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Back to the Drawing Board

Craig Kauffman looked at his old work before moving forward with the new, using the Far East influences of calligraphy for a twist.

November 29, 1998|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The pellucid marine light flowing through the new skylights of the Patricia Faure Gallery lends an ethereal aspect to Craig Kauffman's recent painting of dark lines whirling like dervishes across a white silk surface. The artist muses: "These new pieces are skeletal. I went back to looking at my old work and started drawing again. They seemed to work better when I thought of lining the images up like calligraphy." Kauffman's paintings and drawings go on view at the Faure Gallery on Saturday, complementing the artist's 1968 pink-plexiglass bubble sculpture included in "Sunshine & Noir: Art in L.A. 1960-1997" at UCLA's Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center.

One of the original artists associated with L.A.'s infamous Ferus Gallery in the late 1950s and '60s, Kauffman has yo-yoed between the more traditional concerns of abstract painting and making the vacuum-formed plastic wall reliefs that earned him membership in L.A.'s so-called Finish Fetish school. Dissimilar on the surface, both aspects of his work actually reflect a lifelong interest in the properties of light and the aesthetics of the Far East. Art critic Michael Duncan observed in Art in America that Kauffman's plexiglass wall reliefs, which he resumed making in 1996 and '97, demonstrate a "subtlety of color, delicacy of texture and air of mystery [that] seem spiritually founded in Asian art."

"I like the quality of translucence," Kauffman, 67, says. "I've had a hard time with the rough, opaque surface of canvas. After the work in plastic, I began painting on silk like the Japanese artists. I like the sense of immateriality that they get with thin washes."

Kauffman's passion led him to live in a suburb of Manila in the Philippines from 1986 to 1996. During that time, he traveled around Asia, and those years of looking at calligraphy and ink painting made him feel he shouldn't try to re-create what already exists. "Calligraphy is something you need to learn when you are quite young," he says. Instead, his drawings emulate the calligraphers' free movement of line and the spare use of color.

Kauffman's introduction to Asian art began in the late '50s through Alan Lynch, a friend who collected Japanese ceramics. "He showed these masterpieces to [artists] Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price and me. I really loved them. He went on to be really involved in Zen Buddhism. He taught me how to sit in meditation, something I still try to practice." In the late '50s, Kauffman taught himself tea ceremony rituals and regularly played the Japanese strategic game of Go. On trips to San Francisco, Kauffman was introduced to the writings of Alan Watts and the Beats.

In addition, he remembers an early trip to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. "They had a lot of Oriental paintings. I thought, 'I really like the way these look--plain, spare, not a lot of color,' " Kauffman recalls. "I think that experience has stayed with me. It's why I like Minimal art and many of the Minimal artists were friends of mine in the late '60s, when I lived part of the time in New York: Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Robert Smithson. Not so much the painters. I was more interested in the '60s Minimal sculpture."

Indeed, Kauffman's molded plastic reliefs were included in various Minimalist sculpture shows such as "A New Aesthetic" organized by Barbara Rose for the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in Washington, D.C., in 1967. Kauffman saw the connection but wasn't entirely comfortable with the label: "I felt my stuff was different, maybe not as intellectual."

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Part of Kauffman's desire to move between painting and sculpture, form and surface, has to do with his distrust of the relentless categorization of art. He is considered the first artist to have used vacuum-formed plastic as a medium, in 4-by-8-foot sheets. "I took out an ad in [the magazine] Art International in 1964 announcing the 'paintings in plastic' to establish that I was the first to do plastic in a big scale, though Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Naum Gabo had worked in plastic on a smaller scale. After that, a lot of people started to do plastic."

From his phallic, high-color wall reliefs to his luminous bubbles sprayed with pastel auras, the plastic work landed Kauffman international recognition, museum shows and representation with Pace Gallery in New York.

In 1971, his work was included in a show at UCLA's Wight Gallery titled "Transparency, Reflection, Light and Space" along with works by Robert Irwin, Larry Bell and Peter Alexander. For the show, Kauffman created a plastic trough of water with a mirror that reflected prismatic wave patterns on the wall. "People really liked that," Kauffman says. "One guy was meditating in front of it. Pace wanted me to show the piece in New York, and I decided I didn't want to do that kind of work anymore."

Although Kauffman continued to work in molded plastic until the mid-'70s, he was tired of being removed from the more basic act of painting. "I wanted to work in my studio."

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