De Wain Valentine, Sculptor Who Made Plastic Into an Art Form, Dies at 86

De Wain Valentine, a sculptor affiliated with the Light and Space movement commonly considered to be among the first artists to enlist plastic as an artistic material, has died. A representative for Valentine’s gallery, Almine Rech, said on Sunday that he died of an illness.

Valentine was a member of a group of Southern Californian artists who, during the ’60s, enlisted industrial materials toward transcendent, minimal means. Some of the sculptors were labeled Finish Fetish artists for their obsession with smooth, sensuous surfaces. While certain critics at the time hurled around that term derisively, it was clear that Valentine was more than proficient with his materials of choice, and that he had formal goals as well—namely to evoke new kinds of optical perception through plastics.

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Asked to describe his process in a 1969 Artforum interview, he said, “It is an exothermic reaction between methyl ethyl ketone peroxide, which is the catalyst, and cobalt or manganese leoleanate, which is in the resin. It is an oxidation between the peroxide and the cobalt which, if you mixed them together directly, would explode.” He added that all this made his sculptures a form of “self-cooking art.” In 1970, further underlining his affinity for the science involved in making these works, he partnered with the Hastings Plastics Company in Santa Monica to make a highly stable resin that bears his name: Valentine Maskast Resin No. 1300-17.

Early on, Valentine demonstrated a willingness to venture into territory few artists had mined, taking up materials that were considered more the stuff of new technology than of art. In the mid-’40s, the Air Force and the Navy declassified Plexiglas and polyester resin, respectively. At the time, Valentine was a middle-schooler, and as he recalled it in a 2019 Brooklyn Rail interview, his shop teacher showed him the potential of sanding down and cutting those materials to make them smooth. Much to his parents’ dismay, Valentine began to attempt to cook resin at home in his family’s oven.

But the use of these plastics became a stumbling block when Valentine became a mature artist during the ’60s. At the time, painting reigned supreme, and when Valentine took his work to galleries, they refused to engage with it, saying that they did not show plastics. It was not until he gained the attention of a particularly epochal gallerist, Leo Castelli, that he showed in New York. In 1964, Douglas Chrismas, a dealer in L.A., became the first to give Valentine a solo show in California, where the artist was long based. (For part of his career, Valentine also took up residence in Hawaii, where he met his wife Kiana.)

In 1965, Valentine was lured to Venice when he got a job working at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Then I got fired—twice—for teaching the art students how to use plastics because the old guard preferred the smell of oil paint,” he told the Brooklyn Rail. The job offered him proximity to a picturesque ocean that he would later seek to imitate in his works, and to artists such as Robert Irwin and Larry Bell, both of whom lived within a block of his studio. He would also keep up contact with New York artists like the Minimalist sculptor Dan Flavin, who Valentine counted as a friend.

A circular blue sculpture on a white pedestal.

De Wain Valentine, Concave Circle Blue Green, 1968–2017.

The works that Valentine produced during this era are semi-translucent and richly hued, often evoking the landscape around him by way of sharp blues and yellows. In a 2011 New York Times profile, Valentine said he sought “to cut out large chunks of ocean or sky and say: ‘Here it is.’”

De Wain Valentine was born in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1936, and knew he wanted to be an artist early because he had a penchant for drawing horses. He went on study art as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, and then went on to receive an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Art in Norfolk, Connecticut. Along the way, he was mentored by artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Philip Guston, and Clyfford Still.

Valentine’s magnum opus was commissioned by the Baxter Travenol Laboratories in Deerfield, Illinois, in 1975, but that work, titled Gray Column (1975), was not well-known until the Getty Conservation Institute restored it. It was exhibited by the Getty Museum in the 2011 edition of Pacific Standard Time, an exhibition series that spotlights Californian art history. That exhibition has been credited with helping launch Valentine to wider fame.

That work, a pair of 12-foot-tall black forms that grow increasingly slender as they rise toward the ceiling, was cast from thousands of pounds of resin. Initially meant for a 24-foot-tall space whose ceilings were subsequently lowered, the work was intended to be shown standing upright but was exhibited on its side. For years before the Getty show, the piece was stored at Valentine’s studio. One of its columns was presented at the Getty, though it was until a 2015 David Zwirner exhibition in New York—his first show in the city since 1981—that both columns were seen side by side.

After the Getty show, Valentine’s work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which had given the artist a survey in 1979.

After Gray Columns, Valentine stopped relying on polyester resin because of its toxicity. And while it work became harder for him to craft in the later stages of his career due to the physicality of his process, Valentine continued to create sculptures into his final decade. “Me and a bunch of my friends say, ‘Artists never retire; we just get tired,’” he told L’Officiel in 2015.


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