Tony DeLap  Photo: COBA Images

Tony DeLap: A Retrospective

By Peter Frank

Tony DeLap: A Retrospective, installation view, Laguna Art Museum, 2018, photo by Chris Bliss

The history of modern Western art is dotted with anomalies. While the commonly recognized “mainstream” provides a spine for the structure of that history, it does not account for its flesh or sinew. The dialectical pattern of artistic movement and counter-movement provides some artists context but ill fits other artists—artists who, in their day or since, have come to be recognized as significant in their own right. In fact, these exceptional artists constitute the great majority of serious practitioners, particularly if one accounts for the spans of their output, though also even if considering a single body of work within such output. Artists do not seek to be consistent, only coherent; and they seek coherence in the context of their own studios, not in that of public—or certainly historic—discourse. When young, artists may want to influence the discourse with their inventions, and be open to influence in turn. However, the breadth of an artist’s activity, no matter how focused, reveals constant experimentation and idiosyncrasy.

Tony DeLap has been making art for more than seventy of his ninety years, and for the bulk of those seven decades has been making art that reflects mature and complex thought. DeLap’s development has been for the most part stepwise, building idea upon idea, decision upon decision with a thoughtfulness and steady pace that allows and absorbs random impulses and momentary deflections. It is only occasionally responsive to prominent currents in artistic practice, yet his work almost always seems current, reflecting intellectual and technical advance, within and especially beyond his own studio, more than it does fashion. And it always stands a little apart from contemporary mainstream discourse even while appearing to be part of it: the earmarks of minimalism, light-and-space, and even performance art, for instance, can be identified in DeLap’s art, but as available forms and nuances rather than as dictates.

Tony DeLap Thauma II 1986 Wood, acrylic and canvas 69 x 50 x 4 inches

Laguna Art Museum, Gift of Mason and Elizabeth Phelps

If DeLap can be pinpointed in modern art history, it is less as an embodiment of a style and more as a representative of a place. A lifelong resident of California, he produces work that is singularly Californian—indeed, that somehow synthesizes factors in California art that would seem to resist synthesis. His formal vocabulary has been emphatically geometric, in one way or another, for nearly his entire mature career. However, DeLap’s art is an approach to geometry that resists the obdurate factuality (not to mention facture) of New York–style minimalism even as it maintains a respectful distance from the relational constructivism that characterizes European high modernism. He was and remains influenced by the latter, though he never fully took it on. Rather, the elemental formulas of West Coast geometric artists, from Southern California’s “abstract classicism” (or “hard edge”) to the strains of post-cubist sculpture and, conversely, monochrome painting that could be found in mid-century Bay Area art, seem closest to DeLap’s sensibility, closer even than New York parallels such as Ellsworth Kelly and Jo Baer.

Yet, DeLap’s work has rarely fit comfortably even under these given rubrics. It bears witness to them, either directly or through shared sources, but it does not conform to them, temporally, geographically, or practically. Although later a close friend of John McLaughlin, DeLap was not identified as an “abstract classicist” in the early 1960s, as he was neither painting geometrically nor yet living in the Los Angeles area. On the other hand, DeLap’s early sculptural work—the “step-down” boxes and other painting-sculpture hybrids—do not “perform” as do the early kinetic works of the then–Bay Area–based sculptors Charles Mattox and Fletcher Benton. The connections and the parallels are evident, but the overlap is slight. In fact, the compact self-containment of DeLap’s early three-dimensional pieces and, in particular, their engagement of simple words make them appear closest to the Los Angeles–area “Pop Art” of Joe Goode, Billy Al Bengston, and above all Ed Ruscha.

Tony DeLap Esoterist 1990

Acrylic on canvas with wood 94 1/2 x 44 x 10 3/4 inches 

Collection of Phyllis and John Kleinberg

In effect, with a couple of exceptions, we cannot deduce any direct chronological connection or parallel between DeLap’s bodies of artwork and those of his friends and peers, only a general connection in style and attitude (however much this resulted from the postwar California Zeitgeist). His early small assemblages fit into the Bay Area (and indeed American) “junk sculpture” movement of the early 1960s (albeit uneasily, as they answer more to Joseph Cornell than to, say, Bruce Conner). And DeLap’s several forays into public art performance came with the first surge of performance art in early 1970s Southern California (not least at the University of California, Irvine, among DeLap’s students). But even in these responses to “the going thing,” DeLap held on to a measured aesthetic that valued exacting technique and the manipulation of audience perception, in contrast to the gestural funk of assemblage and, a decade later, performance art.

If, however, we consider the prevailing tone DeLap has consistently displayed throughout his career—precise but not aloof, demonstrative but not expansive—he emerges as one of the leading practitioners of an overriding sensibility in the California art of his time: perceptualism. As identified by Robert Irwin, perceptualism denotes an interest in challenging the stability of human vision, “fooling the eye” into seeing things that aren’t physically there, or seeing things in a certain way that belies their actual physical state. Perceptualism, as opposed to the forthright, anti-illusionist practices of East Coast minimalism and conceptualism, is an overarching rubric for several (especially Southern) California movements—including finish/fetish and light-and-space—that emerged in the late 1960s and have frequently recrudesced since. DeLap participated at best only tangentially in these movements. However, his artistic goals, driven by predominant interest in the non–“fine art” phenomena of architecture and magic, mirrored those of such movements and makes him unquestionably a perceptualist painter. And draftsman. And sculptor. And painter-draftsman. And painter-sculptor. . . .

Tony DeLap: A Retrospective, installation view, Laguna Art Museum, 2018, photo by Chris Bliss

Architecture and magic both rely, in various ways and to various extents, on the seeming continuity—but de facto discontinuity—of the viewer’s perception. Room must flow into room and building must fit into site. Similarly, sleight of hand must be realized in a single flow before the eyes, and illusion must be thorough and uninterrupted—although compromised invisibly by a “discrepancy”—even as it subverts apperception. (As DeLap himself puts it, successful prestidigitation requires a “discrepancy,” a seeming flaw in an otherwise stable context that allows the trick to operate without revealing its own mechanism.) Craft and material are crucial factors in the success of the endeavor. If DeLap’s principal preoccupations are magic and architecture, his art logically elucidates elegant form and substance. From the first, to use Joseph Masheck’s term, DeLap’s art has been “shapely.” One could also call it “seemly.” And “uncanny.”

Writing about DeLap’s works on paper, David Gebhard, an architectural historian, notes  that, “like the Naugahyde seat and back pads of [Charles and Ray] Eames’s wire furniture, DeLap’s paintings are in reality thin three-dimensional constructions. They become readable only when the viewer moves from one position to another and thence becomes aware of their subtle but complex three-dimensional geometry.” That is to say, there is no single vantage from which to view a DeLap work “properly” and that, in many cases, it is only proper to view it from several different vantages. This is as true of the artists’ many paintings on canvas from the 1980s whose stretcher bars have been torqued behind the picture plane as it is of the early-1960s step-down word boxes and freestanding paintings, almost all of which are two-sided. Even paintings from the past several years, flush with the wall, feature eccentric contours whose opposing sides contradict one another logically and stymie any recognition of pattern. Position determines perception.

Tony DeLap: A Retrospective, installation view, Laguna Art Museum, 2018, photo by Chris Bliss

For all the play and wit and gentle deviousness of DeLap’s work, it does not pretend to be other than what it is. At the core of this trick-filled oeuvre beats a heart that cannot tell a lie, even as it spins a yarn. DeLap may tease our eyes, but he does so with a great gentleness and even deference, deference to the principles of modernism—particularly cubism and its nonobjective inheritors, as well as parallel movements in architecture—and even to the minimalist language of his own time, a language he helped, unwittingly, develop. DeLap incorporates magic into his work as much to honor that craft as to exploit it, to merge it with artistic modernism in a meeting of relatively recent but substantive traditions and noble goals. DeLap invests dogged handicraft into his work not simply because he likes to fashion form and solve visual problems manually, but because the heritage of the work merits the effort and expertise, because Frank Lloyd Wright, Pablo Picasso, Naum Gabo, and Dai Vernon were masters of their métiers and left legacies that DeLap seeks to fuse syncretically. DeLap may be the last modernist standing—and he’s standing there with something up his sleeve.

Tony DeLap Lompoc 1963 Lacquer, wood, chipboard, Plexiglas, and stainless steel 

23 . x 20 . x 4 5/8 inches 

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Robert and Naomi Lauter 

Tony DeLap: A Retrospective

Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, California  

February 25, 2018 through May 28, 2018

Peter Frank is Associate Editor for Fabrik magazine. He is former critic for Angeleno magazine and L. A. Weekly, served as Editor for THE magazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly, and contributes to publications around the world. Frank received a B.A. and M.A. in art history from Columbia University and was art critic for The Village Voice and the SoHo Weekly News before he moved to Los Angeles. He has served as Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum and has organized shows for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museo Reina Sofia, the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and others. His published works include Something Else Press: An Annotated Bibliography; The Travelogues; and New, Used & Improved. Frank has written many artist monographs and catalogues, and has taught and lectured extensively throughout North America and Europe.