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WTF Is… Light and Space?

Craig Kauffman, "Untitled" (1969), acrylic and lacquer on plastic, from "Primary Atmostpheres" at David Zwirner in 2009 (via .com/thefuturistics)

Earlier this week I posted a review of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s current show Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface. Reading this, you might have thought, “Cool! Perceptual deprivation! Now I’ll know what it was like doing LSD in the 1960s and 1970s without worrying about passing a drug test at work!” Which is all well and good. But you also might have wondered, beyond the entertainment factor, why should you care. What exactly is the Light and Space movement and why is it important?

I’m so glad you asked!

Light has a tradition in the history of California artwork. In the first half of the 20th century, the prevailing style was California Impressionism. These artists took the qualities and attention to light of the French Impressionists and transferred these sentiments to distinctly California landscapes.

As minimalism gained momentum as an art movement in the 1960s, some Southern Californian artists began to adopt these qualities of stripping down the object to it’s minimal components, but added in a uniquely Californian spin — the interaction of light and space. These artists reduce the art object to the ephemeral — the work no longer becomes about the object itself, but rather about perception. There is a keen attention to and interaction with the viewer in these works. The viewer becomes a participant in these works, as they need to be activated by the viewer’s perceptual gaze. These works were also very conscious of their surroundings and were often constructed for a site-specific installation.

The movement was officially introduced through a 1971 exhibition at the UCLA University Art Gallery titled Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space. This exhibition included work by Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, John McCracken and Craig Kauffman (all of whom are represented in the MCASD show). This group of artists was loosely affiliated (as noted on the MCASD’s website and emphasized by Clark) and had a range of disparate work under the umbrella of Light and Space.

Robin Clark, curator of the MCASD exhibition, clarified via email by explaining the numerous ways in which these artists worked:

  • Creating immersive environments (Robert Irwin, Maria Nordman, Eric Orr, James Turrell, Doug Wheeler);
  • Using light as a primary material intensely but briefly (Michael Asher);
  • Rooting work in performance (both their own performance and that of the visitors interacting with the work) (Bruce Nauman); and
  • Dealing with light over a long term through the use of materials such as glass (Larry Bell, Mary Corse) or plastics, including polyester resin, Plexiglas and Fiberglas (Peter Alexander, Ron Cooper, Craig Kauffman, John McCracken, Helen Pashgian, De Wain Valentine).

There are a number of different ways each of these artists arrived at working with light and space. For some it was an interest in the new technologies available courtesy of the Southern California-based engineering and aerospace industries, for others an interest in human perception and sensation. (For some insight into how these various artists arrived at their processes I will pass along Robin Clark’s recommendation of listening to the artist interviews available on the MCASD website — I think that listening for yourself will do more justice than my transcribing here).

These artists continue to influence artists today. Clark highlighted a number of younger generation artists including Tara Donovan, Kimsooja, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Spencer Finch and, most famously, Olafur Eliasson. Eliasson, commenting on the exhibition and catalogue says:

The Light and Space movement — of great importance to my development as a young artist — is far more than a valid art historical reference. It translate matters of psychology, phenomenology, critically, emotional investment, and now-ness into an immaterial language that is both subversive and compelling. Light and Space is as contemporary as ever.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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