 × 114 in, 1974
As installed in the Brian Gross Gallery, San Francisco, January 2018

Eastside Road, February 12, 2017—
Paintings by Leo Valledor
Brian Gross Gallery,
   San Francisco
through Feb. 24 2018
AMONG THE HEROS, as I see them, the truest of the great painters of the San Francisco Bay Area in the great years of the second half of the last century, none produced purer work than Leo Valledor (1936–1989). Essentially self-taught, as I understand it, he exhibited early, at 19, in the pathbreaking Six Gallery in San Francisco.

He left town in 1961 to establish a career in New York City, where he joined five other California artists — including the sculptors Mark di Suvero and Peter Forakis, also emigrés from the Bay Area — in the founding of the legendary Park Place, where a new, formalist art emerged to succeed postwar Abstract Expressionism.

Perhaps Park Place was inspired by the Six Gallery; certainly in must have represented the breathing of new energy into the New York scene. There are various uses of geometry, however, and Valledor’s painting has always suggested the purity and idealism of geometry as a conceptual meditation on proportion, where other artists seem to explore more strictly visual expressions. Valledor’s work is often compared to Frank Stella’s, for example: but Stella’s use of shape and color seems to me to be what Duchamp dismissed as “retinal,” relying on purely sensual effect.

And Valledor is compared to Ellsworth Kelly; but Kelly’s hard-edged paintings are abstractions and (especially) croppings of realistically reproduced natural objects — often floral — whereas Valledor finds his imagery, apparently, purely within an intellectual imagination.

Providently Valledor (like Forakis) returned to the Bay Area in 1968, showing at the San Francisco Museum of Art and the San Francisco Art Institute, and teaching there, at Lone Mountain College and as a guest at UC. Berkeley.

There have been other Bay Area geometrical painters, of course: Thomas Akawie and David Simpson represent two poles bracketing others. Centered between them, I suppose, Hassel Smith, whose Search for the Source of the Nile was a truly great canvas, one of the finest of its period. (But clearly a representational landscape.) But one tends to site hard-edge abstraction within the Los Angeles area, when thinking of California, not within the Bay Area. In the south many, probably most of them were dedicated to substance and finish. But there too there is an Idealist: Robert Irwin.

I think of Valledor and Irwin as semblables, brothers in spirit. In their maturest work they appeal to the retina not simply to fascinate or please it but to engage its collaboration in an appeal to the mind. They are not illusionists: there work doesn't in any way trick the mind. (Though in the later paintings here, the "new slant" enjoys a degree of playfulness.) They are idealists, not abstracting away from anything but approaching pure abstraction on its own terms.

I am most moved, in this exhibition, by a magnificent series of three paintings from Valledor's middle period. And paticularly by the 1974 San Francisco Spring, whose perfection eludes verbal commentary — you simply have to stand in front of it, look at it with one eye and then the other, back away, reapproach, quit it and quickly turn your head to gaze at it again.

The current exhibition of Valledor’s canvases at Brian Gross is very beautifully installed and lit. Isolated respectfully on the end wall, San Francisco Spring reflects some of the color of Sunstrut, around the corner, separating the chaste silver rectangles in San Francisco Spring from the 1968 diptych East-West. Nothing I write can express Valledor’s brushwork, which is far from flat and featureless, but whose animation energizes the painting through capture of the light that falls on it, not through the dynamic substance of the acrylic paint itself. These surfaces are perhaps calculated, a bit self-assertive, appearing when closely inspected as if to confess proudly that, yes, an artist's hand has achieved this near-ideal refinement.

I suppose no artist could long remain in the rarified air of San Francisco Spring: the sudden yellow and more playful shapes of Sunstrut suggested the path that was to follow. The later paintings — sad to refer to the work of a gifted artist just fifty as "late" — retain the sobriety and elegance of the middle-period ones, but bring in a new instability. I suppose my favorite here is Ezistance (1986), a truncated equilateral triangle divided into three strips of near-value violet, purple and red (to grossly simplify color descriptions). The shapes of these strips — two elongated triangles flanking a rhombus — cause the canvas to vibrate between flat and folded, and the weight of the colors, the unease of the illusion, and the size (96 by 34 inches) make this a very imposing piece, gaining stability, even a kind of majesty, from its authority.

The gallery featured Valledor in a one-man show two years ago; I hope it continues this cycle in the future. The Neri show at Stanford's Anderson Center that closed recently and the Robert Hudson-Richard Shaw show (with Jack Stuppin) in Santa Rosa give me hope the glories of 1960s Bay Area painting are being revived for a generation not fully aware of the significance of its inheritance.

•Brian Gross Fine Art, 248 Utah Street, San Francisco, California 94103; (415) 788-1050

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