'I just want to say one word to you. Just one word… plastics.' Nearly 50 years later, the 'great future in plastics' promised to a rudderless Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate is finally here, in the form of De Wain Valentine's otherworldly yet organic works in polyester resin, on view until 7 August at David Zwirner gallery in New York.

'This is all about pieces of the sky and pieces of the ocean,' says Valentine, 78, surveying the exhibition of luminous, meticulously polished forms he cast in the 1960s and 1970s, after arriving in Los Angeles from his native Colorado, where schoolkids and their shop (industrial arts) teachers got the synthetic spoils of polymers developed for military use. 'Polyester resin allowed me to objectify the atmosphere – put it out in solid form, look at it, and say "This is what this is".'

The show's 21 works, spread across four rooms and the hallway that connects Zwirner's high-ceilinged, expansive white spaces on West 19th Street, include 'double pyramids' that resemble huge, cloudy gemstones and chunky, beveled rings that look popped from the tops of giant bottles (especially the one in beach-glassy blueish grey), but Valentine's atmospheric inspiration is most apparent – and affecting – in his circles. Balanced jauntily on their slender, convex edges, these translucent discs are monumental punch samplings of water and sky, alive with traces of sand, sun, and hazy LA smog.

For many years, Valentine kept a second studio in Hawaii, and Circle Blue Smoke Flow, 1970, a sheer cyan disc crowned by an earthy smudge, preserves in resin a fragment of Waialea Bay. 'You look straight down at that crystal blue water, at the white sand on the bottom, and see the dappling of sand,' explains Valentine. 'I was able to recreate a piece of that and stand it on the edge.'

The artist's eye for proportion comes into view with his columns: extruded prisms that grow from the circles. These slender sculptures stretch upward in dialogue with the human form and, in the smoky greys Valentine favoured in the mid-1970s, call attention to their sleek surfaces, polished to a high gleam through a sequence of sandpaper grits that can remove thousands of pounds worth of resin. 'You never really see them until the last polish,' he notes.

'De Wain ended up in California at a moment when many artists were looking at alternative ways of making sculpture and installations, and his expertise innovated not only within contemporary art but touched many artistic careers around him,' says Kristine Bell, who organised the exhibition, the first New York survey of Valentine's work in 30 years. 'It's a story that needs to be retold here – and it’s long overdue.'

TAGS: NEW YORK, DAVID ZWIRNER