Artworks and Artists of Light and Space

Progression of Art


Artist: Robert Irwin

Irwin's Untitled installation takes over an entire wall. It is an elusive work consisting of a singular painted concave aluminum disc, five feet in diameter, placed twenty inches out from the back wall and lit from multiple sources of light. Despite the mundane list of materials, the disc appears to nearly dematerialize and hover in space. The edge of the disc is hard to define visually as it forms fluidly out of the interplay of light and shadow, and the defined edges of the concrete object disappear. This photograph captures a single ephemeral moment in a continual interaction of light and space, and, aware of this, in the 1970s Irwin refused to allow any of his works to be photographed because he felt that the experience of his work could not be captured in the medium. As art historian and curator Evelyn Hankins noted, his works "because of their extremely subtle nature, demand in-person viewing," and that "Irwin's art becomes fully present only when you are standing in the physical space, experiencing it over a period of time."

Although fixed in space, the sculptural object appears ephemeral. The experience is not just about the illusion, but the participation of the viewer and an awareness of their own perception, which part is object and which part effect, while trying to 'fix' the shape within visual focus. As art historian Kirsi Peltomäki notes, Irwin's work "from 1962 onward explored deploying minimal visual means to activate the viewers' perceptual process and redirect their attention self-reflectively to their own processes of seeing."

Acrylic paint on shaped aluminum - Hirshhorn and Museum Collection, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC


The Absolutely Naked Fragrance

Artist: John McCracken

The transformation of a simple piece of plywood into an aesthetic object represents a trademark series of Los Angeles artist John McCracken. Treated with fiberglass and resin, the resulting finish is a highly reflective and glossy surface with a sensuous visual appeal, while the diagonal created by the leaning rectangular form creates a spatial interaction between the floor and wall. In 1966, influenced by the color field work of Barnett Newman, the artist began making what he termed his "planks," as if the "zips" of Newman's monumental works emerged from the painted surface into the space of the viewer. As the artist said, "I see the plank as existing between two worlds, the floor representing the physical world of standing objects, trees, cars, buildings, human bodies, and everything, and the wall representing the world of the imagination, illusionistic painting space, human mental space, and all that."

While the meticulous surface and illusory reflections therein bear striking resemblance to the works associated with the Light and Space artists, these "planks" represent the essence of the closely related Finish/Fetish movement, which also began in the 1960s beach culture of Southern California. The luscious candy-wrapper colors of McCracken's monochromatic planks were inspired by Southern California's car culture, evoking the cars that he saw as "mobile color chips." The work plays upon the viewer's shifting perception, as the sculptor's hand-finished surfaces evoke painterly notions, and as art critic Roberta Smith wrote, "the leaning pieces were so casual as to seem like jokes, except that their intense hues and flawless surfaces projected dignity and beauty; they often seemed to be made of solid color, but also had a totemic presence." At the time, some attributed the shape to the monolith of Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey as McCracken's influence. The artist believed in time travel and extraterrestrials and said, "Even before I did concerted studies of U.F.O.s, it helped me maintain my focus to think I was trying to do the kind of work that could have been brought here by a U.F.O."

Plywood covered with fiberglass and resin - The Museum of Modern Art, New York



Artist: Helen Pashgian

While many of the Light and Space creations were monumental in size, Pashian often worked on an intimate scale, as seen in this translucent sphere, only seven inches in diameter. This remarkable object seems to alternate between translucence and opacity, with exquisite and ever-shifting variations of light, the result of its highly polished surface. As the sphere is illuminated, the vertical acrylic rod at its center, creates varying optical effects depending on the illumination - in this particular photograph suggesting an organic enfolding or a door into the object's space. Yet, as the artist noted, here "light is the object," and as the viewer perceives the sphere from different vantage points, the embodied light beckons with a mysterious vitality, while remaining indeterminate. As James Turrell said of Pashgian's work, she "bridges the material and the immaterial, the visible and invisible."

Born and raised in Pasadena, the artist began her career as an art historian, studying the Dutch Golden Age and the works of Vermeer in Boston. While working towards a Ph.D. at Harvard University, she returned to art making and soon thereafter to Southern California. In the 1960s, she began to work in cast resin creating small geometric sculptures, usually discs or spheres such as this, ranging in color from clear to vibrant primary hues. The effect of the work depended upon a meticulous surface, as the artist noted, "if there is a scratch on the surface, that's all you see." As the traces of artistic processes are erased, the work appears to be an almost elemental form, which as art critic Lita Barrie relates to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant's transcendental aesthetic of the sublime, "limitless and unknowable; we can only imagine in glimmers, but it fills us with awe, the same awesomeness we experience in the grandeur of nature."

When these works were exhibited in New York in 1971, they, as well as the concurrent exhibits of Robert Irwin and Laddie John Dill, were dismissed by a newspaper critic "as Californian - as of no significance at all." In the following decade, as the male members of the Light and Space movement began to receive critical acclaim, Pashgian was often overlooked. However, since the 2010 Pomona College Museum survey of her work, her career has been revitalized. In 2014, a major installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Helen Pashgian: Light Invisible, mesmerized both critics and the viewing public.

Cast sphere, clear polyester resin with insert of clear acrylic rod - Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California


Untitled (Light Painting, Grid)

Artist: Mary Corse

The composition of this white painting contains a subtle grid, its faint lines, as if cast by shadows and light, receding and advancing into view. The acrylic surface, embedded with glass microspheres, varies in reflectivity, sense of depth and color. The appearance of Corse's work changes as the light and the viewer's point of view change, an effect that can only be experienced by an encounter with the artwork itself (in line with Robert Irwin's refusal to let his artwork be photographed). Corse's work similarly demands intimate encounter, requiring that the light be experienced, rather than simply "seen."

As art writer Catherine G. Wagley wrote, "her white on white paintings ... create a trippy experience. Made with the microspheres, they look different from every angle." As Corse put it, "The painting is not really on the wall, it's in your perception. It also brings in time - the time to walk along the whole thing. They forgot it should be Light and Space and Time."

Beginning as an Abstract Expressionist, Corse began making white fluorescent light boxes in 1966 while studying at the Chouinard Art Institute. By 1968, she was studying physics and developing light boxes that used argon gas, the light powered by Tesla coils, saying it was "the vibration of light" that interested her. She also began experimenting with glass microspheres, inspired by lit up highway markings made with the industrial product, and mixing them with acrylic paint to create the white shimmering paintings, for which she is still best known. While also creating installations and environments, she never abandoned painting. Instead, it is her paintings which transform the setting over the room forcing the viewer's movement and active participation in order to activate the surface.

Glass microspheres and acrylic on canvas - Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon


Untitled (Parabolic Lens)

Artist: Fred Eversley

This polyester disc, its highly polished surface radiating with translucent color, resembles not only the parabolic lens of its title but an otherworldly object that is simultaneously intimate, like a living mirror. The shape is flat on the back and concave on the front, where the resin thins to saturated blue, evoking the retina of the human eye or an image of the sky refracted upon it. The parabolic form became iconic to Eversley's work, as he explains, "The parabola happens to be the only mathematic shape that concentrates all forms of known energy to the same single focal point."

Trained as an engineer in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Eversley moved to Venice Beach, California in 1964 where he worked for Wyle Laboratories designing projects for NASA and the French atomic energy commission. Venice, as he said, "was the only beachfront community I was able to rent in. It was the only integrated beach community." The move proved serendipitous, as he soon befriended the likes of Bell, Turrell, Irwin, McCracken, and others, using his expertise to assist them on technical issues with artistic projects. He soon began creating his own art, and, after a life-threatening car accident in 1967, left engineering to pursue art full time.

The natural seascape of Venice also informed his work, as he said, "The beach is all about energy. It's the wind, the rain, the sun, the waves. You're surrounded by the presence of energy. You're also surrounded by everyone who comes to the beach, which ends up being - with very few exceptions - in a very positive, energetic state." Eversley is best-known for his parabolic shapes, which he created through his own invention of using a tube, filled with resin, and spun on a horizontal axis. The creation of his meticulous objects was a vigorous, physical process. Eversley said 99 per cent of the work was in the hand polishing, as the molded resin began the process with a rough and dull finish. As art critic Kristen Swenson wrote, "his meticulously polished forms were in dialogue with those by [Finish/Fetish] figures with whom he worked and exhibited, such as Larry Bell and John McCracken, though his concerns are more deeply rooted in the physics and metaphysics of light."

Eversley had his first solo exhibition at the Whitney in 1970 and was the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's first artist in residence in 1977. His work continues to be acclaimed, as he was awarded the "Lorenzo de' Medici" prize for sculpture at the 2001 Biennale Internazionale dell' Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy.

Three-color, three-layer cast polyester - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


RM 669

Artist: Doug Wheeler

The glowing blue outline of a square, formed with cool-white neon light, has a hypnotic pull on the viewer. The aura of light creates a shimmering reflection on the floor, which at times seems to exist below, rather than in front of, the wall mounted sculptural form. The viewer's perception of space is challenged as the artist has purposely curved the typically 90-degree angles between the wall, floor and ceiling, and painted them white, to remove customary spatial reference points. Therefore, the neon light, the sole light source in the room, reflects and colors, or "paints," the room in the soft blue light. The walls appear to recede as the viewer moves toward the wall, and the form of the neon square, its diffused light casting no edges or shadows, seems always on the verge of dematerializing. One can almost imagine the interior space of the square as a portal to another dimension.

Typical of the Light and Space artists, the work's emphasis is the experience of perception, rather than the object itself. By altering the entirety of the space it inhabits, the artwork was an early example of the immersive environments pioneered by Wheeler and other Light and Space artists. In a 1968 interview with Time magazine, Wheeler explained, "I want the spectator to stand in the middle of the room and look at the painting and feel that if you walked into it, you'd be in another world." Wheeler began his career while studying painting at the Chouinard Art Institute in the early 1960s in Los Angeles, before turning to a new medium that explored how light could transform and create space. As art critic and curator John Coplans wrote, his "primary to reshape or change the spectator's perception of the seen world. In short, [his] medium is not light or new materials or technology, but perception."

Vacuum-formed Plexiglas and white UV neon light - Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California


Diamond Column

Artist: De Wain Valentine

This unusually shaped column stands about seven-and-a-half feet tall and nearly four-feet wide, creating a visceral engagement with the viewer. The artist's use of colored and transparent resins creates an illusion of a column within a column. The monolithic sculpture appears illuminated from within, subtly shifting according to the viewer's relationship and the angle of light. The artist said he wanted "to cut out large chunks of ocean or sky and say: 'Here it is,'" and the green column like a chunk of green ocean water visually ebbs and flows, appearing at moments to be almost translucent then darkening to opaque densities. While the hand-finished and highly polished surface evokes a machine-made object, art critic Randy Kennedy has described the artist's sculptures as, "quasi-religious incarnations of coastal light and air."

Valentine grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado but was affected by many of the same influences of his Los Angeles counterparts. He recalls experimenting with painting and welding in his parent's auto-body shop, aligning him with the Finish/Fetish infatuation with car culture. His own family history, which included mining and a gold-prospecting great grandfather, led to an interest in mining, not in practice but visual effect: the young artist was intrigued by the refractive light and brilliant colors of minerals and the picturesque, but highly toxic, mining tailings. But it was true serendipity, as Meredith Mendelsohn explains in a 2015 article for Architectural Digest that secured his fate: "a local defense contractor gave the shop department at Valentine's junior high a batch of leftover polyester resin used for making patrol torpedo boats, and Valentine was hooked."

In 1965, after reading in Artforum on the work of artists Larry Bell, Ken Price, and Craig Kauffman, Valentine moved to Los Angeles where his desire to work in plastic turned toward industrial polyester resins. At the time, commercially available resin allowed for only smaller sculptures, as anything larger would crack in the curing process. Spurred by a desire to create larger work, Valentine invented his own polyester resin that made it possible, such as the Diamond Column, which he created in a single pour. Marketed as Valentine MasKast Resin® in 1970, the product transformed the potential of the medium. The artist created monumental slabs, giant circles, and several 'diamond columns.' The use of the word 'diamond' indicated their shape - highly polished surfaces and faceted light effects - but was also, perhaps the artist's pointed reply to his early rejection by New York City galleries. As Valentine related, they "would look at my slides and say: 'Oh my, that's lovely! What is it made out of?' And I'd say, 'Plastic,' and that was that. It wasn't something one made art out of apparently."

Polyester resin - Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, California



Artist: Larry Bell

This later example of Bell's cube consists of glass panels that appear as if painted or frosted with oval shapes in variations of green, brown, and blue. An oxidized metal frame holds the planes of glass and seems to both contain and extend the tonal variations found therein. Surprisingly, there are no actual pigments that create the 'painted' effect of layered shapes, but the forms are created by light absorbed and reflected by the glass itself. As the viewer walks around the object, colors change and the patterns appear illusory, even the clear Plexiglas plinth seems to dissolve. To create these ephemeral color effects, Bell uses a vacuum chamber to chemically coat the glass panels that, working in effect like a photographic light filter, cut off some bands of light on the color spectrum. The elemental and minimal geometric shapes convey both a stoic solidity, a sense of volume and act as a metaphor for the universe, itself on the same 45-degree plane as Bell's elliptical forms. As the artist has succinctly stated, the "symmetrical shape ... seems to satisfy all my needs for a structural format to hang my ideas on". As art historian Kirsi Peltomäki wrote, "Bell's glass cubes ... reoriented the viewer's reflection into their perception of the material forms themselves."

In 1957 Bell began taking art classes with Robert Irwin at the Chouinard Art School, and, influenced by Irwin's theory of Perceptualism, began incorporating glass fragments into his paintings in 1959. In Bell's words, glass has "three qualities that were really sensuous to me: It transmitted, reflected, and absorbed light all at the same time. Nobody was working with it, it was available anywhere, and it lasted a long time - which is also something I was supposed to do." Bell began making his innovative glass cubes in the early 1960s using a process of vacuum deposition to chemically coat the glass. The earliest cubes employed patterned and colored effects, but by the end of the decade he concentrated on plain glass, treated with quartz and chromium films. His primary focus was to employ cubic volumes as a means for exploring the interactions of light and surface. Art critic Michael Compton has described Bell's work as operating "near the lowest thresholds of visual discrimination. The effect of this cause one to make a considerable effort to discern and so to become conscious of the process of seeing."

Glass and chrome-plated brass - Tate Modern, London



Artist: James Turrell

A large rectangular room, white walls lined with large teak wood benches with backs higher than most viewers standing height, provides an early example of James Turrell's Skyspace works. It appears ordinary enough, albeit rather stoic upon first entry, except for what is missing. Immediately apparent, a significant portion of the ceiling and roof of the structure has been removed by the artist, thus revealing an unobstructed view of the sky. The Baroque infatuation with di sotto in su (literally meaning "looking up from under"), to create trompe l'oeil illusions of the sky (found in many European churches), has been replaced, quite literally, with a view of the real thing.

The view from this room, however, is not an unmediated experience. Hidden within the architecture of the room, multicolored LED lights placed along the top edge of the teak bench, are computer programmed to synchronize with sunrise and sunset, to slowly cycle through a series of saturated hues that interact with the light from outside. The time-based performance combines the natural and man-made, transforming not only the glowing colors of the walls but the sense of spatial and structural solidity. The overall effect is to create an interior private space for an elemental encounter with color and light, while the title "Meeting" evokes the meeting house with its shared experience of transcendence, perhaps a nod to Turrell's Quaker background. Art critic Jori Finkel has described the space as a "celestial viewing room designed to create the rather magical illusion that the sky is within reach - stretched like a canvas across an opening in the ceiling," while Chuck Close has said of Turrell, "He's an orchestrator of experience."

The Skyspace represents the maturation of what Turrell begin in 1969, a series known as "stoppages," perhaps an allusion to Duchamp's pivotal Three Standard Stoppages, consisting of cuts in the wall of his studio by which he could control exterior light into the room, a process he described as a "musical score." Alanna Heiss, who founded PS1, commissioned the work for Rooms, the museum's first exhibition in 1976, but work on this Skyspace didn't begin until 1980. Characteristically, Turrell continued to make various modifications to create the desired effect, and the installation only opened to the public in 1986. Turrell said the work, a prototype for the artist's subsequent Skyspaces began with "the idea of the meeting of the space inside to the space in the sky, and feeling that juncture, having it be a visceral, almost physical feeling...Because in my work, I often took light and gave it a feeling of thing-ness, of solidity." The work has a kind of sublime effect, evoking the elemental grandeur of nature, at the same time it explores, as Turrell said, "this idea that we make color, something we're quite unaware of, that we give the sky its color." As art critic Jonathan Jones wrote, "Turrell is the last great American romantic artist, giving the viewer rhapsodic encounters with nature and the mystery of light. He proves that artists can still look at nature afresh."

Cedar, LED lighting - Museum of Modern Art P.S.1, New York

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Molly Enholm

"Light and Space Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Molly Enholm
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First published on 06 Mar 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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