Just as the Pop Art movement was gaining traction in America and Britain in the late 1950s, with its use of cultural iconography and parody to defuse the painterly looseness of Abstract Expressionism, a group of artists in Southern California were challenging the discipline of art through the use of new industrial materials and techniques.
Combining local car and surf culture, aerospace technologies, and an interest in heightened attention, the artists of the Light and Space movement created works that de-materialized the object in favor of closely crafted, perceptual effects.
Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945–1980 series, presents a unique opportunity to examine this movement with closer scrutiny. The exhibition, installed at the museum’s downtown San Diego and La Jolla locations, consists of works by Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, and James Turrell, to name a few. Together with a series of related events and symposia it marks a significant and scholarly attempt to recover the importance of the Light and Space movement.
Historically accorded secondary status to more object-driven minimalist works by Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Dan Flavin, and other artists on the New York art scene, Light and Space artists favored environment over object and looking over thinking. This perceptual approach maximized aesthetic ability through a stripping away of all but the most essential elements of experience. The minimal effects of their work led to the contested label “West Coast Minimalism.” Yet the experience of their pieces, often at the scale of entire rooms such as Turrell’s Wedgework V or Doug Wheeler’s DW 68 VEN MCASD 11, is immersive, saturating vision with light and color so vibrant that it leaks into and obscures the other senses.
The art is minimal but on different terms than the artists’ East Coast counterparts, creating experiential depth through a narrow band of the sensory spectrum. Light and Space artists sought inspiration for their work through deprivation training, spending extended periods in sound or light-proof rooms to gain increased attention to subtle differences in reverberation or illumination.
The lengths to which the artists went to produce these effects are compelling. In the exhibition catalogue, Stephanie Hanor, directorof the Mills College Art Museum, describes Robert Irwin’s initial process of making his ethereal installation Untitled, 1969 out of aluminum before its final fabrication in plastic: “The convex aluminum discs, 60 inches in diameter, were sprayed with 50 to 100 thin, transparent layers of Ditzler brand auto paint over a silver white metallic ground. Spraying out from the center of the disc, Irwin worked from opaque white through a translucency until the disc became transparent around the edge, thus achieving immediate integration of painting and environment.”
Philipp Scholz Rittermann
Irwin led an architectural critique of the gallery as a distracting background for such works, moving away from the object to operate on walls, ceilings, and floors. While the Land Art movement abandoned the gallery to reconsider the frame, Irwin and Turrell erased the frame, simultaneously creating seamless continuities and subtle differences between architecture and art.
Such fluid gradients between art and gallery remain relevant to contemporary architecture, where digital technologies and CNC fabrication are frequently tested through small-scale installations. Relegated to the gallery, sometimes by choice but often due to technological and material constraints, emerging architect-artist firms like StudioMode, Radical Craft, and Sports have engaged a language of atmosphere that uses light, material, and color. Calibrated through a new set of digital tools, these installations explore the nature of walls, floors, and ceilings as emissive boundary conditions that project atmosphere rather than the reductive treatment given these surfaces by the Light and Space artists.
Technology used by Light and Space artists featured in Phenomenal—De Wain Valentine’s and Peter Alexander’s casting resins; Craig Kauffman’s vacuum formed plastics; Ron Cooper’s layered polyester resins; Larry Bell’s room-sized dichroic vacuum coating apparatus; and Irwin’s flawless acrylic polishing—was newly appropriated from industrial manufacturing. The interest in these processes remained a means to an effect, rather than an exploration of process itself. Regardless, craft became an important driver for their work as they developed new fabrication techniques. Architecture may be poised for a similar transformation, moving beyond the novelties of technology toward the production of a new set of material effects and immersive atmospheric conditions outside the gallery, from restaurant interiors to World Expo pavilions.
In his book Nothing Less Than Literal: Architecture after Minimalism, author Mark Linder examines the role of architecture in both supporting and attacking minimalism, a discourse from which the Light and Space movement was largely absent. The book points to Donald Judd’s seminal essay “Specific Objects,” in which Judd, who originally aimed to be an architect, maintained the importance of the specific material object independent of context. While similarly interested in the literal as direct perceptual experience, the Light and Space artists pursued dynamic spatial fields and complex material processes honed to immaterial effect. Phenomenal reexamines the significance of this work as it relates to the dominant historical narratives of art criticism and at its best may deliver a renewed opportunity for architecture to engage the art of perception.