Waves of Light

From bulbs to neon and fluorescent tubing to LEDs and other electronic creations, artists are using light—as material and subject—to comment on everything from advertising to spirituality.

Flashlight: I’m not from here, I’m not from there, 2006, by Iván Navarro.


“One of the attractions of light is the immediate physical, optical quality—it’s going to be the thing that gets your attention,” says John Ravenal, a curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “Dan Flavin called it the ‘factuality of light.’ It’s bright, it’s commanding, and metaphorically it’s so rich. It’s just basic—there was darkness, and then there was light.”

Of course, the interplay of dark and light has been a theme running from Greek and Roman sculpture to Renaissance painting to experimental film. But as technology advanced from the glow of the electric lightbulb to the computer monitor, artists have been experimenting with actual light as material and subject. The 1960s saw a high point in activity, with artists such as Flavin, Bruce Nauman, and James Turrell creating sculptures and environments out of diffuse light or radiant fluorescent and neon tubing. Today, younger artists are looking beyond their forerunners and taking light in new directions.

Ravenal gathered together some of these emerging artists, including the team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Spencer Finch, Ceal Floyer, Iván Navarro, Nathaniel Rackowe, and Douglas Ross, in his show “Artificial Light,” which opened last fall at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Anderson Gallery in Richmond and traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. It was shown there at the same time as “Elusive Signs,” the first exhibition devoted to Nauman’s neon word and fluorescent light pieces of the 1960s through the ’80s. (The show, which originated at the Milwaukee Art Museum, is at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle through May 6.)

Bridging the generations is “Refract, Reflect, Project,” on view through April 1 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., for which associate curator Anne Ellegood chose 23 pieces of light art from the museum’s permanent collection. The assortment includes work by Flavin, Turrell, and Joseph Kosuth as well as recent acquisitions by Finch, Navarro, and Olafur Eliasson, one of the most prominent artists working with light. The Danish artist, who will have his first U.S. survey show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in September, has created immersive environments, including an installation at Tate Modern in London that sought to bring the spectacle of the sun to an interior space.

Finch’s first museum survey, “What Time Is It on the Sun?”, opens at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, on May 26. The artist often seeks to re-create the American sublime through abstraction and science. The rows of fluorescent lights in Sunset (South Texas, 6/21/03), 2003, give the same light reading on a colorimeter as the artist recorded that day.

The first big wave of light-art works in the 1920s and ’30s developed from kinetic sculptures by artists such as Thomas Wilfred and László Moholy-Nagy, whose Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1928–30) created a moving design of light and shadow on the walls (a replica was shown recently at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art). In 1919 Wilfred made the first of his organs that projected lights when played. Examples of his performances recorded in the 1960s are included in the Hirshhorn show “Summer of Love,” coming to the Whitney on May 24. “A lot of it was about the promise of new technology and the way that dovetails with modernism and the utopian thinking of the Bauhaus,” says Ravenal. Flavin, with his interest in fluorescent light as a product of mass production, extended this line of thought in hard-edged Minimal sculptures, adding an ironic twist with the long series of works titled “Monument for V. Tatlin.”

For other artists using light in the 1960s, technology was beside the point. Bonnie Clearwater, director of MOCA in North Miami and former director of the Mark Rothko Foundation, sees the influence of painters like Rothko on this type of work. “A good deal of the interest in light occurred after World War II, when the studies in phenomenology and Gestalt psychology were being popularized,” she says. “Rothko was aware of this. He was interested in creating a physical response of the body to light. Artists like Robert Irwin and Nauman and Turrell, who were in L.A. in the 1960s, picked up this aspect of Rothko’s work rather than the Abstract Expressionist gestures and started creating works in which the viewer becomes, in essence, the performer, and is being made to do things according to the space that these artists have created.”

In “Elusive Signs,” for instance, Nauman’s Helman Gallery Parallelogram (1971) saturates a room with green fluorescent light, spatially disorienting viewers and lending a pink cast to their visual field after they leave. Nauman’s neon pieces, while co-opting the seductive, eye-catching light of street advertising, deal with the same fundamental human emotions embedded in Rothko’s luminous color arrangements, but spell them out for the viewer in figures or words, such as his circle of script Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain (1983). Clearwater notes the influence of Nauman’s neon text works on such artists as Jack Pierson and Jason Rhoades. “Yes Bruce Nauman”—the show last year at Zwirner & Wirth in New York that looked at Nauman’s impact on artists today—included neon pieces by Peter Coffin, Glenn Ligon, and Rirkrit Tiravanija.

British artist Julian Opie, who also uses the conventions of advertising, creates rectilinear sculptures lit from within or coated with light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Eleven of his outdoor works—including a 16-foot-tall static figure of Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and a four-sided box with lights that turn on and off to illuminate a dancing woman—are on view in the Arts Council of Indianapolis’s “Signs” through September. “It’s using light to throw the image out into the public arena in the way that all advertising tends to do,” says Opie. “Moths fly towards light, and people’s eyes do as well. I admit that it is a bit of a cheap trick, but I like the irony of promoting something where there’s nothing really to promote.”

The spread of digital technology has dramatically expanded the way artists use and think about light. Erwin Redl, who started out making computer art, became frustrated. “Literally, I was sick of hitting my nose against the screen because I wanted to be in that abstract space,” says Redl. After seeing Fred Sandback’s yarn installations in 1997 at Dia in New York, Redl began stringing wires from the floor to the ceiling with countless LED lights that translated the screen’s pixels into a three-dimensional space. He created the widely acclaimed Matrix II, a cosmic grid of seemingly infinite green points of light hovering in darkness, for the 2005 “Ecstasy” show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which also included light-based works by Eliasson, Pierre Huyghe, and Ann Veronica Janssens.

Strongly influenced by the visceral quality of Turrell’s light environments, Redl intends for his work to be overwhelming. An elliptical curtain of 50,000 slowly fading red LEDs encircled viewers recently at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art. “It produced anxiety when you suddenly realized everything was slowly moving,” says Redl. “But once you we
nt over that threshold, it was a very enjoyable environment.”

Another artist who credits Turrell’s influence is Kira Lynn Harris, but her apparatus is decidedly low-tech. By bouncing track lighting off silver Mylar laid down in marginal architectural areas, such as a decrepit stairwell at New York’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, she creates mercurial reflections that call attention to forgotten spaces. “Light is completely transformative,” says Harris, who also looks to Rothko and the painters of the Hudson River School. “I don’t try to hide what I’m doing, but the result is still kind of magical. A lot of my interest in light came from being from Los Angeles, where the light is just everywhere. You have these huge expanses of sky.”

Harris is one of several artists, including Sanford Biggers and Nadine Robinson, who will be in “Black Light/White Noise,” a show of sound and light art by African American artists curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver and opening at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston on May 19.

Large installations by such leading artists as Eliasson, who shows at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York, and Opie, who is represented in the United States by the Barbara Krakow Gallery in Boston, are generally commissioned works that are carefully placed in public collections, but smaller pieces have come up at auction. Opie’s LCD animation Sara Walking in Bra, Pants and Boots (2003) sold for $32,400 at Phillips de Pury and Company in 2005. The prices for smaller works by established artists can vary widely. Rackowe’s installations of animated geometric forms made from electroluminescent wire currently at Galerie Almine Rech in Paris, range from $13,000 to $40,000, while Navarro’s winter 2006 show at Roebling Hall in New York had editioned sculptures priced from $10,000 to $35,000.

While the influence of the highly perceptual work of the 1960s and ’70s on artists today is one of Ravenal’s interests, his “Artificial Light” also explored the avenues that have opened since then. “These artists are taking it beyond just the power and beauty of light and are trying to bring it back into referencing the world in different ways,” he says. Allora and Calzadilla, for instance, borrowed a piece from Jenny Holzer for their Growth (Survival), created for the show. In a darkened room, Holzer’s aphorisms, broadcast on six vertical LED strips, provided the light needed to sustain a monstrous plant cobbled together from different species. Allora and Calzadilla took as a starting point NASA’s use of artificial light to grow plants in space and used Holzer’s texts as life support.

In another gallery, Rackowe built a long hallway in which a glaring bulb slid back and forth. Viewers could walk down the harshly lit hall or move around the room, which was awash in film-noirish beams of light passing through slits in the hall. “Much of my work is inspired by cities and moving about built spaces,” says Rackowe. “I’m using light as a means of filling a volume and scanning or mapping the space that contains the work. This beam travels up and down the viewers and seems to be reading them. You’re not sure whether there’s a threat or whether it’s more about contemplation.”

The element of threat also hovers around the work Navarro created for “Artificial Light.” The artist bent tubing filled with purple neon in the shape of two of Marcel Breuer’s sleek, modernist Wassily chairs and installed them in an entirely black room. The work conflated the trippy appeal of a teenager’s bedroom and the menace of electric chairs. In another installation, Die Again (Monument for Tony Smith), 2006, which he showed last year at the Whitney at Altria, Navarro built a huge black cube with lights and mirrors embedded in a floor that seemed to descend infinitely. “It was like standing on a bottomless pit,” says Shamim Momin, who organized the show. “It’s so beautiful and evocative, but at the same time it’s terrifying because you’re kind of in your tomb. You have that great thrill of the unknown.”

The Whitney has an installation, on view through May, by Terence Koh, who has used candlelight and neon chandeliers in performances and installations. In the current work Koh uses a brilliant 4,000-watt bulb that makes the perimeter of the room vanish in a void of white light. A dark lead sphere on the floor, barely visible, suggests the aftermath of a cosmic event. The artist intends the light to generate what he calls “romantic pain.”

Momin says she recently noticed the number of younger artists who cite Turrell and Flavin even if their work doesn’t appear to riff directly on them. They use fluorescent tubes for the psychological states their light can evoke. “Minimalism is one of the most readdressed movements right now, so it’s logical that the light element is being unpacked or reinvested with different types of meaning,” says Momin. “I hesitate to use the word ‘spirituality,’ because that makes it sound too religious. But I think using light now is linked to the desire for transformation. It’s a kind of sorcerer’s craft.”

Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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