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Light and Space - History and Concepts

Light and Space Collage

Started: 1960

Ended: 1980

History and Concepts

Beginnings

The Influence of Minimalism

In the early 1960s, Minimalism emerged as the leading art movement centered in New York City. Key traits of this era, exemplified by artists like Donald Judd and Carl Andre, include the use of industrial materials to create three-dimensional objects, often simple geometric forms, stripped of all decorative and traditional aesthetic effects. Reacting against the gestural angst of Abstract Expressionism and influenced by Russian Constructivism's use of industrial and prefabricated materials, artists including Frank Stella, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris and Tony Smith turned toward creating what Judd called "specific objects," in his 1965 essay of the same title. In his argument, Judd rejected traditional aesthetic distinctions between categories of fine art, stating: "The best new work is neither painting nor sculpture, but a paradoxical hybrid."

This idea is echoed in the writing of Morris, who also argued for the primacy of simplified form and works informed by their context in his Notes on Sculptures (1966). Such ideas permeate the Minimalist look, as manifest in Dan Flavin's iconic installations using industrial fluorescent light tubes arranged in parallel lines or geometric grids, such as "monument" 1 for V. Tatlin (1964), of which the artist made 39 different versions. Likewise, Tony Smith's Die (1963) consists of a six-foot-square steel cube placed directly on the gallery floor, emphasizing the materiality of the sculpture as an object rather than an artwork set upon a pedestal. As such, the artist advocated that the true meaning of art did not reside in the isolated sculptural form, but in the relationship created between context, viewer and object.

The Light and Space movement has been regarded by a number of art historians and scholars as a variation of Minimalism, as both movements developed nearly concurrent with one another and shared many visual traits. Most overt is the connection made between Dan Flavin's site-specific works, which he called "situations," beginning in the early 1960s with the slightly later works by Los Angeles artists Robert Irwin and James Turrell. However, there is a philosophical distinction between the two ideas. For example, Flavin emphasized the use of light as a prefabricated object, in the form of industrial fluorescent light tubes, while Irwin incorporated light as a medium, as seen (or perceived), to alter the viewer's perception in works such as the illusion of floating discs created in his Untitled (1967-68). Additionally, in Flavin's work the industrial fluorescent lights were part of the aesthetic, while many artists associated with Light and Space, such as Turrell, often concealed the source of light in their installations emphasizing the artist's concern with the effect, rather than the physicality, of the light source.

The contrast between emphasizing the object versus the experience was explored by art critic Ian Wallace in a 2014 article for Artspace in which he explained: "Light and Space artists embraced... the 'theatricality' of Minimalist sculpture that critic Michael Fried described in his important 1967 essay 'Art and Objecthood.' Emphasizing an immersive interaction with the work of art that called dramatic attention to the personal experience of the viewer." In a 2011 article for Art Critical Joan Boykoff Baron and Reuben M. Baron further elaborate on this idea, writing: "Indeed, these L.A. works could be Michael Fried's worst nightmare - their theatricality is an integral part of their aesthetic DNA. They make us keenly aware that what you do affects what you see, and what you see affects what you do."

In this respect, Fried's definition of "theatricality" applies to the Light and Space artists, who focused on the prolonged experience of the engaged viewer. However, the work of these artists might be equally understood alongside the concepts of Kinetic Art. As the Barons continue, "These works challenge our assumptions about ordinary reality to a point where, using our perceptual, sensory-motor apparatus, we try to disambiguate forms as they appear to morph before our eyes."

Conceptual Beginnings: Robert Irwin and “Perceptualism”

After serving in the army in World War II, Robert Irwin attended several of the art colleges that would define the early contemporary art scene of Los Angeles, including Otis Art Institute (1948-50), and Chouinard Art Institute (1952-54). He then traveled through Europe and North Africa for two years before returning to Los Angeles. Upon his return, Irwin briefly taught at Chouinard, becoming an important early influence for numerous young artists, including Larry Bell and Ed Ruscha.

An engagement with, or perhaps rejection of, the prominent trend of Abstract Expressionism marks Irwin's early career. Rather than the monumentally scaled paintings typically associated with that movement, Irwin created what he called "Hand-Helds," small square paintings with handmade frames that emphasized a more intimate interaction with the viewer. From early on, Irwin was exploring materiality as a means to explore the viewer's experience, here focusing on scale, which continued as his work increasingly moved toward a Minimalist aesthetic.

Robert Irwin coined the term "Perceptualism" to refer to his burgeoning artistic theory and practice, foregrounding the stability and instability of human sensory experience as the primary 'subject' of the artwork. Eventually, the artist explored this idea using light as a primary means to investigate the relationship between the material and the immaterial. The works of the philosophers Husserl, Hegel, and, particularly Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception (1945), which Irwin described as "so difficult that I decided the only way to read them was to read them all day," became foundational to Irwin's theory which became the theoretical framework of the Light and Space movement. As art critic Peter Frank wrote, "The basic tenet is ... what you see is not what you think you see - nor is it otherwise."

James Turrell

Born in Los Angeles, James Turrell first studied experimental psychology and mathematics as an undergraduate at Pomona College, earning his Bachelor's in 1965, followed by a year of graduate studies in art at the University of California, Irvine. He explained his movement toward art as "light-inspired." After traveling to New York to see Mark Rothko's work, then his favorite artist, he was disappointed to find the painting lacked the quality of light that he saw in the projected slides of his art history class. In 1966, he left school and rented part of the Mendota Hotel in Santa Monica where he created the first of his experimental light projection works. The young artist blacked out the windows of a room, while allowing light to pass through cut openings in the structure. This evolved into increasingly sophisticated installations composed of illusory shapes created by artificial, projected light, and marks the beginning of his life-long preoccupation with the perceptual effects of light and dark. One famous early work, titled Afrum, Pale Pink (1967), consists of what first appears to be a glowing cube, suspended in the corner of a room, but is an optical illusion created by projected light.

Soon after these early experiments, Turrell had his first solo exhibition at the newly established Pasadena Art Museum in 1967. The following year, he was invited to participate in the Los Angeles County Museum's Art and Technology Program where Turrell and Irwin requested to work in partnership, studying the effects of sensory deprivation, known as "the ganzfeld effect," and other perceptual phenomena with an experimental psychologist in a laboratory setting. Meanwhile, Turrell also continued his education, earning his MFA in Fine Art at the nearby Claremont Graduate University in 1973.

As Turrell described in the 1987 text, Mapping Spaces, "Light is a powerful substance. We have a primal connection to it. But, for something so powerful, situations for its felt presence are fragile...My desire is to set up a situation to which I take you and let you see. It becomes your experience." This interest in experimental psychology and human perception, continues to influence the artist's decades-long project at the site of an extinct volcano, approximately 40,000 years old, known as Roden Crater in northern Arizona. Of his goal in transforming the 2-mile-wide formation to create an extensive sky observatory, Turrell has said, "I'm not taking from nature as much as placing you in contact with it."

Ferus Gallery and The Cool School

In his 1974 text, Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945-1970, art critic and novelist Peter Plagens famously described the early Los Angeles art scene as, for all intentions, a cultural wasteland. Although there were individual examples of artistic success, there was little in terms of infrastructure beyond the art colleges, including Chouinard Art Institute and Otis College of Art and Design, supporting and connecting artists in the early post-war period. Over time, a nascent contemporary art scene began to develop. Today, the most famous example from this period is Ferus Gallery, co-founded by curator and art enthusiast Walter Hopps and artist Ed Kienholz in a storefront on La Cienega Avenue in 1959.

Ferus was among the first art galleries in the region to focus on exhibiting and promoting the young Southern Californian avant-garde during this period. The now-legendary roster includes artists and exhibitions associated with the Light and Space movement, such as Larry Bell's first solo exhibition in 1962. The gallery was also a hub for East Coast artists to show in the West, most famously exemplified by Andy Warhol's first-ever solo painting exhibition at the gallery in 1962. Shortly thereafter, Hopps became a curator at the experimental Pasadena Art Museum, where he organized the first retrospective of the pioneer of Conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp in 1963. Conceptual, Pop artist Ed Ruscha compared the art space to a jazz label, "where there are a lot of different voices under the same record label. Each had a very distinctive take on the world and on his work, and so that made it a very vital place to aspire to and to be." Although the gallery closed in 1966, it played a central role in the formation of establishing the careers of the Light and Space artists, such as Billy Al Bengston's first solo exhibition in 1958, and Irwin's in 1959.

Artforum

Artforum, founded in 1962 in San Francisco, moved to Los Angeles in 1965 under a new publisher Charles Cowles where it remained for two years before relocating to New York City where it remains in operation today. The magazine's offices were located above Ferus for its brief tenure in Southern California, and the magazine played a role in promoting the work of the experimental young artists there and throughout the city. In 1964, art critic and then managing editor of the magazine, Philip Leider, dubbed the Los Angeles art scene centered around Ferus the "Cool School", a reference that included the Light and Space artists. Beginning the following year, articles featuring artists associated with Light and Space helped generate wider interest and national viability for their work. Notably, "Larry Bell," by John Coplans, along with a statement about painting by Robert Irwin appeared in a 1965 issue of the magazine, followed by Fidel A. Danieli's "Larry Bell" in a 1967 issue. The magazine's interest in Light and Space continued in New York, as seen by Kurt von Meier's "Interview with Valentine" (May 1969), along with articles on Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston, and Mary Corse.

In addition, Gemini G.E.L., a publishing house and fine arts workshop founded in 1966 in Los Angeles, began by making lithographs and silkscreens but quickly evolved into creating three-dimensional multiples and sculptures that ultimately furthered the reach and appreciation of the movement.

Art & Technology

Following World War II, various aerospace and industrial technologies that were originally developed for military purposes became commercially accessible to various West Coast cottage industries. Among them, local artists began exploiting the newly available materials, including fiberglass, Plexiglas, resins and plastics, for their artistic potential. At the same time, Southern Californian universities and think tanks were conducting scientific research into the nature of human perception, sensory deprivation, and kinesthetic experience that also informed the artistic explorations of the Light and Space group.

Recognizing this dynamic relationship between disciplines, in 1967 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art launched the Art & Technology Program, supporting the intersection of the latest technology and research with art. One such project involved Robert Irwin and James Turrell with Dr. Edward Wortz, (a psychologist working for the Garrett Aerospace Corporation) exploring anechoic chambers (soundless self-contained spaces) and Ganzfelds (a form of perceptual deprivation caused by an undifferentiated and uniform visual field). Experiencing for themselves the sensory conditions, Irwin and Turrell sought to use their findings to create an experience for the viewer. Simultaneously, from 1968 to 1971, the California Institute of Technology also created a collaborative arts and sciences program, in which Helen Pashgian and Peter Alexander, the physicist Richard Feynman, industrial designer Henry Dreyfus, and John Whitney, a pioneer in computer graphics, participated.

Due to the complexity of the materials involved, the Light and Space artists often worked with engineers and technology experts to find technical solutions to achieve and maintain their visions. This resulted in long-standing relationships between fabricators such as Jack Brogan with the Light and Space artists, to create such monumental works as Irwin's prismatic columns, as well as the maintenance and conservation of Bell's glass cubes. Others, including De Wain Valentine and Fred Eversley, created their own technologies. In 1966, Valentine partnered with Hastings Plastics to produce his Valentine MasKat Resin, which made possible his monumental circles and columns, like the famous Grey Column (1975-76), a massive polyester slab standing twelve feet tall and weighing two and a half tons. Eversley, who had trained as an aerospace engineer and worked as a senior instrumentation engineer for Wyle Laboratories, used his scientific expertise to invent new ways of molding polyester resins allowing the artist to engineer highly reflective, multichromatic parabolic mirrors.

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Immersive environments

Robert Irwin's <i>Scrim veil - Black rectangle - Natural light</i> (1977), made for the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum, uses a white polyester scrim which, illuminated by the light from the room's one window, casts a gray scale gradient across the interior.

Among the primary ideas that distinguished the achievements of the Light and Space artists were the embrace of non-traditional artistic media. A quick survey of works consisting of glass, resin, natural and artificial light, supports this notion. However, it is important to recognize the artists' intentions providing the driving force behind the adoption of such materials. The goal of these artists was not to simply create a new style of art object, but to create a new kind of viewing experience. This is perhaps most evident in the creation of "immersive environments," which engage the viewer's entire body and sense of perception through the manipulation of light, shadow and space.

Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Douglas Wheeler were pioneers in the creation of these immersive environments from the earliest experiments associated with this movement, as seen in Turrell's Shallow Space Constructions (1968). This project, drawing upon his recent sensory deprivation research, used screened partitions to create a flattened spatial effect. Additionally, Irwin closed his studio altogether in 1972, signaling his intention to abandon notions of art as "an object," and instead created "site-conditioned" installations, as seen in his Scrim veil - Black rectangle - Natural light (1977). "What made an artist an artist is a sensibility," he described in a 2015 interview for the Wall Street Journal, adding that without "the limitations of thinking about being a painter, you can operate anywhere in the world." Doug Wheeler's RM 669 (1969) was another early example of an immersive environment within a gallery. A vacuum-formed Plexiglas and white neon light forms the outline of a square installed on a white wall, the light emitted appears a soft blue color highlighting the shape, but also altering the mood and sense of the entire room's atmosphere.

Andreas Praefcke's photograph shows an aerial view of Robert Irwin's <i>Central Garden</i> (1997) at the Getty Center.

Beginning in the 1980s, the notion of immersive environments moved from interior spaces to exterior constructions. Although this might appear to be a simple continuation of a site-specific installation to the outdoors, the interaction between the viewer, installation and location increased exponentially. Irwin described these works as "Conditional Art," distinguishing it from site-specific works which artists create to fit within a defined area. Instead, as Jonathan Griffin described in a 2015 interview with the artist for Apollo magazine, "Irwin's Conditional Art is intended to be absolutely responsive to its environment, and its objective is to enhance a viewer's perception of a space." The labyrinthic Central Garden (1997) at the Getty Center in Los Angles exemplifies this relationship, where in lieu of technology, Irwin employed natural materials, including water and plants to "accentuate the interplay of light, color, and reflection."

Turrell, who had employed natural light from the beginning, began creating his architectural installations, known as Skyspaces and Skyscapes in the mid-1970s. First cutting openings into the ceiling of an enclosed room or veranda, he combined artificial light with the exterior light to counteract the changing colors of the sky. He also began work on his Roden Crater in 1979. Still an ongoing project, work on the crater has involved moving over a million cubic yards of earth to shape the cone, as well as six planned tunnels, like the 854-foot-long Alpha Tunnel, and twenty-one viewing spaces, which art critic Colin Herd described in 2014 as a series of "transitional spaces." Addressing the Earthwork aspects of the project, Turrell has said, "You could say I'm a mound builder: I make things that take you up into the sky. But it's not about the landforms. I'm working to bring celestial objects like the sun and moon into the spaces that we inhabit."

Sculpture

Sculpture made of industrial materials and employing new technology was a dominant genre of the Light and Space movement, as seen in Robert Irwin's monumental 12- and 16-foot-tall clear acrylic columns Untitled (1969/2011), De Wain Valentine's Double Pyramid (1968), and Helen Pashgian's iridescent spheres. As Irwin noted, "The column was an indication of my wanting to get out and treat the environment itself...of dealing with the quality of a particular space in terms of its weight, its temperature, its tactileness, its density, its feel." While each of these examples seem to follow in the traditional notions of sculpture in the round, they share concepts with the ideas explored in the immersive environments. The sculptures are not simply discreet objects, but variable experiences dependent upon the ambient light and colors potentially absorbed and reflected from the object's surfaces, in relation to the viewer's position to the work.

The objects are both stoic and immovable, yet paradoxically, always appear as if in a state of flux. Art historian David F. Martin described the experience of viewing sculpture as a journey, writing: "As I move, what I have perceived and what I shall perceive stand in a defined relationship with what I am presently perceiving. My moving body links these aspects...the varying reflected light glancing off the surfaces help to blend the changing forms." This idea aptly applies to the relationship between viewer and Light and Space object, where the slightest move on the part of the viewer might result in the illusion of shape-shifting or light-bending counteractions.

Like their Minimalist counterparts, the sculpture of the Light and Space artists tends toward hard-edged geometric forms, void of the usual associations of sculpture such as figuration or podiums. In the case of Larry Bell's glass cube works, the pedestals themselves were crafted from clear acrylic, meant to create the allusion of suspension rather than a podium upon which the work was placed. In other examples, the sculptures are placed directly on the floor, often towering over the viewer, so that the objects shape the environment rather than exist within it. The same comparison might be made between the traditional relief sculpture and the wall-mounted experiments of Orr, Wheeler, Irwin and Turrell. Here, as in the free-standing works, the activation of space around the object is transformative to the environment in which they are located.

Paintings

Many of the Light and Space affiliated artists began their career experimenting with ideas related to the dominant trend of Abstract Expressionism. Looking at the earliest work, some examples culled from college experiments, such as Larry Bell's L. Bell's House (1959) during his time at Chouinard, and others in their first exhibitions - for example Craig Kauffman showed a series of Expressionist-style paintings in his first solo exhibition at the Los Angeles-based Felix Landau gallery in 1953. Alternatively, John McCracken's earliest paintings explored notions of the subconscious.

Robert Irwin and Mary Corse both moved away from notions of gesture in the 1960s and began independently creating paintings that innovatively explored the effects of light while continuing to work with pigment and canvas. Irwin's first experiments involved using two straight lines of complementary or contrasting color to horizontally dissect the pictorial plane. The lines were not intuitive marks, as might be described of the Abstract Expressionists, but theoretical, closer to experiments with perception. Art historian Carolee Thea explained the placement of thin lines within the large square canvases as, "light trying to break through a seam ... the edge seems to dematerialize ... [casting] a shadow that activated the surrounding space."

Conversely, the striped surfaces of Mary Corse's paintings consisted of broad vertical divisions of the picture plane. The monochromatic works featured bands of the same hue - most famous are the white and/or black paintings - alternately mixed with varying amounts of glass microspheres, such as those used in highway line markings. The shimmering bands reflect ambient light to different degrees reacting to the viewer's position - and so they are passively kinetic, for while they don't physically move, they appear to fluctuate depending on the viewer's position. In this way, the two-dimensional paintings of the Light and Space artists offer a viscerally sculptural experience, as the works require the active movement of the viewer in order to truly engage with the experience the artist intended to create.

Los Angeles native Craig Kauffman blurred the boundaries between sculpture and painting with his wall-mounted works, which also defy easy categorization even within a movement of such variety as Light and Space. The work also relates to notions of Finish/Fetish and has been described as having a Pop art aesthetic. Kauffman studied art at USC before transferring to UCLA in 1952, where his lifelong friend Walter Hopps was studying art history. He had his first solo exhibition at the Felix Landau Gallery in 1953, another early proponent of modern and contemporary art in Los Angeles (in operation from 1951-1971). Like Irwin and Corse, his early paintings reveal a strong influence of Expressionism, before reaching his mature experiments with vacuum-formed cast acrylic plastic. Such works present a dichotomy, for while they might easily be misconstrued as mass-produced, industrial objects, the subtle gradation of tone and translucency, as demonstrated by his Untitled (1968), were the product of his meticulous study of paint and structure and created by numerous sprayed layers of copolymer paint. The works in the series grew increasingly sophisticated, later employing iridescent paints, to heighten the variability of visual effects caused by light hitting the works' surface. Although the aesthetics and materials between Corse and Kauffman are quite different, the experience of viewing the work holds many similarities. As Kauffman described during an interview with the Smithsonian Institute, the color changes "as you change the angle of how you view it. I wanted it to kind of pulsate and be very vague about what it was. Irwin was getting into being very vague about where things were at the time too and I liked that."

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Later Developments

In the past decade, a series of major exhibitions have spawned critical discourse of the often-overlooked contributions of the Light and Space movement. This change was first sparked by the expansive collaboration known as Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980 (2011), a series of exhibitions funded by the Los Angeles-based Getty Research Institute, including the critically lauded Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Soon thereafter, James Turrell had three major concurrent solo exhibitions across the United States at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2013. At the Guggenheim, the entire spiral staircase of the museum's rotunda was transformed into a laboratory of glowing light slowly cycling through jewel-toned hues, ranging from emerald green to ruby red to sapphire blue.

Pioneering site-specific installations and immersive environments, the Light and Space movement also influenced successive generations of artists. Similar ideas of color and perception have provided a conceptual basis of experimentation for a group of abstract color theory artists, including Frederick Spratt, David Simpson, Anne Appleby, and Phil Sims. Beginning in the 1980s through today, a second generation of artists continue the legacy of the Light and Space movement through their own diverse intellectual philosophies and aesthetic approaches. Among the most prolific is Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, who continues the legacy of immersive installations incorporating projected and reflected light, color-stained sheets of resins and mirrors to create dichromatic effects, splitting visible light into distinct beams of different wavelengths. Of increasing influence and rising stature in the 2010s are the likes of Gisela Colon, Tara Donovan, Spencer Finch, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Andy Moses (son of "Cool School" artist Ed Moses), and Phillip K. Smith III.

Key Artists

Robert IrwinRobert Irwin
John McCrackenJohn McCracken
Larry BellLarry Bell
TheArtStory page Detailed View
James TurrellJames Turrell
TheArtStory page Detailed View

Most Important Art

Quotes

"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
"There's no way to really mock up or simulate what I'm doing until I'm there. An exhibition for me is not a statement but an experiment."
Robert Irwin
"I try to make beautiful objects that are strongly material and that at the same time have on otherworldly appearance, like mental visions."
John McCracken
"I activate space."
Doug Wheeler
"I was always primarily interested in form alone, but then to make a form, you have to make it out of something. So color seemed a natural material to use, because color is abstract...Just form alone would be more abstract, of course, because it's just a mental idea, but you don't have anything there for your perceptions to grapple with unless you make it out of a material...An important thought behind this is that all things are essentially mental - that matter, while quite real on the one hand, is on the other hand composed of energy, and in turn, of pure thought."
John McCracken
"We eat light, drink it in through our skins."
James Turrell Signature
"My work has no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought."
James Turrell Signature
"I am not an "earthwork" artist. I am totally involved in the sky. Let me make this very clear: the main thing is that I am totally interested in space and not in form."
James Turrell Signature
"We appear and disappear."
Mary Corse
"I activate space."
Doug Wheeler
"The light is the object."
Helen Pashgian
"They're all about mysterious elements that relate to the perception of light. I'm interested in the depth and the light, objects floating in a space that is not defined."
Helen Pashgian
"You need light to see, you need space to work."
Larry Bell
"These artists may not hit pay dirt, but they are ready to risk embarkation on strange waters."
Art writer Jules Langsner

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