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Optically oriented

An exhibition at the Norton Simon revisits eye-teasing pieces from the 1960s and '70s that are still fresh and snazzy.

July 25, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Good ideas need not be complicated or particularly sophisticated. The opposite is often true: Simple sometimes is best.

That's the case with "Translucence: Southern California Art From the 1960s and 1970s," a 10-artist exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum. Organized by assistant curator Michelle Deziel, the straightforward show highlights the permanent collection by taking visitors on a trip down memory lane that doesn't get stuck in the past but stays fresh, jaunty and in tune with some of the snazziest art being made today.

Fifteen of the show's 23 sculptures and paintings were pulled from museum storage, dusted off, polished up and put on display. Five haven't been seen for 30 years.

The standout among them is DeWain Valentine's 5,000-pound slab of polyester resin. Made in 1968, "Large Wall" is nearly 8 feet tall, 8 feet long and 18 inches thick. The semi-translucent chunk of cast plastic is wider at its base than its top, tapering at an angle that recalls the steep steps -- and vertiginous grandeur -- of ancient Maya temples.

Everything else about Valentine's sculpture is futuristic: its synthetic materials, hands-off finish, streamlined simplicity and shifting palette. From some angles it appears to be made of an ethereal mix of rose and lavender-tinted liquids. From others it seems to be a queasy combination of sun-bleached blues and smoggy browns -- as if it were a compressed section of the summer sky above Los Angeles.

Still, "Large Wall" never looks ponderous or oppressive. Although it does not seem to float, its mass and density have less physical presence than its elusive visual effects, which are a pleasure to behold. In a sense, Valentine's piece is as much a free-standing painting -- with no front or back -- as it is a three-dimensional object with roots in Minimalist sculpture.

This openness to the perceptual nuances of painting is essential to the exhibition. It can be seen in the four other works that have been in storage for 30 years: two attractive tabletop sculptures by Peter Alexander, one small dark glass cube by Larry Bell and a slick steel-and-glass wall-work by Guy Dill. All trap light in optically complicated ways, drawing the eye into small spaces suffused with surprising depth.

Color plays a more important role in a pair of vacuum-formed Plexiglas wall pieces by Craig Kauffman and one of Robert Irwin's signature discs. Kauffman's palette is synthetic and sumptuous, a kinky fusion of kiwi greens, margarine yellows, toothpaste aquas and flowery purples. It recalls Wayne Thiebaud's luscious paintings of cafeteria desserts -- as if made for aliens. Irwin's disc initially appears to be bright white, but as your eyes adjust to its subtleties you see concentric circles of pale yellow, soft pink and pastel blue.

Not all of the works are aging well. Ronald Davis' mural-size canvas and Laddie John Dill's long skinny tube of glowing argon gas look dated, like experiments that went nowhere.

In contrast, the eight works borrowed for the exhibition are among its most mesmerizing. These include a pair of big blue free-standing discs by Valentine (each titled "Blue Circle"), three gorgeous untitled tabletop sculptures by Helen Pashgian and three midsize pedestal pieces by Norman Zammitt ("Opal," "Red Hex One" and "Untitled").

Valentine's 6-foot discs resemble the lenses of giant sunglasses. To view the show through them transforms the gallery into a monochrome world of cool blueness.

Pashgian's orbs have the presence of Space Age pearls. Their mysterious interiors change colors most dramatically, running through the spectrum -- and beyond -- by masterfully mixing and matching its tints.

Zammitt's box-shaped sculptures do the opposite, dissecting the spectrum into monochrome hexagons and dots that overlap as viewers move around them. Think 3-D Impressionism, with single-color brush strokes replaced by razor-thin layers of red, blue and yellow sandwiched between inch-thick slabs of clear plastic.

Although the best works in "Translucence" were made 36 to 44 years ago, they do not look old-fashioned or out of place. Today, when hybridization is taken for granted and art is expected to be both beautiful and intelligent, these optically oriented sculptures are right at home.


`Translucence: Southern California Art From the 1960s and 1970s'

Where: Norton Simon Museum of Art, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

When: Noon to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays, noon to 9 p.m. Fridays; closed Tuesdays

Ends: Aug. 28

Price: $4 to $8 for adults; 18 and under, free

Contact: (626) 449-6840;

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