A California Sculptor Gets His Moment in the Sun, at Age 80
By: Janelle Zara
At the age of 80, the sculptor Wendell Dayton is having his first major show, a six-decade survey of his work at the Los Angeles gallery Blum & Poe. Until now, Dayton had mainly exhibited his abstract creations in a sculpture park of his own making, in the unassuming corner of the San Fernando Valley where he lives and works. The brittle yellow grass of the two-acre lawn surrounding his low-slung white house is dotted with abstract monuments assembled from sheets of stainless steel. Some of the pieces are almost 50 years old, yet Dayton’s conservation routine is blissfully minimal — the beauty of stainless steel is that it never rusts. “It just flies along, man,” Dayton says in his surfer drawl, which belies his Pacific Northwest roots.
Growing up in Spokane, Washington, Dayton had aspirations to be a sign painter, but after reading a book on Paul Gauguin, he decided to become an artist. He completed his B.F.A. at the University of Indiana in 1960 and hitchhiked to New York City, a hotbed of not only creative energy but also tangible source material. Inspired by Jasper Johns — “a true junk artist,” says Dayton — he made his early work using refuse scavenged from junkyards. His love of Alexander Calder and Jean Tinguely made its way into his sculpture, too; he was fond of slicing open tin cans and steel drums and letting the metal unravel into wayward spirals. When fellow artist James Rosenquist introduced him to Robert Scull, the collector supplied Dayton with his first stainless steel. “Scull must have bought me a ton, and man, I used it,” he says. “I was making up to three sculptures a day.”
In 1972, Dayton decamped to Los Angeles at the suggestion of his then-wife, who had dreams of opening her own day care center out West. But the gallery scenes of Melrose and La Cienega were harder for him to infiltrate than the scene in New York. “I was taking my things to galleries for a while,” recalls Dayton, who was living in Silver Lake and supporting himself as a carpenter. The repeated rejection was disheartening enough for him to strike out on his own and turn his driveway into an outdoor gallery instead. He printed brochures and convinced his neighbor across the street to replace the out-of-commission Mercedes on his lawn with “Big Star,” a 30-foot-long assemblage of geometric, stainless steel cutouts that resembles an enormous starfruit. In 1999, when he decided to retire from carpentry, Dayton drove past a house in the Valley that had everything he could’ve asked for: two acres, an orange grove and a “For Sale” sign. He has lived there ever since.
“There was a lot of disappointment along the line, not getting into a gallery and stuff,” Dayton says. “But I knew what I wanted to do, so I just kept going.” Today, his property is piled with materials waiting to become sculpture: the barrel from a dryer, reclaimed wooden palettes, old furnace parts. On the day I visit, sheets of stainless steel, some tracing back to his New York days in the ’70s, lie at the bottom of the empty pool. The handful of remaining orange trees are heavy with ripe fruit, and there’s an unfamiliar wailing in the distance. It’s the neighborhood peacock, who likes to occasionally lay its eggs in Dayton’s sculpture park.
Only last year, when Dayton was 79, did he begin to experience success. His son, Sky Dayton, a tech investor and the founder of the internet service provider EarthLink, had shown photographs of his father’s sculptures to Michael Ovitz, the talent agent and art collector. After visiting the artist’s studio, Ovitz spread the word to Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the gallerist Tim Blum. In short order, LACMA acquired a piece for its permanent collection, and Blum offered to mount a solo exhibition. Dayton is showing no sign of nerves; he’s already been sharing his work for decades. “People like this stuff, man,” he says. “They make a point to go by my place on their walks.”
Since last year’s break, Dayton’s routine remains unchanged. He’s still making art daily, cutting and welding in his workshop shed. There are projects to be done around the house, too, including taking care of the pool. He drained it long ago because of a pump malfunction. “Maybe after I get a new studio, I’ll fix it,” he says. “Somewhere down the line.”