No Choice But To Trust The Senses: California Light and Space Revisited
Report from… Southern California
If ever there was a moment to reassess the 1960s Light and Space artists of Los Angeles, that moment is now. At the Museum of Modern Art, New York, a recently reinstalled permanent gallery places three works from L.A. Light and Space art in critical dialogue with four works of New York Minimalism, which also had it defining years in the middle 1960s. Simultaneously, a representative sampling of the Light and Space movement is presently on view at more than a dozen museums and gallery exhibits throughout Southern California participating in the Getty Foundation’s omnibus initiative Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980. The pivotal survey, Phenomenal California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego through January 22, seen together with more focused shows at the other venues, listed at the end of this dispatch, allows us to grasp the fundamental characteristics of the Light and Space tradition that differentiates it from the Minimalism that was being practiced in New York by the likes of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Frank Stella et al.
At a meta-level, the L.A. aesthetic may be characterized as “truth equals beauty” as distinguished from the “truth to materials” aesthetic prevailing in N.Y. The N.Y. aesthetic embraced impermeable industrial materials and downplayed shadows and reflections in favor of the concreteness and stability of the specific object. In contrast, L.A. artists, especially the Finish Fetish group, rejected concreteness and turned instead to newly available translucent and transparent materials—polyester resin, Plexiglas, fiberglass, coated glass, and plastics of all kinds. These materials reflected, refracted, and filtered light, thus opening up new options for sculpture. They were particularly well suited to capturing and transforming the ephemeral luminosity of the ocean and the smog-besmirched sky, as well as the high gloss brilliance of surfboards and autos that were primary everyday experiences for these artists. In this context, the L.A. artists turned Stella’s reductive, “what you see is what you see” inside out by appending a question mark.
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. The properties of an effective resin piece don’t belong to the work alone. Their color, shape, and surface effects are contingent on the spatial/temporal positions of observers as they move across, walk around, or enter the piece. The spheres of Helen Pashgian and some of the boxes of Larry Bell change dramatically depending on the trajectory of the observer’s movements. Certain works also depend upon the presence or absence of other people to bring out their complexity. This occurs with Robert Irwin’s acrylic column and Bell’s five large coated glass panels, both installed strategically in busy and visually noisy locations on the Museum’s first floor. These are socially contingent works that reach their potential when the movements of other people are reflected and refracted.
Light and Space artists play the role of Shamans. They have the uncanny ability to make the immaterial material and the material immaterial. They take liquid resin and make of it solid forms (Peter Alexander, Pashgian, and De Wain Valentine) or use light (James Turrell) or scrim (Irwin) to create the illusion of solid forms. In doing so, strange things happen. The observer is forced to confront objects and spaces that have hallucinatory properties not unlike the drooping watches in Dali’s Persistence of Memory (1931). 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. We feel compelled to walk up to and look behind a “floating” Irwin disc to see if it is attached to the wall or we stop short and gaze intently as soon as we detect an Irwin scrim that resizes a room by appearing to be a wall. We feel compelled to check out whether the top portion of a tall Alexander Wedge is really still there when the bottom is deep orange and the color gradually fades to clear near the top; to walk around Valentine’s Diamond Column to see how it is possible for people passing behind it to first appear, then disappear, and then return as three simultaneous images facing in different directions; to walk up to Irwin’s dot painting and Pashgian’s white disc to explore how they are able to hover and pulsate; to walk right up to the front of a Mary Corse painting with reflective glass microspheres after walking across it and seeing how it changes dramatically from matte to shiny and from totally uniform to containing grids or columns. And we feel compelled to approach the wall works of Pashgian, Corse, Ron Cooper and Doug Wheeler, to see if there are lights embedded within them. In all of these explorations, labeling is futile. We have no choice but to trust our senses.
Several Light and Space artists are particularly good at making color diffuse into space. Wheeler’s 35 foot-square room installation with one wall completely outlined in white neon UV lights suffuses the entire space in an ethereal atmosphere of blue air. Other effects are achieved by introducing a temporal dimension to heighten color intensity. Turrell’s installation (Wedgework V, 1975) requires several minutes of adjustment time in an initially pitch black space before a red wall begins to appear and then intensifies to a fiery glow. Bruce Nauman’s narrow tunnel with two parallel walls one foot apart and forty feet long lit with green lights seduces us to inch slowly through it sideways. When we exit this disorienting light tunnel into a wider space, everything appears purple for several seconds— the people, the walls, and the Pacific Ocean seen through an immense glass window.
The other museums and galleries showing Light and Space work (listed below) give us an appreciation of the career trajectories and new options being opened by several of the artists already mentioned (e.g., Alexander, Irwin, Pashgian, Valentine). In particular, their new work, by utilizing the wall, reinvigorates a dialogue between painting and sculpture, begun earlier by John McCracken and Craig Kauffman. These shows also introduce us to established but less well known artists like Tom Eatherton at Pomona College who has created an intensely blue space that creates the illusion that you are walking into the middle of a room-size painting. And, thanks to storefront spaces like Ice Gallery, we can see emerging artists like Michael James Armstrong who is advancing the use of scrims in new and exciting directions.
After seeing these works in many different settings, we were left with three concluding observations. First, the Light and Space artists were determined to make us reexamine how we perceive the world—what is illusory and what is real. Second, these artists shamelessly court beauty, an aesthetic questioned by postmodern art but openly embraced in the design aesthetic of Steve Jobs and in the reflective surfaces of Frank Gehry’s signature architecture—two iconic Californians who may be seen as heirs to the Light and Space culture. Third, the relationship between Minimalism and the Light and Space tradition is a complex one, as can be seen, in the MOMA reinstallation, in the atmospheric effects of Dan Flavin’s light sculpture and the exquisite use of colored Plexiglas by Donald Judd. The fruitfulness of this exchange calls out for further study. The next step? We suggest a comprehensive exhibition combining Light and Space and East Coast Minimalism that would be seen on both coasts. Such an exhibition would enable us to appreciate more fully the unique and shared strategies that animate those aspects of Minimalism that dare to flirt with beauty.
Los Angeles Light and Space Works on View in Southern California, Fall, 2011
Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
September 25, 2011 to January 22, 2012
700 Prospect Street, La Jolla, CA and 1100 & 1101 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego, CA, between Broadway and B Street. (858) 454-3541 (Catalogue available)
Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970 at Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, L.A. October 1, 2011 to February 5, 2012. Light and Space art is a subset of the exhibition. (Catalogue)
From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine’s Grey Column at Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, L.A. September 13, 2011 to March 11, 2012. (Catalogue)
California Art: Selections from the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation at Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. August 27 to December 2, 2011. Light and Space art is a subset of the exhibition. (Catalogue)
It Happened at Pomona at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969—1973; Part I Hal Glicksman at Pomona, Pomona College Museum of Art, 333 N. College Way, Claremont. August 30 to November 6, 2011. (Catalogue)
James Turrell’s Dividing the Light (2007) at Draper Courtyard of the Lincoln & Edmonds Buildings, corner of 6th Street and College Way, Pomona College, Claremont. Permanent.
Mary Corse Recent Paintings at Ace Gallery, 9430 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills. Through October, 2011.
Robert Irwin Column (1970) at Ace Gallery, 9430 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills. Through October 18, 2011.
Helen Pashgian Columns and Walls at Ace Gallery, 9430 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills. Through November, 2011.
De Wain Valentine Early Resins 1968-1972 and New Work at Ace Gallery, 9430 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills. Through November, 2011.
James Turrell Present Tense at Kayne, Griffen, Corcoran, 2902 Nebraska Ave., Santa Monica. September 15 to December 17, 2011.
Larry Bell Early Work at Frank Lloyd Gallery, 2525 Michigan Avenue, B5B, Santa Monica. October 22 to November 26, 2011.
Fred Eversley: Four Decades—1970-2010 at William Turner Gallery, 2525 Michigan Avenue, E1, Santa Monica. September 24 to October 30, 2011.
Robert Irwin Way Out West at L & M Gallery, 660 Venice Boulevard, Venice. September 17 to October 22, 2011.
Peter Alexander, Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, New Out West at Quint Gallery, 7547 Girard Ave., La Jolla. September 23 to November 12, 2011.
Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman, De Wain Valentine, Eric Johnson: Shift. Space. Slick at Scott White Contemporary Art, 939 W. Kalmia, San Diego. September 9 to October 8, 2011.
Michael James Armstrong: A Study in Transparency at Ice Gallery, 3417 30th Street, San Diego. September 18 to October 9, 2011.