John McCracken, “Blue Block in Three Parts” (1966), (Photo by Philipp S. Ritterman, MCASD)

SAN DIEGO — One of the most anticipated shows of Pacific Standard Time — the Getty’s epic initiative to “celebrate the birth of the LA art scene” and demonstrate that art history has also been made outside of New York — is the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface. Spanning both the La Jolla and Downtown locations, Phenomenal seeks to investigate the artists working in the 1960s and 1970s who turned to light instead of form and addressed notions of perception. For artists playing with natural light, Southern California was the perfect place to work.

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (via

The Downtown space is installed sparsely, allowing the works room to breathe, to be walked around, to be immersed in. Natural light dominates — the only other light emanating from the works installed. When entering the Jacobs building, you step down into the lobby towards the first of Larry Bell’s sculptures. This large gray glass sculpture is placed in front of a wall-sized window, which allows the light to pour through it, playing with your reflection as you circumnavigate it. Your image appears, disappears and fades in and out of view as you pass.

The Jacobs building contains two other pieces, which complement each other in their contrast. The first is “Stuck Red and Stuck Blue” by James Turrell. My experience of Turrell’s work is probably the closest I will ever get to a religious experience. His work overwhelms and immerses you; it can be incredibly meditative, especially if you’re able to spend some time with it alone. “Stuck Red and Stuck Blue” features two glowing obelisk cutouts of the named colored lights on adjacent walls. They appear like the stained glass panels of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, their immense glow reveals something beyond mere surface, like a glimpse into another dimension. When one gets close to the Turrell pieces, a space beyond the surface of color is revealed — another dimension wherein the color lives (Turrell, along with John McCracken make the case for the inclusion of color into the perceptual tropes being dealt with, along with light, space and surface). On the other side of the wall is “DW 68 VEN MCASD 11” by Douglas Wheeler. Instead of enveloping you like the Turrell, the Wheeler blasts out at you — the visual equivalent of the THX/Dolby Sound System ads that used to run before movies. There is sterility to the room making it an eerie experience that provides a lovely counterpoint to the Turrell. I only wish that it had been further separated from the commotion of the incoming patrons and staff in the lobby, as the light and noise seeping in distracted from the experience. It is actually true for all these works — with the exception of the Orr piece perhaps — that they are best viewed with as little company as possible (depending on how silent your company can be).

Douglas Wheeler, “Untitled” (1965) (Photo by Philipp Scholz Rittermann, MCASD) (click to enlarge)

Across the street at 1001 Kettner, there is another Turrell. This work again demonstrates the need for silence as I had two women sitting next to me chatting away about their experiences with the work (and they say livestream oversharing is just a fixation of the Twitter-obsessed youth). However, eventually the Turrell got the better of them and “Wedgework” took over. This is one of two works in the exhibition into which you need to be guided through a light lock and have to spend a number of minutes waiting for your eyes to fully adjust. In “Wedgework,” your adjusting vision leads to changes in perceptions of space and color of a wedge within the space beyond. A description couldn’t possibly do it justice, but sitting and watching as your eyes do their thing is — quite aptly — phenomenal.

James Turrell, “Stuck Red and Stuck Blue” (1970) (Photo by Philipp S. Rittermann, MCASD)

Upstairs the exhibition takes one of its very few wrong turns. There are a number of sculptures by Craig Kauffman, which not only don’t really seem to fit with the thesis of the rest of the exhibition, but are also jarring in proximity to the pleasing aesthetic of the rest of the works in the show. Two sculptures mounted on the wall look like large pills, the colors recalling unpleasant medications like Pepto-Bismol. The natural light (still the only light source) didn’t have as much access in these galleries, which hurt the works installed here as well. The two stars of this floor are works by Robert Irwin. His “Untitled” sculpture from 1969 plays with shape and light (a skylight right above the work illuminates it perfectly. The slightly convex sculpture appears at times to be a complete orb, and at others distinct pieces. Irwin’s ability to manipulate the viewer’s perception is masterful. So much so, that I would have overlooked his standout piece of the exhibition were it not for a very friendly and knowledgeable gallery guard (I found the guards to be this way at all three buildings — props to MCASD and its staff for this). At first glance, “Square the Room,” appears to just be a white wall. However, it is in fact a white scrim dividing the space like a wall. Looking closely, one starts to see white lines highlighting lines along the floor beyond the scrim. As with Turrell, it is like discovering a whole hidden world – like Alice through the Looking Glass. This world only reveals itself at certain times, as the guard pointed out — after 2pm the natural light no longer reveals the room beyond.

Over at La Jolla, things aren’t quite as nicely set out. The installation is cluttered and the natural light is for the most part denied in favor of gallery lighting. Opportunities for exploitation of natural light abound, but, with one beautifully executed exception, are missed.

The exception is three works that both complement each other perceptually and also utilize the space they are in to enhance the perceptual experience. “Green Light Corridor” by Bruce Nauman is exactly that — a narrow corridor through which you walk, forcing you to stare the entire time at the white wall, made green by the lights overhead. When you spill out the other end, your eyes, having adjusted to the green, reveal to you that the panoramic of the beach outside has now turned magenta – Nauman has given you your very own rose-colored glasses. Your experience is enhanced by the fact that you can hear the ocean quite clearly, and feel the breeze, and smell the ocean. This is courtesy of Irwin’s “1º2º3º4º,” apertures cut out of the windows in the space.

Helen Pashgian, Untitled, 1968-69, cast polyester resin (via

After this onslaught of sensory information, turn back and into Eric Orr’s “Zero Mass” for a complete deprivation of your senses. Again, you are guided into this room with instructions to keep one hand along the wall as you enter. The room appears to be completely pitch black, and quite distressingly, you are told that there are other people in there, and that they can see you clearly! After a number of minutes, things start to come into focus — you can see silhouettes, and then greater detail, until you can walk yourself out of the room quite easily. Upon exiting, turn back towards the space and see, now that your eyes have adjusted, how much light was actually in the room. These three works constitute a full sensory workout.

The strongest works in Phenomenal are at the Downtown space, but the La Jolla site is worth going to just for the Nauman/Irwin/Orr corner. Since the purchase of a ticket at one location allows you to reuse it at the other within seven days, why not get two days of perceptual illusion and meditation — and try to achieve some of that California Zen you’re always hearing about.

Phenomenal: Light, Space, Surface is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego through January 22, 2012.

Sascha Crasnow is a San Diego-based writer and curator. She received her MA in art history from Hunter College in New York in 2009. She is currently pursuing her PhD in art history, theory and criticism...