THE LIGHT AND SPACE MOVEMENT
It is no coincidence that international race to understanding outer space would lead to developments and questions outside in fields outside of just science. After the 1960s, America took a major leap forward to understanding science on a much larger basis, and one of the many explorations of the development landed in understanding the relationship between art and science. Its components included a wide variety of artists, techniques, materials, and technological developments. All of these complemented a particular movement known as the Light and Space Movement during the 1960s and 70s on the West Coast and particularly in Southern California. At the time, artists began to shift to using radically new materials with emphasis no longer on art in the object, but taking a stance much further than its Minimalist predecessor. The movement sought to dematerialize the art object, and focus less on ideas and more on sensory perceptions. Museum director Hugh Davies recalls, “The work became ambient and was about environmental experience instead of focusing on an object.”[i]
The name became a huge label for the West Coast, and perceptions about the environment were enlightened. Influenced by John McLaughlin, the movement spurred a change in how artists were representing geometric objects and using light. The movement of light became easily manipulative and much more complex. Sascha Crasnow as stated that historically, “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.”[ii] This would prove that California would then be expected to produce such monumental progress in scientific and artistic history.
Southern California engineering and aerospace industries experienced a technological boom and allowed a number of artists to create works where light could affect the environment and perception of the viewer. A major exhibition at UCLA provided the opportunity for a show entitled ‘Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space” in 1971 to host artists Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, John McCraken, and Craig Kauffman, who became some of the forerunners to the movement. They investigated the phenomena of sensory deprivation. With light, they could play with an experience beyond the tangible environment that allows the viewer to become aware of the play of light, an experience fully cognizant of all its senses.
Material-wise, many artists embed artificial light and used transparent or translucent materials. Director Davies states, “Here it was more handmade, with techniques borrowed from car culture or surfboard manufacturing or aerospace engineering. It was about translucence and transparence and this fabulous optical play that [Donald] Judd didn't get into until much later, when he started using Plexiglas.”[iii] This showed a huge difference in coast-to-coast ideals, because the Los Angeles aesthetic would have been described as “truth equals beauty” as distinguished from the “truth to materials” swagger dominating in New York. The N.Y. aesthetic took to impermeable industrial materials and toned down on the shadows and reflections in favor of the concreteness of the specific object. I would describe it as much more “in-your-face” and less tranquil. It’s as if the materials not only influence how sleek and the work was but they make us keenly aware that what you do affects what you see, and what you see affects what you do. They were technical geniuses and formal masters all with the powers of Shamans who indeed have the “uncanny ability to make the immaterial material and the material immaterial.”[iv] They push and challenge us to ask us what is ordinary reality when ambiguous forms seem to continually morph at every slight movement. The materials allow color to diffuse into space, entering a space incomprehensible to the viewer. They ask us to reconsider the space that we exist in and force us to realize the multidimensional aspects that exist between science and art and how science provided materials and technology and art helps us understand various perceptions that exist outside of human space.
After acknowledging the material aspects of a movement that helped the West Coast art scene to bridge the gap between art and science, it is important to salute the artists that functioned as visual scientists, from the studio to the lab. Artists like Robert Irvin and DeWaine Valentine were just a few of the artists that set the bar for California arts. They developed materials and gained a greater understanding of how they could bring light greater perceptions. Valentine in his early experiences polishing rocks and painting cars led to his deep interest in reflective surfaces, translucence, and industrial processes. He took notice of similar artists early in his career through an Artforum magazine, and shortly after moved to Los Angeles in 1965, with his first solo show happening 3 years later.[v]
It’s important to detail Irwin more specifically that any other artist of the movement because much of the hands-on influence on the Light and Space movement revolved around him. Robert Irwin was MacArthur Genius Grant winner, and renowned among his peers in the 1960s because of his capabilities in both art and literary writing. He was the most influential artist of the movement because he redefined perception in relation to art as well as the role of the vocal role of the artist. Irwin had developed a literary career that paralleled his artistic endeavors because many west coast artists of the time refused the idea and act of communication and dialogue about their works. It was a forsaken practice that seemed unclear to Irwin, and who’s writings could be compared to other artists of the time, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Robert Smithson. These men were prolific in the explorations and findings about the identity and purposes of contemporary art. It seems as though west coast artists would be more concerned in the beauty of their works, but their vocal expression about the work was just as fleeting as any trace of an artist’s hand in the work. The idea was that the work took on a purely industrial identity, but it seems as if the artists functioned just like the machines that helped create the work - all production with little feedback or commentary. Irwin’s willingness to vocalize his thoughts and friendship with Donald Judd allowed him to push the idea that the artist would no longer remain mute and become involved in the discussion with critics and curators determining the conceptual context that the work was placed in. This further developed his idea about perception in relation to art.[vi]
Irwin’s writing allowed his to present a foundation to communication in art. Communication was based on two modes of knowing, both dealing with the experience and relativity to signals. The first mode was based on a lived or personified experience. It describes an “intuitive embrace of a complex, perceptual horizon”. The second mode, based on familiarity with abstract signs as well as its use and purpose, was to allow communicability with associated loss of perceptual complexity. Art require an articulate, effective mode of communication, it also requires extensive reflection and decisive mediation on what information is most relevant. Writing must reflect what one is trying to communicate, what vehicle would best transfer the idea from artist to audience, and who exactly the audience is and in what context can the information be situated. Irwin was phenomenal in executing this formula and providing the reader, viewer, or any audience with sight into his thinking and range of issues that relate to his art.[vii]
In his letters to the editor in Artforum June 1965, Irwin declared that non-objective art needed the artist to have personal and sensual involvement in its process. Irwin spoke against photographic reproductions that were detailed in the issue and stated “reproductions are false substitutes as they can only satisfy the demands on ‘mass communication’…” Irwin was obviously more engaged in and more involved in the process of the work as well as a final and authentic end result, nothing more. By observing his work, Irwin’s work needed only to be singular and every piece posses its own identity in the space provided. A few of his works represent this idea, and these exploits opened the opportunity for Irwin to be selected as one of the primary artists to become in the LACMA’s Art and Technology program in 1967. The program’s purpose was to partner contemporary artists of the time with some of the leading and innovative technological and industrial corporations in California. This was during a time of expansion in scientific and industrial knowledge; many other artists were also selected for the program. Irwin concluded that the project would be started with the idea that art is not about the object, its emphasis lies in the experience, and this experience would be dictated and situated by the artist. The artist’s main medium is ultimately perception. Art could then be described as something created by a sentient being that causes a perceptual shift that could very possibly transcend conventional ideology.
Andrew Russeth of Gallerist NY described Irwin’s work as “paintings with only lines, then only dots, then simply discs that hover in space, their edges indistinguishable from the wall. He banished painterly marks, then the frame, then the painting itself. (“I painted myself right out of it,” he told me.) By the 1970s, he was producing installations composed only of light and subtle alterations to spaces.” Irwin is aware of nature and the nature of things, and at Pace gallery during an interview with Russeth, Irwin stated that his work was about sensibility, which he felt was applicable to everything, but also more importantly, the face that “seeing” is such an important factor when confronting any work. He’s presented aesthetic inquiries, all within the realm of painting, installation, and landscape projects.[viii]
It’s fascinating that movements in art happen in the same linear fashion as scientific exploration. The West Coast would then become the bridge between art and science. It seemed that the responsibility fell into the realm of the Light and Space Movement, and its artists managed to manipulate the brilliance of light to inform the viewers of the intangible realm of light and space.
[i] Finkel, Jori. 2011. “Shining a Light on Light and Space Art”, September 18, sec. Entertainment. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/sep/18/entertainment/la-ca-pst-hugh-davies-and-doug-wheeler-20110918/2.
[ii] Sascha, Crasnow. 2011. “WTF Is...Light and Space?” Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & Its Discontents. October 21. http://hyperallergic.com/38827/wtf-is%E2%80%A6-light-and-space/.
[iii] Finkel, Jori. 2011. “Shining a Light on Light and Space Art”, September 18, sec. Entertainment. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/sep/18/entertainment/la-ca-pst-hugh-davies-and-doug-wheeler-20110918/2.
[iv] Baron, Joan B., and Reuben M. Baron. 2011. “No Choice But To Trust The Senses: California Light and Space Revisted.” Artcritical. October 28. http://www.artcritical.com/2011/10/28/light-and-space-southern-california/.
[v] The Getty Center. 2013. “De Wain Valentine - Pacific Standard Time at the Getty.” Pacific Standard Time at the Getty. Accessed March 11. http://www.getty.edu/pacificstandardtime/explore-the-era/people/de-wain-valentine/.
[vi] Irwin, Robert, and Matthew Thomas. 2011. Notes Toward a Conditional Art. 1st ed. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.
[vii] Irwin, Robert, and Matthew Thomas. 2011. Notes Toward a Conditional Art. 1st ed. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.
[viii] Russeth, Andrew. 2012. “Blink and You’ll Miss It: Robert Irwin Brings His Mind-Bending Art to New York.” GalleristNY. September 11. http://galleristny.com/2012/09/blink-and-youll-miss-it-robert-irwin-brings-his-mind-bending-art-to-new-york/.