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Light and Space

Light and Space Collage

Started: 1960

Ended: 1980

"To be an artist is not a matter of making paintings or objects at all. What we are really dealing with is our state of consciousness and the shape of our perceptions."

Robert Irwin

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.

Key Ideas

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.
James Turrel's <i>Space That Sees</i> in the Israel Museum Jerusalem

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.

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