The artful magic of Tony DeLap now on display at The Honarkar Foundation

By MARRIE STONE

Every effective magic trick appears deceptively simple. A woman floats unsupported in space. A spectator’s chosen card mysteriously disappears from the deck. As the famous magician Dai Vernon once said of his trade, “The mind is led on, step by step, to defeat its own logic.”

No surprise Orange County-based artist Tony DeLap and Dai Vernon were close friends. DeLap, an accomplished magician in his own right, brought all those optical illusions and seemingly effortless effects to his art. And it shows.

Now through May 5, Tony DeLap | A Survey of Works: 1960s – 2000s is on display at The Honarkar Foundation. In a space that feels both spacious and private, visitors can commune with more than 50 DeLap works – including sculptures, paintings and drawings – that represent nearly a half century of artistic progression.

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Courtesy of Eric Johnson

Tony DeLap (1927-2019) was a pioneer of the West Coast minimalism movement. A survey of his works from 1960s – 2000s is now on display at The Honarkar Foundation through May 5.

Born in Oakland, Calif. in 1927, DeLap moved to Corona del Mar in 1965 and remained there until his death in 2019. Considered a pioneer of the minimalist movement on the West Coast, DeLap was one of the founding faculty members of UCI’s art department, where he taught from 1965 through 1991.

At first glance, DeLap’s sculptures seem straightforward. They’re geometric and often monochromatic. But there’s nothing minimal about DeLap’s minimalism.

“I don’t want to minimalize anything,” DeLap once said. “I want to complicate it.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

More than 50 works, most never before shown, make up this exhibition which includes sculpture, paintings and drawings

“Minimalism is usually a clinical or sterile form of art,” said Peter Blake, owner of the Peter Blake Gallery and longtime dealer of DeLap’s work. “But in Tony’s hands, it became very sensual and beautiful. It transcended minimalism in many ways, especially in the use of light and shadows and illusion.”

As with magic, what’s happening behind the scenes is as important as what appears on the surface. “The first time I went to his studio there was a small blue square on the wall,” Blake said. “There was something aggravating about it. It was the same aggravation most people feel when they first encounter minimalism – or every time they encounter minimalism. This blue square was so simple and so outrageous. I asked Tony to explain it. He took me around to the side. Suddenly I saw this beautiful edge behind the front. It was the first time I’d known an artist who was concerned about the side of the work. Almost like he was taking me behind the scenes and into the inner workings of his studio.

“At that point it connected with me. Suddenly that minimal, reductive work became very seductive and sensual. I just fell in love.”

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Courtesy of The Honarkar Foundation

“Mr. Mesmer” (1988) appears in the foreground showcasing the artful shadows that are a signature in DeLap’s work

Curator Genevieve Williams described DeLap’s work as having “complex simplicity.” Williams worked with DeLap’s private collectors from across Southern California to the Bay Area, New York and Florida to secure the roughly 50 pieces never before shown in a public exhibition. This intimate survey is the first showing of his work since DeLap’s death in 2019. “Rather than going for a full retrospective, we wanted to focus on the beauty of his work,” Williams said.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Eusapia” (1987), “Impossible objects” are optical illusions that represent an object but cannot exist as a solid object

“Tony already had two major retrospectives at Laguna Art Museum and at the Orange County Museum of Art. What could we say that hadn’t been said already?” Blake said. “With this show, the goal was to show the beautiful nature of Tony’s artworks ranging from his 1960s sculptures to his hybrids of painting and sculpture that hang on the walls. We only needed a cohesive thread running through them. That thread is the beauty and sensual nature of his minimalism. This show, unlike a retrospective, distills the beauty of his work without having to be an academic or scholarly endeavor.”

Blake shared Co-Founder Mohammad Honarkar’s vision for the Foundation: to complete, not compete, with local museums. “The first year of the foundation will highlight who, we felt, were the best artists in our region,” Blake said. “When we were searching for that first show, we wanted the best artist that worked in Laguna Beach. That artist was Jorg Dubin. Outside of the early California artists – William Wendt and Edgar Payne – Jorg has been the finest contemporary artist in the history of Laguna Beach, so we started there.”

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For their next show, the foundation wanted to highlight the best work from Orange County and landed on DeLap.

“Tony’s creative oeuvre was uniquely his own,” said Dubin. “It is rare to see a work of art and, without seeing the name, know exactly who made it. His work was his signature.”

Dubin points to Asconio as one of his favorite pieces in the show. “There is something about it I find captivating,” he said. “One of the key features of his wall sculptures is the shadows they create. It takes the works from the physical to the ethereal.”

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Courtesy of The Honarkar Foundation

“Asconio” (1986) appears on the right. “Mr. Mystic” (center) is the largest work in the exhibition, measuring almost 13 feet high. Blake said its installation required some creative solutions.

DeLap may have learned to capture that ethereal quality through his practice of magic. Many of the works on display were inspired by a fanned deck of cards. A “pressure fan” – bending the cards while fanning them so they spring from the magician’s fingers to get an even spread – transforms the shape from two-dimensional to three. In DeLap’s sculptures, the effect produces not only a sensual curve, but also an elegant shadow, as though he caught the cards in motion.

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Courtesy of The Honarkar Foundation

“Mysterioso” (center) from 1977 and “Tarok” (right) from 1989. Several hybrid pieces (part painting/part sculpture) were inspired by fanned decks of cards. Like in magic, what’s happening behind the scenes – in the shadows – is what’s important.

Renowned metal sculptor Eric Johnson worked alongside DeLap throughout most of the 1980s, when the two artists became lifelong friends.

“By the time we met in 1983, Tony had already shown at major shows around the world,” Johnson said. “He was one of the more celebrated artists at the time, but he never became a household name because he chose his family over being a star.”

DeLap brought famed artists like Frank Stella, Larry Bell and Craig Kauffman to UCI, raising the profile of the institution with the names he was able to draw.

All the while, Johnson said, DeLap stayed true to his original minimalist vision. “Shadows were an important thing to him. After first meeting with the piece, when you started moving around in the shadows, that’s where you become intimate with his work.”

But, like every good magician, DeLap didn’t share all his tricks. “As close as Tony and I were,” Johnson said, “he kept a lot of things secret. There were so many people who flat out stole what artists were doing, especially that generation of artists. That happened to Tony.”

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Courtesy of Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson (right) worked with DeLap throughout much of the 1980s. This photo is circa 1984.

Still, DeLap led with humor, kindness and generosity. Johnson described him as a father-figure and a man who loved a good joke. “He had a great sense of humor. His schtick in magic was to make himself look feeble, like he couldn’t pull off the trick. You were praying for it to happen to save his dignity. All the time he had you baited.”

That love of play lives on in his sculptures. The great gift of art is achieving immortality in your work. DeLap’s diligence, aesthetic and sense of wonder outlasted him, and it’s on full display Downtown.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Hidden in an obscure corner, viewers will discover “Zener” (1997). DeLap insisted every show incorporate a piece hung in a “strange location.”

This is a rare opportunity to see an array of privately owned pieces. “Many of these works have been sitting in homes across the country and have never been shown,” Blake said. “They went from the studio directly into a private collection and were never seen again.”

Best of all, you may have the gallery largely to yourself. Located inside the old post office, and once home to Gerald Buck’s private art collection and inaccessible to the public, The Honarkar Foundation – for now – still feels like one of Laguna Beach’s undiscovered gems.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

The Honarkar Foundation is located at 298 Broadway in Laguna Beach. The Gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Enter along the left-hand side of the building in the alley.


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