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Excerpt from David Gray by David Pagel

In 1963, David Gray and his wife Joanna moved to Los Angeles from Madison, Wisconsin. No jobs awaited them and no family members lived in Southern California. The young couple simply up and left the Midwest because a friend in show business, John Simes, encouraged them to go West. Gray had earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was beginning to make a name for himself as an artist, exhibiting welded metal sculptures at annuals in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Denver, as well as in solo shows in Madison, Chicago, and New York. These assemblages were pieced together from rusty tools and cast-off appliances Gray scavenged from junkyards and scrap heaps. His large, freestanding pieces combined the formal restraint of David Smith’s early works and the narrative potential of Edward Kienholz’s assemblages. His smaller pieces, often set on pedestals and tabletops, played off of the sensibility and structure of H. C. Westermann’s solidly built sculptures. The main difference was that Gray worked in metal and Westermann wood. Gray’s Unpredictable (To H.C.W.) (1962) explicitly acknowledges the wood-worker’s influence; its toggle switches, mirrored portholes, and boxy form recall the offbeat utilitarianism of Westermann’s art. 

In Los Angeles, the Grays rented a house in Echo Park, and he worked as a substitute teacher in various grade schools and high schools throughout the district. Gray immediately set up a studio in the garage and backyard. Almost as quickly, his art underwent a radical transformation. Although Gray did not stop using castoff metal objects to make his oddly elegant compositions, he did begin to use more neutral, less memory-laden materials, welding together abstract shapes and geometric forms from sheets of steel he purchased new and then cut with a torch. This allowed him to move away from the organic patina of rusted steel and weathered metal that had dominated his Midwestern works. He used automobile enamels to spray-paint his new sculptures, giving them a highly polished finish, often in bright colors and hardedge patterns. Chrome made its way into his newly sleek works, along with the occasional mirrored surface. Preparatory drawings, sketches, and studies, which Gray hadn’t used before, became an important part of his increasingly designed and Minimalist-oriented pieces, which often resembled abstract totems or stylized icons from the future. These streamlined compositions combined cubes and tubes, sometimes set on low pedestals. Gray often left two or three sides of his cube-shaped sculptures open, revealing their interiors. He sometimes packed the interiors with welded clusters of scrap-picked castoffs and at other times left them empty, their flocked walls swallowing light in deep, velvety darkness.

Within a year, Gray was picked up by Feigen/Palmer Gallery, where his Los Angeles solo debut took place in 1965. That same year, he had a New York solo show at Richard Feigen Gallery and was included in a group exhibition at Ferus Gallery, in Los Angeles. A solo show at Ferus followed in 1966, along with his inclusion in the prestigious “Primary Structures” exhibition at The Jewish Museum in New York. John Coplans featured three of Gray’s chrome and enameled-steel works, L.A./1, L.A./4, and L.A./5, alongside similarly cool sculptures by Larry Bell, Tony DeLap, John McCracken, and Ken Price, in “Five Los Angeles Sculptors” at the Art Gallery, University of California, Irvine. Later that year, Coplans added Billy Al Bengston, Joe Goode, Craig Kauffman, Charles Mattox, and Ed Ruscha to the original five sculptors for the roster of “Ten From Los Angeles” at the Seattle Art Museum, where Gray’s L.A./7 was shown. Gray then moved to Costa Mesa and taught with Coplans and DeLap at the University of California, Irvine, for a year. In 1967, his painted-aluminum and chrome-plated steel pieces, Irvine 4 and Unit Q, were included in “American Sculpture of the 1960s,” organized by Maurice Tuchman for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The next year, when John Mason left Pomona College’s art department, Gray moved to Claremont and took the full-time position. As a teacher, Gray was popular and demanding, exacting from his students a level of seriousness and rigor that many found to be extremely challenging while they were in school, but later credited as being absolutely essential to their artistic development.