Tony DeLap at Laguna Art Museum

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Most artists have a consuming interest that parallels their work in the studio, work that can be isolating and challenging. Cooking, music, architecture and surfing all come to mind. Tony DeLap has long been fascinated by magic. Not metaphoric but the actual acts of professional performers such as Harry Houdini.

Magic comes to mind repeatedly but not tiringly in the 90-year- old artist’s exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum. Though the artist had been an influential professor in the art department of UC Irvine since the 1960s and had a number of museum shows in California and elsewhere, it is safe to say that his name may not be familiar to a wide audience. But one significant sculpture should be: The Big Wave that arcs over Wilshire Boulevard at Centinela, the eastern boundary of Santa Monica, was commissioned from DeLap in 1989.

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Tony DeLap, Triple Trouble II, 1966, Courtesy of the artist and Rena Bransten Gallery

This retrospective is a timely reminder of DeLap’s role in the development of a distinctly West Coast minimalist abstract art in both painting and sculpture. Using hard-edged geometric forms and shaped canvases, DeLap was concerned with act of perception — key to the light and space movement — and was close friends with a number those artists, especially Craig Kauffman.

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Tony DeLap, Erdnase, 1985, Anderson Collection at Stanford University, Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, and Mary Patricia Anderson Pence

Yet DeLap’s work is distinctly his own sort of oddity. Raised and educated mostly in Northern California, he experimented with landscape and abstract painting but was attracted to mediums of collage and assemblage. After completing his degree from Claremont Graduate School in 1951, he returned to the Bay Area to work in commercial and exhibition design, which contributed to his carefully crafted sensibilities.

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Tony DeLap, Thauma II, 1986, Laguna Art Museum, Gift of Mason and Elizabeth Phelps

In the early 1960s, he was making paintings of simple shapes in flat if unusual color combinations. Then, DeLap began cutting long narrow slices out of his rectangular canvases and mounting them on stands or bases. Magpie (1963) is black canvas rectangle horizontally bisected by a thin blue line with light visible at top and bottom from these open gaps. The crimson rectangular canvas Lompoc (1963) is perforated by a narrow slot at its center. Going forward from that period, his work operated primarily as a hybrid of two- dimensional painting and three-dimensional sculpture.

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Tony DeLap, Lompoc, 1963, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Robert and Naomi Lauter

Over subsequent decades, DeLap refined and reordered this self-perpetuated experiment. The role of trompe l’oeil, tricking the eye, is crucial. In one gallery, flat black paintings of circular or triangular or rectangular forms are contained by incongruous wood edges that define deep shadows around the picture.

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Tony DeLap, Mona Lisa, 1962, University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque, Gift of Dr. Samuel A. West

But what about the magic? His sculpted paintings play with illusion but some works are even more specific. In the museum’s main gallery, a cleanly finished natural wood beam hovers in space over a pair of hinged glass plates. This Floating Lady sculpture refers to the magician’s illusion that a woman is hovering in pure air. The idea has been used by DeLap at least since 1971 when he performed the magic trick at a Duchamp performance festival.

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

This show includes a watercolor of that magic act and other studies that show the ways that DeLap’s paintings of nested rectangles refer to Houdini’s trick boxes. DeLap, who was enough of a magician to belong to the Magic Castle, admired the sincerity of a practice that asks viewers to believe the illusion. Isn’t that what artists do?

Well-known art critic Peter Frank is guest curator of the show, which is exactingly and perceptively installed, as well as author of an insightful essay in the handsome catalog. The exhibition is a fitting tribute to an artist of singular dedication, one of Southern California’s originals. Or O.G., as they say today. It is on view through May 28.