Light and Space
Summary of Light and Space
Ethereal and atmospheric, yet often equally geometric and analytic, the experiences of the Light and Space movement present a striking paradox to the viewer, one that requires active, and often multi-sensory, participation. There is no single defining aesthetic amongst the loosely affiliated group of Los Angeles-based Light and Space artists, but instead a preoccupation with the viewer's perception and participation. Their work ranges from site-specific installations washed in radiant, neon light, or even projecting from the wall, to mysterious glowing columns placed within a darkened room, to totemic sculptures made of glass, acrylic or resin, which reflect and absorb ambient light and shadows, instead of radiating their own.
The genesis of the movement occurred in the late 1950s and lasted through the 1970s, with a wide array of artists following similar conceptual philosophies, including Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman, Mary Corse, Frederick Eversley, Helen Pashgian, De Wain Valentine, and perhaps the best-known Robert Irwin and James Turrell. The group found inspiration in idyllic popular notions associated with Southern California: sun, cars, surf, and sand. Yet, in equal measure, there is an embrace of psychology and technology that unite these artists in explorations of materiality and human perception throughout their distinct bodies of work.
- Light and Space developed in parallel to the dominant Minimalist movement in New York in the early 1960s, each characterized by industrial materials and a hard-edge, geometric aesthetic. However, where seriality and repetition was a key component of Minimalist works, artists associated with Light and Space usually created singular objects, whether sculptural or environmental in scale.
- One of the signature characteristics of the Light and Space movement is the choice of alternative materials employed in the creation of both two- and three-dimensional works of art. In lieu of paint and canvas, or marble and bronze, these artists looked to alternative materials as seemingly mundane as glass and plastic as well as experimenting with newer technologies, particularly polyester resins, cast acrylic, neon and argon lights, influenced by the flourishing aerospace industry.
- The term "Light and Space" derives from a 1971 exhibition at the UCLA University Art Gallery, titled Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space: Four Artists, including Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin and Craig Kauffman, in which, as described by the catalogue, "the works displayed served as liaison between the artists and the spaces they chose to animate." Through this idea, the connection of Light and Space to Kinetic Art is revealed, as it is the experience, over the object, which the artists emphasized.
- The movement has also been called California Minimalism, because, as art critic Sascha Crasnow wrote, it is similarly defined by Minimalism's "qualities of stripping down the object... but added in a uniquely Californian spin - the interaction of light and space." The movement is also closely related to Finish/Fetish, a term first coined by John Coplans in the late 1960s referencing a trend toward the use of plastics with glossy finishes and highly polished surfaces, perhaps best exemplified by artists Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman, and John McCracken.
- The concept of The Sublime resonates within the all-encompassing aesthetic experience of a Light and Space installation. Feelings of timelessness permeate the multisensory event, overwhelming and nearly transcendental, evoking the definition offered by German philosopher Emmanuel Kant who describes the sublime as "found in a formless object insofar as limitlessness is represented in it." Therefore, the sublimity of the Light and Space experience does not reside in the physical object or even the space where the work is situated, but in the ethereal phenomenon of light itself.
Overview of Light and Space
Artist Robert Irwin refused to allow any of his works to be photographed because he felt that the experience of his work could not be fully captured in print. This exemplifies the essence of the movement; Light and Space artists used cutting edge mediums to create ephemeral visions and optical illusions that captivated. Works that were dismissed in the press as “Californian - of no significance at al” went on to see critical acclaim and have an enduring influence to this today.
Important Art and Artists of Light and Space
Irwin's Untitled installation takes over an entire wall. It is an elusive work consisting of a singular painted concave aluminum disc, five feet in diameter, placed twenty inches out from the back wall and lit from multiple sources of light. Despite the mundane list of materials, the disc appears to nearly dematerialize and hover in space. The edge of the disc is hard to define visually as it forms fluidly out of the interplay of light and shadow, and the defined edges of the concrete object disappear. This photograph captures a single ephemeral moment in a continual interaction of light and space, and, aware of this, in the 1970s Irwin refused to allow any of his works to be photographed because he felt that the experience of his work could not be captured in the medium. As art historian and curator Evelyn Hankins noted, his works "because of their extremely subtle nature, demand in-person viewing," and that "Irwin's art becomes fully present only when you are standing in the physical space, experiencing it over a period of time."
Although fixed in space, the sculptural object appears ephemeral. The experience is not just about the illusion, but the participation of the viewer and an awareness of their own perception, which part is object and which part effect, while trying to 'fix' the shape within visual focus. As art historian Kirsi Peltomäki notes, Irwin's work "from 1962 onward explored deploying minimal visual means to activate the viewers' perceptual process and redirect their attention self-reflectively to their own processes of seeing."
The transformation of a simple piece of plywood into an aesthetic object represents a trademark series of Los Angeles artist John McCracken. Treated with fiberglass and resin, the resulting finish is a highly reflective and glossy surface with a sensuous visual appeal, while the diagonal created by the leaning rectangular form creates a spatial interaction between the floor and wall. In 1966, influenced by the color field work of Barnett Newman, the artist began making what he termed his "planks," as if the "zips" of Newman's monumental works emerged from the painted surface into the space of the viewer. As the artist said, "I see the plank as existing between two worlds, the floor representing the physical world of standing objects, trees, cars, buildings, human bodies, and everything, and the wall representing the world of the imagination, illusionistic painting space, human mental space, and all that."
While the meticulous surface and illusory reflections therein bear striking resemblance to the works associated with the Light and Space artists, these "planks" represent the essence of the closely related Finish/Fetish movement, which also began in the 1960s beach culture of Southern California. The luscious candy-wrapper colors of McCracken's monochromatic planks were inspired by Southern California's car culture, evoking the cars that he saw as "mobile color chips." The work plays upon the viewer's shifting perception, as the sculptor's hand-finished surfaces evoke painterly notions, and as art critic Roberta Smith wrote, "the leaning pieces were so casual as to seem like jokes, except that their intense hues and flawless surfaces projected dignity and beauty; they often seemed to be made of solid color, but also had a totemic presence." At the time, some attributed the shape to the monolith of Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey as McCracken's influence. The artist believed in time travel and extraterrestrials and said, "Even before I did concerted studies of U.F.O.s, it helped me maintain my focus to think I was trying to do the kind of work that could have been brought here by a U.F.O."
While many of the Light and Space creations were monumental in size, Pashian often worked on an intimate scale, as seen in this translucent sphere, only seven inches in diameter. This remarkable object seems to alternate between translucence and opacity, with exquisite and ever-shifting variations of light, the result of its highly polished surface. As the sphere is illuminated, the vertical acrylic rod at its center, creates varying optical effects depending on the illumination - in this particular photograph suggesting an organic enfolding or a door into the object's space. Yet, as the artist noted, here "light is the object," and as the viewer perceives the sphere from different vantage points, the embodied light beckons with a mysterious vitality, while remaining indeterminate. As James Turrell said of Pashgian's work, she "bridges the material and the immaterial, the visible and invisible."
Born and raised in Pasadena, the artist began her career as an art historian, studying the Dutch Golden Age and the works of Vermeer in Boston. While working towards a Ph.D. at Harvard University, she returned to art making and soon thereafter to Southern California. In the 1960s, she began to work in cast resin creating small geometric sculptures, usually discs or spheres such as this, ranging in color from clear to vibrant primary hues. The effect of the work depended upon a meticulous surface, as the artist noted, "if there is a scratch on the surface, that's all you see." As the traces of artistic processes are erased, the work appears to be an almost elemental form, which as art critic Lita Barrie relates to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant's transcendental aesthetic of the sublime, "limitless and unknowable; we can only imagine in glimmers, but it fills us with awe, the same awesomeness we experience in the grandeur of nature."
When these works were exhibited in New York in 1971, they, as well as the concurrent exhibits of Robert Irwin and Laddie John Dill, were dismissed by a newspaper critic "as Californian - as of no significance at all." In the following decade, as the male members of the Light and Space movement began to receive critical acclaim, Pashgian was often overlooked. However, since the 2010 Pomona College Museum survey of her work, her career has been revitalized. In 2014, a major installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Helen Pashgian: Light Invisible, mesmerized both critics and the viewing public.