Gallerist Peter Blake on Why West Coast Minimalism Reigns

Interior of the Peter Blake Gallery, with art by James Hayward and Lita Albuquerque

Coastal stereotyping is notorious: West Coasters gad about in yoga pants; East Coasters carry Proust. However reductive such characterizations are, there’s some truth in the observation that each region manifests cultural and artistic dispositions consistent with its history and locale.

Portrait of Peter Blake in his eponymous gallery

From his eponymous gallery in Laguna Beach, California, Peter Blake has championed West Coast minimalism for a quarter of a century (portrait by Chad Mellon). Top: His current exhibition, on view through August 4, celebrates the genre and the gallery’s 25th anniversary by showing such works as, from left, James Hayward‘s Abstract #152, 2009; Craig Kauffman’s Untitled, 2001; and Lita Albuquerque‘s Untitled, 2018. All photos courtesy of the gallery unless otherwise noted

The angst-filled, tradition-busting 1960s — typified by drip paintings, happenings, junk art, assemblage, environments and Pop art — was followed by an era in which American artists returned to elegant, carefully worked, often industrial materials and an attention to precise geometry. This was the case on both coasts, but creatives on each side of the country worked with their own regional twist.

Dubbed minimalism, the New York iteration was formulated by now very famous, mostly male exponents — Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, et al — who were not just artists making pristine pieces but also heady essayists and critics.

Peter Blake has spent 25 years collecting, studying and exhibiting West Coast minimalism dating from the late ’60s through today, and he says that the version espoused in California, especially Los Angeles, “was and continues to be no less conceptually rigorous than New York minimalism, but sexier, more sensual, reflecting the atmospheric qualities and lifestyle here.”

Blake’s eponymous gallery in the gorgeous seaside suburb of Laguna Beach — about 90 minutes from the L.A. civic center — is the longest-running space focusing on West Coast minimalism. (He intermingles artworks in that aesthetic with highly collectible 20th-century furniture.) His current show, running through August 4 and commemorating the gallery’s 25th anniversary, is a grand celebration of the genre, featuring California minimalists — both lesser known and ones who have been the focus of major museum surveys — including Lita Albuquerque, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Mary Corse, Laddie John Dill and Hadi Tabatabai.

California minimalism has been dubbed Light and Space, the Cool School and Finish Fetish. From transcendent works like Corse’s oscillating bands of painted light to more playful ones like Bengston’s chevrons on tin, all the pieces radiate shimmery seduction. Introspective caught up with Blake to talk about the movement and his quarter-century career as a gallerist.

John M. Miller's Untitled

John M. Miller‘s Untitled (BK3D), 1995, hangs between De Wain Valentine’s Concave Circle Rose, 1968–2014 (left), and Joe Goode‘s Moon River (MNmm 01), 1997.

How would you distinguish California minimalism?

New York minimalism is very esoteric, even a bit austere. West Coast minimalism is more flowing, has a quality of play to it. The moniker Finish Fetish is apt, because the work exudes sensuality, unapologetic beauty and — yes, I guess — the essence of fetish, which is desire.

I think all the names used to describe this genre suggest the diversity of how it is practiced here. The work is much more varied than what was programmatically produced under the name minimalism in other places.

You have said that California minimalist art reflects its place of origin. What exactly did you mean?

Artists doing this work use polyester, resins, plastics, shaped acrylics  — materials from the surfing and skateboarding cultures, as well as the aerospace and auto industries that are concentrated on this coast.

West Coast geography is referenced as well?

California in general, but L.A. in particular, expands outward — you see water and horizons. California has every climate, every atmospheric quality. This generates unique sunsets, as well as aerial and perspective effects not found elsewhere. This is ubiquitous and cannot help but influence artists here.

Joe Goode's Moon River

Tony DeLap’s Perplexity, 1988, can be seen through De Wain Valentine’s Concave Circle Rose, 1968–2014.

How does that translate to the work?

There are certain ways that artists here use materials — in both two and three dimensions — so that light dances across and through surfaces, mirroring the natural light and sensibility of our coast. You see this in almost every piece in this anniversary show, where clear resins or remarkably handled luminescent pigments reflect and bend light to produce lush illusions.

Some of the names in your anniversary show, like Joe Goode and Larry Bell, will be familiar to international art fans. Bell had a wonderful career survey last year at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, and Goode is in major world museums. Some of the other names, however, may be new to nonlocals.

All of these artists are respected veterans, but I do not simply show “art stars.” I just focus on good work.

True enough, but you have pieces here lent from major collections. Some are valued in the six figures, and some are so historically important they are not for sale. So, provenance, art history and critical acclaim do underpin this twenty-five-year show.

Of course, people always buy art that will be an investment. But we have had many grad students and budding curators visit the gallery over the years, and they want so badly to pin a label or an art history movement on the work they are looking at. I tell them and all my clients to just take in the work irrespective of labels, on its own terms, to trust their instincts, to go with whatever moves them. I have always trusted my instincts. That is how I ended up as an art dealer.

Can you explain?

I’ve always been architecturally inclined, but I come from a line of  serious restaurateurs — my father and his father. In 1993, I had just been promoted to general manager of a major restaurant and was walking home from celebrating that huge career step when I saw this very geometric, clean, sharp-angled space for rent. I thought it would make a great space for the kind of art I have always been attracted to, so I signed a lease two days later.

Recent Peter Blake Gallery Exhibitions and Fair Presentations

In his booth at New York’s Collective Design fair last year, California gallerist Peter Blake hung Craig Kauffman’s Presas, 2007, over an Antoine Philippon and Jacqueline Lecoq Pointe de Diamant sideboard. At the far right is Fred Eversley’s Untitled (Mars), 1974.

Elsewhere in the Collective Design presentation, Lita Albuquerque’s Deep Purple Flash, 2018, hung over a ca. 1950 Gigi Radice velvet chair for Minotti. To the right of the chair, Ron Cooper’s Searching for Reds (#13), 2017, stands immediately in front of the wall. In the foreground is an untitled 1970 De Wain Valentine sculpture.

São Paulo–born, Los Angeles–based design dealer Ulysses de Santi curated a show of 20th-century Brazilian furniture in Blake’s gallery early last year that featured a Reversivel chair by Martin Eisler and Carlo Hauner, manufactured by Forma Moveis. 

In a 2016 solo exhibition of pieces by Joe Goode, an untitled piece (left) and Nina, both from 2014, flank the sculpture Study for Japanese House 29, 2013.

The gallery’s 2016 exhibition “The Tendency of the Moment” showed Blake and his wife’s personal collection of mid-century furniture. Here, A.R. Cordemeijer’s 1960s Cleopatra daybed for Auping stands in front of, from left, a 1950s Charles and Ray Eames speaker; a Jeanneret bookshelf from the High Court in Chandigarh, India, ca. 1955; a freestanding Belgian metal fireplace, ca. 1960; and a Sérgio Rodrigues Eleh bench, ca. 1965.

At EXPO CHICAGO last year, Blake devoted his booth to Peter Alexander, hanging the artist’s Violet Puff (left) and Tecate, both 2014, on the walls. The small sculpture at the rear is Emery, 2009, and the larger one in the foreground is Rose Wedge, 2011.

Blake’s booth at the 2017 Seattle Art Fair featured, from left on the floor, Stephanie Bachiero’s Catenary, 2017; a Pierre Jeanneret Easy armchair, ca. 1955; and Bachiero’s Helix (Matte Black), 2017. Hanging on the wall are, from left, an untitled Mary Corse piece from 2000; a 1996 untitled Tony DeLap piece; and Helen Pashgian’s Untitled (GR12), 2016.

For Design Miami last December, Blake staged a show of Kem Weber‘s mid- to late-1930s furniture designs for the Walt Disney Studios, in Burbank, California. These included, from left, a music cabinet, an animation desk, a wardrobe, an armchair and a side table.

That is pretty audacious in the art world, where lasting for twenty-five years as a gallerist is no easy feat.

That is how I operate, and it seems to work. I got the notion to run for city council in Laguna Beach this year and won, so now I’ve added the political dimension to my skill set.

Did you give up the food business when you opened the gallery?

I ran the restaurant and gallery concurrently for three years, then I devoted my time exclusively to becoming a respected dealer.

The most famous art historical minimalists were males. I am fascinated that you have very fine work by women, including Mary Corse and Lita Albuquerque.

Lita Albuquerque is a major artist. Besides her abstract paintings, which are shown worldwide, she did a huge project with climate scientists using ninety-nine blue spheres arranged in the ice of the South Pole in exact, calculated alignment with ninety-nine stars. Mary Corse is one of the most technically subtle artists working in this style. It is the diversity of California minimalism that intrigues me.

Billy Al Bengston's Mesquite Western Series hanging in the Peter Blake Gallery

Peter Alexander‘s 1/10/14, 2014, stands to the left of Billy Al Bengston’s Mesquite Western Series, 1969, on the back wall, and Ron Nagle’s Teens of August, 2009.

What’s in the offing for the next twenty-five years?

My wife and I have been longtime avid collectors of historic and modern design, from Le Corbusier to the Italians to Brasileiro. We had tons of excellent, even historic objects in storage, and in 2016, we decided to mount a not-for-sale exhibition, a kind of passion project displaying our collection. We titled the show “The Tendency of the Moment | International Design: Bauhaus through Modern.”

I had built a strong reputation as a fine-art gallerist, so that hybrid show was a dangerous move.

How so?

Fine art can have a very purist orientation. Somehow, if you are a fine-art dealer, moving into functional objects is risky. But that is the direction I am moving in.

That surprises me. The entire tradition of modernism and even postmodernism stresses the unity or cross-pollination of all plastic arts. It was no accident that Bauhaus artists were painting geometric patterns and designing equally stunning architectonic teapots.

In theory, that’s true. But in practice, it took us a while to convince — or rather educate — collectors, the public and even some of our artists that this pairing makes perfect sense. Neither discipline is diminished by the other.

Interior of the Peter Blake Gallery

Comparing West Coast minimalism to its East Coast counterpart, Blake says that the Pacific version “was and continues to be no less conceptually rigorous than New York minimalism, but sexier, more sensual, reflecting the atmospheric qualities and lifestyle here.”

Is that resistance lessened today? 

Absolutely. These connections are now being featured in major museum surveys, in the premier art fairs and blue-chip galleries — Gagosian’s pairing of John Chamberlain’s metal sculptures with key architectural elements by famed designer Jean Prouvé comes to mind here.

As the connections between fine art and fine design become better understood, my gallery is doing quite well in both arenas. But I was ahead of the curve, and I had to proceed with care —  and courage.

Talking Points

Peter Blake shares his thoughts on a few choice pieces.

<i>Untitled</i>, 2019, by Lita Albuquerque
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Untitled, 2019, by Lita Albuquerque

“For years, Lita’s ‘Auric Field’ series has been the most beautiful body of work I’ve ever shown. I am forever impressed by the way her career spans all these different mediums — from her studio practice to performance, video, photography, site-specific installations and sculpture. But the ‘Auric Field’ series is Lita’s chef d’œuvre to me. People are like moths to a flame when they see these paintings, and once they are in front of one of them, they start shifting and bending their bodies, trying to make sense of the curious execution of the mesmerizing surfaces.”

<i>1/10/14</i>, 2014, by Peter Alexander
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1/10/14, 2014, by Peter Alexander

“Peter drew his inspiration for his wedge pieces from the ocean. More specifically, he described the experience of viewing the coast from an airplane and watching the color of the ocean transform from dark to light as it hit the sand. When you look at the artwork and you see the gradual movement from dark to light, it is evocative of the way the water lightens as it moves onto the coastline. The transition of color in the work is reminiscent of the same transition that takes place in nature.”

<i>SMBKWDEN #6</i>, 1993, by Larry Bell
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SMBKWDEN #6, 1993, by Larry Bell

“Larry’s process of applying colored metallic coatings to glass, Mylar and acrylic incorporates the fundamentals of California Light and Space work. Unique to Larry’s art, however, is his ability to present a series of simultaneous perspectives. His works allow you to see through them and then, in different areas, to see a reflection of yourself and the environment. And you’re seeing all this through a variety of colors coated on the surface of the pieces.”

<i>Untitled (White Multi Inner Bands, Flat Sides, Beveled Canvas)</i>, 2011, by Mary Corse
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Untitled (White Multi Inner Bands, Flat Sides, Beveled Canvas), 2011, by Mary Corse

“Since first showing her in the nineteen nineties, I have never tired of seeing the power of Mary’s work. The way she is able to capture beauty on her canvases is just gorgeous. For me, her pieces exemplify quintessential California minimalist art because they merge Light and Space and hard-edge abstraction in a single work.”

<i>Perplexity</i>, 1988, by Tony DeLap
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Perplexity, 1988, by Tony DeLap

“With Tony’s paintings, you are not quite sure what to call them, because they are their own sort of hybrid. Rather than coupling a two-dimensional component with a three-dimensional one, Tony composes the painting itself to be a three-dimensional piece. What I find to be most interesting about his work is the attention he pays to a piece’s sides. It is like he invites you to approach it from a sharp angle. You’re compelled to go view the side before you even look at the front. I can’t think of many artists who invite you to look at the back or the side of an artwork the way Tony does.”

<i>Moon River (MNmm 01)</i>, 1997, by Joe Goode
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Moon River (MNmm 01), 1997, by Joe Goode

“What I love about Joe Goode’s Moon River (MNmm 01) is that it’s a hybrid of painting and sculpture. It is also a nod to his original ‘Milk Bottle’ series, in which he similarly combined paintings with three-dimensional objects. Joe’s painting is more formal than that of some of the other artists who presented this type of hybrid work, like Jim Dine and Marcel Duchamp, where I sense more arbitrary juxtapositions taking place between the painting and the object. But in Joe’s case, there is a delicateness to the execution of the painting, and the atmospheric quality of the work is distinct. The staircase starts nowhere and ends nowhere, yet the wall is a beginning and an end. It’s a powerful work engaging you on many different levels.”

<i>Compression — White, Black, Canvas</i>, 2017, by Scot Heywood
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Compression — White, Black, Canvas, 2017, by Scot Heywood

“I think of Scot as a prime example of the next generation of California hard-edge painters. Aside from the literal characterization of him as a successor to artists like John McLaughlin and Karl Benjamin, since he was born a generation after them, there is something singular about the way Scot adopts geometric strategies in his paintings. He juxtaposes geometric shapes in a peculiar way so that they wind up revealing areas of the wall within the work — the wall itself appears to be a part of the actual painting. This absorptive quality is particularly pronounced in Compression — White, Black, Canvas because the painting is essentially devoid of color.”

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