Capturing Light: The Ethereal, Atmospheric, and Sublime

…the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light.” Socrates, “Allegory of the Cave” – Plato

image: “View in the Apennines”, ca1794 by John Glover

Ephemeral and atmospheric, light shifts and continually changes. From the shadows one can see into the light, conversely, in the light, shadows take form.

Light and Space art interplays with the viewer’s perception as it, too, shifts, appearing as it reveals and changes. Engaging with the art requires movement and sharp visual attention, sometimes even multi-sensorial participation by looking at it from different angels and distances. Both, art and the viewing of it, are not static. The viewer looks from this side and that, from afar and up close, from the peripheral and with a direct gaze. These art works reflect and absorb light and shadows, and some take form in thin air, much like a rainbow. It can ignite our enchantment with wonder.

What classifies Light & Space art? How did the Light and Space Art Movement emerge?  Typically, it is associated with a group of Los Angeles-based artists whose work began ‘the movement’ in the turn of the decade between 1960s and 70s. Inspired by the coastal sunrises and sunsets of California, they also responded to and expanded on the work of New York minimalists. Their intent was to investigate and experiment with perception. Though nature was their muse, they used industrial materials such as glass, polyester resin, plastic, cast acrylic, neon, mirrors, metals, and materials used in aerospace. The alchemy of what they created coursed through—sculpture, installation, and performance, melding the aesthetics of minimalism, op art, and geometric abstraction.

Artists’ preoccupation with light and space in art, however, did not begin with this movement. For millenia, artists have tried to visualize and translate the ephemeral conditions of light and space in both painting and sculpture. Such artists in pursuit to create the experience of the sublime found in nature— Claude Monet, JMW Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, are but a few painters that come to mind; they conveyed atmosphere and luminosity exquisitely.

Image above: “Moonlit Landscape, before 1808” by Caspar David Friedrich

Image: “Haystacks, Midday”, 1890 by Claude Monet. In 1890/91 Monet painted multiple versions of the stacks of wheat. His interest was not in the subject, it was in the changing shadows and light throughout the day and between the seasons

Image: “Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis” by JMW Turner

That said, James Turrell, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Helen Pashgian, Doug Wheeler, Fred Eversley, Bruce Nauman, Mary Corse, Bruce Nauman, John McCracken, and Lita Aburquerque comprised the ‘group’ of artists who pioneered what became known as Light and Space art. It is no surprise that their work and experimentation arose at the same time as minimalism, since at the surface, they share a spare visual and sometimes austere visual language. There is a material inspiration for the California movement, whether from shore conditions and the gleaming silvery light on the ocean’s surface or the technological developments of their time: the aerodynamic and glossy forms and surfaces of surfboards and cars with their gleaming veneer on cars, as well to mention fabrication, technique and tool of the ‘space age.’ One artist described it as California vibe minimalism, which is definitely not minimalist.

Helen Pashgian characterized its uniqueness, “One must move around to observe changes, coming and going, appearing and receding, visible and invisible—a phenomena of constant movement.” This interaction, is more maximal than minimal. Pashgian held a reverence for light itself, as both the medium and subject in her art. Educated as an art historian with a focus on 17th century Dutch art, she held Johannes Vermeer in high esteem. His paintings ignited her fascination with their illusory effects and shifting perceptions of light, leading her towards her own experimentation, creating colorful spheres out of resin and epoxy. They resembled large glass marbles. She saw her spheres and lenses required specific lighting, and stillness, to allow for optimum optical evolution to transpire. Giving concentration, as in meditation, the resulting crystalline clarity reveals an array of colors and forms, drawing the viewer into a deeper subjectivity.

The three paintings above are by artist luminary Johannes Vermeer. From the left, “The Allegory of Painting” (1666-1668), “Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid” (1670-1671), “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” (1657-1659). The precision in which Vermeer captured light influenced Pashgian’s spheres as pictured below.

Image; Untitled, 2021

Like Pashgian, Robert Irwin could also be seen as inspired by Dutch art.  “Untitled (dawn to dusk), (2016)” is a permanent installation in an abandoned military hospital owned by the Chinati Foundation, in Marfa, Texas. His use of architecture and the tracking of the sun’s light and shadows as it filters through and within the space is a reminder to pause and notice the everyday occurrence of our existence in the passage of time.  Irwin described the surrounding West Texas land and sky as “Dutch Landscape-like.” To experience Irwin’s installation requires an always-changing natural light from the sun or the moon which frames and transforms and reveals it minute by minute.

I, in my travels to Denmark experienced the Dutch landscape that inspired Jacob van Ruisdael, Peter Paul Rubens, and Johannes Vermeer. In Copenhagen, I visited the Contemporary Kuntscenter to view the Light & Space exhibition. Here I revisited and reexperienced art from many of the artists mentioned as the Light and Space pioneers, along with contemporary artists who share and extended the attributes of their movement.

Icelandic-Danish artist, Olafur Eliasson inspired by Turner and Friedrich, is one such ‘newcomer.’ In a Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego interview with the artist published in Hyperallergic, Eliasson credited the, “Light and Space movement [as having]—of great importance to my development as a young artist— [and as] a far more than a valid art historical reference. “ He continued, “It translates matters of psychology, phenomenology, critically, emotional investment, and now-ness into immaterial language that is both subversive and compelling. Light and Space is as contemporary as ever.” His muse and materials are both drawn from nature; he uses water, ice, light, lichen, fog, and rocks to create his art. But in an unusual reversal and unlike the light in Irwin’s “Untitled (dawn to dusk),” Eliasson’s “The Weather Project (2003)” at the Tate Modern was created with artificial ‘sun’ light. Made from 200 mono-frequency lamps, reflected in a 400 square meter thin aluminum mirror, and softened by a mist of sugar and water. Eliasson’s light created an artificial experience of the warmth of the sun. Art participants flocked to the Tate to bask in the glow (and warmth) of “The Weather Project (2003)”, seeking the romantic, emotive sentiments of yellow-orange sunsets.

James Turrell’s impressive art installations induce similar awe and seductive allure. His “Breathing Light, (2013)” assumes an aspect of sensationalism, and like many of his art works, plays with disorientation and perception. “Breathing Light” requires the viewer/participant not to sit and view, but to walk in and immerse into a space (or room) in which any edges or corners have been softened or curved to disappear. As you walk into this piece, you are seemingly there and nowhere, floating in a changing tonality, a shifting pink light. Like a magician, Turrell creates optical illusions with light and color. Totally mesmerized, we want to be left in the dark, oblivious to his technical tricks and machinations.

Breathing Light

Image: Basking in the light and changing tonalities of a Turrell Skypace.

A more concrete approach to light and color exists in the work of Dan Flavin. He transforms space with multicolored fluorescent tubes, arranged in geometrical, sculptural formations, creating both an optical transformation as well as emotive. He began by calling such work icons, and later situations. He describes his work’s transparency: “It is what it is, it ain’t nothin’ else … Everything is clearly, openly, plainly delivered.” This may ring true for those who embrace the apparent minimalism and simplicity of his at face value, yet It is hard to deny its impactful, powerful energy in its experience.

Light and Space art metaphorically and symbolically explores our place as humans in an infinite universe. It ignites and enhances the human sensorial experience, disengaging the intellectual. Though it is historically categorized within the short span of this artistic movement and defined by geographic location and usage of materials it has both precedent and an enduring legacy. The mysteriousness origins of Stonehenge, and its dialogue with time, light, and space came long before. And, there is a continuation of this exploration with contemporary artists. We might come full circle with Olafur Eliasson’s Shadows travelling on the sea of the day his latest site specific installation in Doha that harkens to Stonehenge in the present. It, too transforms and translates the vastness of nature to be understood in the human scale.

Exploring our place as humans within the sphere of nature, and the larger cosmos, we turn to the work of Lita Albuquerque. Her stated ambition is to illuminate humanity’s connection to the infinite universe, to explore the human body and experience in relation to light, time, and space. Her “hEarth 2017” at Desert X, in California is a sound and sculpture installation (that also included a performance), for which she created a life-size ultramarine blue sculpture of a female figure (in fact, cast from the artist’s daughter). The figure lies on her side in the center of a circle of white marble dust with her ear to the ground, as though feeling the vibrational energy and listening to messages from the earth. hEARTH, a play on words, speaks to the art’s ability, through movement, sound, and sculpture to be a catalyst for active listening to our Earth, holding compassion for it, and sharing its story.

In the Bamboo Grove of the Japanese Garden in the Huntington Gardens, Albuquerque placed a three-ton boulder, resembling a mountain, capped with bright red pigment. “Red Earth, 2020” is hidden in, and encircled by, bamboo stalks affixed with copper bands to reflect the shimmering leaf-filtered sunlight. Albuquerque has said “2020 is the year of perfect vision. We are in a time of expanded perception where we are shifting from a perspective that is human to one of the human in the cosmos … Red Earth [represents] the earth –the heart even—of the planet in its stillness.”

Lita Albuquerque’s art, beholds a philosophical element found in all Space and Light art, that of light sparking openness and enabling growth through illumination, and as a symbol of an expanded perceptivity. It requires a pause in time, to reflect on the ‘emptiness’ in space, both present and absent, an interval between the beginning and the end, the space and time in which we experience the richness and purity in life. This energy and feeling resonates with the Japanese concept of Ma, the time and space life needs to breathe.

Site-specific installation at Copenhagen Contemporary Kuntscenter, Materia Prima (1979) and on the wall Solar Reset, 2021
by Lita Albuquerque

Alan Fletcher, one of Britian’s influential, post-war graphic artists, wrote, “Space is substance. Cezanne painted and modelled space. Giacometti sculpted by “taking the fat off space”. Mallarme conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses … Isaac Stern described music as “that little bit between each note—silences which give the form” … “  These notions have also existed in and through Space and Light for quite some time and in varying forms of expression.

In the era of social media, space and light art is highly hyped and has taken on a renewed appreciation, it has gone so far as to capture the attention of rap star Drake, who filmed his Hotline Bling video inspired by Turrell’s art installations. There is a reason this art is referred to as awe-inspiring.

But away from ‘hotness’ and ‘bling’ and the mania of the TikTok and Instagram media, can we pause to embrace the open principles of Space and Light art and to appreciate this as a metaphor to allow for stillness in our otherwise ‘busy’ lives for meditative concentration, attentive listening, and sensual seeing. To honor the awe in nature—the ultimate, everlasting, ever present muse.

We grow accustomed to the Dark

When Light is put away –

As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp

To witness her Goodbye –

A Moment – We uncertain step

For newness of the night –

Then – fit our Vision to the Dark –

And meet the Road – erect –

And so of larger – Darknesses –

Those Evenings of the Brain –

When not a Moon disclose a sign –

Or Star – come out – within –

The Bravest – grope a little –

And sometimes hit a Tree

Directly in the Forehead –

But as they learn to see –

Either the Darkness alters –

Or something in the sight

Adjusts itself to Midnight –

And Life steps almost straight.

Emily Dickinson

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