It turns out that light-and-space, the mostly made-in-California art of the post-abstract expressionism era, was misnamed. A survey of the work, on view now at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and titled “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface,” suggests that the movement should probably be known as ‘light-space-and-effect’ or ‘light-space-and-perception.’
The show, which reveals the depth and wow-factor of the ocular confusion created by artists out of light, space, often a range of plastics and sometimes a few other materials too, is a thrilling triumph. The show so striking that it’s hard to believe that in the 40-plus years since light-and-space emerged that no museum has previously surveyed the period. “Phenomenal” establishes that light-and-space isn’t a quirky side-alley of minimalism or anything else. It’s one of the 20th-century’s most important independent art movements.
However, “Phenomenal” also leaves plenty of curatorial and art historical work to be done: It doesn’t aspire to chronicle the complete arc of light-and-space, instead “Phenomenal” is a greatest hits-style survey. Given the amount of square-footage required by many light-and-space works, this was probably MCASD’s best option. Questions about how light-and-space emerged and then developed are left to two books: The excellent exhibition catalogue and “Pacific Standard Time,” a Getty publication that details the story of art in Los Angeles between 1945 and 1980. (And, hopefully, to future exhibitions.)
The scholars who contributed to each volume tend to agree that light-and-space had its origins in painting, particularly in experiments begun in the late 1950s by Larry Bell, Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler, each of whom would abandon canvas to become light-and-spacers. (In her catalogue essay, exhibition co-curator Robin Clark notes that many of these early works have since been destroyed. Separately, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight has convincingly referenced the paintings of John McLaughlin as a key precedent.) The research Clark, Dawna Schuld, Stephanie Hanor and Michael Auping contribute to the catalogue highlights painting, 1950s architecture and craft as important to the development of light-and-space, effectively serving as a rejoinder to historians and critics who have presented it as a response to New York minimalism.
But really, that light-and-space art has origins substantially independent of New York minimalism shouldn’t be a surprise: The two ‘movements’ have little in common. At the heart of minimalism was a rigorous and intense belief in the object: Donald Judd was fascinated by seriality, classical mathematics and machined perfection. Carl Andre’s subject was the re-contextualization of sculpture, which necessitated dealing with — and even standing on — an object. Anne Truitt insisted that her sculptures be placed directly on the gallery floor, so a viewer could experience the object in relationship to the body. In nearly every gallery of “Phenomenal” it’s clear that objecthood is less important than — and often eliminated in favor of — perception-challenging effect.
The widespread (but hardly unanimous) light-and-space preference for phenomenon over objecthood is ultimately ironic considering the amount of space the exhibition takes up, and indeed requires. MCASD has installed “Phenomenal” in all three of its venues: Two sites in downtown San Diego and one in suburban La Jolla, a 20-minute drive north. The three sites could not be more different: Downtown, MCASD occupies a former train station baggage depot and the bottom couple floors of an office building. In La Jolla its home is a 1916 Irving Gill-designed residence that was re-designed by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates in 1996. No matter: Despite enormous differences in venues, each presentation is thoughtful and as detail-oriented as installations of light-and-space art require. (More on this in a minute.)
For example, the Irwins and Craig Kauffmans installed at the museum’s non-train-station downtown location are installed without artificial light. Typically museums install Irwin discs spotlit from below and with resulting shadows projected on a wall behind them. The absence of artificial light leaves Irwin’s disc — and an Irwin painting installed nearby — hovering in the milky evanescence. This installation is more than aesthetic fetishness, it’s a specific argument about the development of light-and-space, about how one of the key achievements of the movement was the dematerialization of the object, a preference for experience or phenomenon over objecthood. Irwin’s unlighted disc seems to nearly vanish, underscoring the artist’s own journey from a painter to a maker of environments in which the object dissolves.
The rest of the exhibition seems to proceed from this installation of Irwin’s untitled 1969 disc: Kauffman’s plastic constructions, both hanging from above and wall-mounted, shimmer in the natural light. (In a conventionally lit gallery they tend to reflect direct light, which lessens their impact.) An Irwin scrim piece, which extends for at least a dozen yards across one gallery, seems to hide in plain sight. When I realized it was there, I felt as if it had, well, snuck up on me, a phenomenal special effect.
Across the street at the former Santa Fe depot baggage building, an untitled, mirrored Bell sculpture from ca. 1970 left me unsure if I was looking at it or through it, to whatever lay beyond. Only when I saw myself reflected in the parts of the surface that were mirrored was my brain able to resolve the riddle. DW 68 VEN MCASD 11 (1968/2011), a giant Wheeler environment in a warehouse-sized room, is sumptuously installed. I felt like I was walking into a giant, white Mark Rothko painting, or like I was approaching some kind of northern heaven. Like the Bell, the Wheeler and many other works in “Phenomenal,” James Turrell’s Stuck Red (1970) and Stuck Blue (1970) tweaks the modernist obsession with flatness and depth or perspective by creating immersive installations in which the viewer doesn’t see the tension between flatness and perspective, but rather experiences it. Throughout the exhibition I kept feeling my eyes zoom in on an object and zoom back out, trying to settle on or solve what was in front of me.
At MCASD’s La Jolla venue, a fuller range of these effects are on display. Bruce Nauman’s Green Light Corridor (1970), a 40-foot-long, foot-wide corridor lit with fluorescent green requires a viewer to shimmy through it in order to realize its wow: When a visitor emerges from the piece, the cones in his eyes are so scarred that the world looks magenta. (Knight discussed the piece on The Modern Art Notes Podcast here.) May 5, 1971 (1971), an installation of six cast polyester resin bars by Peter Alexander, seems to hover off the wall on which its installed, to vibrate in place, confusing my eyes and brain with optical effect in a manner reminiscent of the Turrells downtown. De Wain Valentine’s Diamond Column (1978) seems traditionally totemic, but it’s visually slippery and seems to change depending on from where it is viewed.
Part of the reason these works shine is the sensitive, intelligent installation organized by Clark and her co-curator, MCASD director Hugh Davies. Light-and-space art relies upon how it is placed in galleries and lit (or not) in order to produce the effects desired by the artists. If Clark and Davies missed on a single installation, I couldn’t find it. I suspect that one reason the exhibition looks so good is that many of the works are from MCASD’s own best-in-the-world collection of light-and-space art. The museum has installed many of these pieces before, has worked with these artists before and has acquired significant institutional knowledge about how to do it.
“Phenomenal” doesn’t have a specific ‘final gallery,’ but the space in which Irwin’s masterpiece 1° 2° 3° 4° (1997) comes closest. The piece is a site specific installation Irwin created for an MCASD La Jolla room that looks over the beach, some palm trees and the Pacific Ocean. It consists of an empty gallery and apertures cut into the corners of the three huge windows that create the space. The cut-outs, two of which are placed in the corners of the gallery and one of which is in the middle of the center window, radically change the viewer’s sense of space, depth and place. I’ve seen the work before and I returned to it half a dozen times during my visit to the exhibition. Each time my brain realized what my eyes were looking at, how Irwin had changed the space inside and out and melded them into one, my stomach fell to the floor as if I was on a roller-coaster. Light-and-space-and-effect indeed.