Virginia Wright doesn't know how much longer she'll keep doing this. She's been behind the scenes of Seattle art since 1956, the year she moved back to her home city. The daughter of a local timber titan, she'd gone east and studied art at Barnard. She married Bagley Wright in 1953, and together they amassed a huge collection of modern art they would promise to Seattle Art Museum, forming the basis of the museum's holdings in a significant period for American art. Eventually, the Wrights wanted a room of their own, too, so in 1999, they converted a one-story concrete-block building near Denny Park—its exterior blanketed in ivy so you don't notice it unless you know what you're looking for—into the exquisite Wright Exhibition Space. When Bagley died of a heart attack in 2011, Jinny soldiered on, continuing to organize unfailingly beautiful exhibitions. Admission is always free at the Wright Space.
But as she explained in a phone conversation last week, the Wright Space may be coming to an end before too long. She didn't provide any specific plans.
The current exhibition there, 9 from L.A., was going to be something else, something that ultimately required too much energy and a period of at least two or three years—and the Wright Space may not be open that long.
Wright had intended to mount the second coming of an artwork that's legendary in local history: the red, glowing room by James Turrell that was created in Pioneer Square in 1983, then bought by the Wrights for Seattle Art Museum, which has never shown it. Turrell has become a loved and vital 20th-century American artist, and this was one of his earliest installations. Yet SAM's remodel did not make room for it.
Instead of a two- or three-year installation of the Turrell at the Wright Space (sigh, cry), Wright—partly dissuaded by a protest from Turrell when she wrote him to say he'd be part of a show called California Minimalism (he doesn't think of himself as a minimalist), but ultimately because she felt the project was too big—decided on something smaller but still historical. 9 from L.A. is a group exhibition of abstract modernism from Southern California, centering on the restoration of one very large work of art, De Wain Valentine's 12-foot-tall Gray Column, 1975–76.
Gray Column is monolithic yet dissolves into thin air. That seems a decent description of much of the conflicted modernism that developed in hall-of-mirrors Los Angeles. Maybe it's relevant to remember that, in these same years between about 1960 and 1975, it was common for songs on the radio to fade out rather than actually end. Critics asked, was the fade a gesture toward the unreachable eternal, always promising more, or an efficient facilitator for commercial breaks? The spirito-pop world of LA art in the 1960s and '70s is not so different.
Valentine's enormous, heavy wedge made of gray-tinted industrial-grade resin has a dreamy, blurry upper edge. This thinnest part points up toward the sky(lights), supplicatingly. For years, nobody wanted this piece. It had been a commission for a corporate office that shed it, so the artist hung on to it until it reemerged a couple of years ago as a chapter in LA's citywide celebration of local art history, Pacific Standard Time.
Educational panels developed for PST in conjunction with Getty Conservation Institute are on the walls at the Wright Space, demonstrating how Valentine invented the resin compound for casting at this scale. Examples of his sculptures that have slumped over the years are on display, too, to flesh out an elaborate story of perfectionism.
Gray Column, dark and reflective at the floor, fades to near-transparent at the top. It's pure perceptual delight when, as your gaze runs upward, you notice the shift from looking at to looking through. As the sculpture changes from bottom to top, mirror to window, your rear surroundings appear as reflections, then that disappears, and the ceiling and lights on the other side of the sculpture become visible through it. The precise moment when this happens seems, wonderfully, impossible to detect even on repeated tries.
Modernist nerds will revel in the fact that the shift in perception relies on a tension between the flesh of the sculpture and its skin. Thicker resin means darker gray: That's an effect with an innate cause. But the polished surface has to be cleaner than the sparkle in Mr. Clean's eye, otherwise the entire effect is lost. The surface and the interior are in a death match. There's a metaphor there somewhere about LA and the United States.
These are the kinds of esoteric issues modernists grappled with—what it means to say the medium is the message, and the content is the form. Wright's title, 9 from L.A., is a throwback to the first contemporary art show organized by the Contemporary Art Council that formed at SAM after the World's Fair in 1962 (where Bagley Wright was instrumental in getting the Space Needle built). Photocopies of the catalog from that exhibition, Ten from Los Angeles, are out in the gallery for your perusal. (Most of the artists and all the works are different.)
Wright's arrangement has cast a calming, lasting spell. The Wright Space has three rooms separated by walls. All the art in the central room is black, white, and gray, with color relegated to the side chambers, like the reverse of grisaille altarpiece triptychs from centuries ago that had grayscale wings that could be folded over to conceal the divine color in the center.
A pillar that is mirrored on all sides, by John McCracken, cuts the main gallery into pieces with its reflections. The tricks it plays on the clean lines of the architecture provide such pleasing dislocation, as if you're in several impossible places at once. Two glass boxes by McCracken and Larry Bell, from 1971 and 1965 respectively, are set up to form another meditation on deceits and surfaces and vanishings. In a side room are also Ed Ruscha's sad, lovely Vanishing Cream, Peter Alexander's mystically glowing square the color of cotton candy, and Valentine's tall blue circle standing as a portal to another world.
A tall, slender, clear acrylic pillar set to one side—balanced unthinkably on a barely broader, subtly geo-crystalline base—is by San Diegan Robert Irwin. He made several of these pillars beginning in 1970 (including a three-story one for a San Diego federal courthouse), and sometimes they blend into their environments so well that people knock into them and they have to be removed. Acrylic is not frail, yet whenever I see these, I hear the sound of icicles shattering anyway.
Another nerd story, about Irwin's pillar (he called them columns, but that makes them sound fat): Wright sent the one she originally bought, decades ago, to Irwin's main restorer to be repaired for 9 from L.A., but he didn't finish it in time for the opening. To make up for it, he offered his own Irwin column to her as a trade. Seattle is the true beneficiary, because this one is taller, even more teetering-tense, making me hear the sound of even littler icicles. Wright may retire the gallery soon, but her collection still develops, quietly, and sometimes by chance.