Beyond Buildings


Light and Space: A Gym for the Eyes

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Robert Irwin 1 2 3 4


If you want to experience the purest architecture on the planet, make a beeline to the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, California to see Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, which will be open there and at their downtown San Diego location through January 12, 2012 (it is part of the Pacific Standard Time carnival of exhibitions, about which I wrote last week).


Be prepared, and be in shape. It is as if your eyes are going to the gym. The exhibition collects work made mainly in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s that manipulates the way you experience light, space and surface. Moving through the successive layer of abstraction with which artists since the 19th century tried to get at the essence of both the modern world and its tendency to evanescence, and some sense of true being, artists such as Larry Bell, James Turrell, Robert Irwin, and Doug Wheeler arrived at three elements: light, something that you do not see, but that allows you to see; space, which is invisible, but is what we make through structuring our environment; and surface, which is the point where we experience form, but which has infinitely thin presence.


Larry Bell-Cube8-Clear


Some of their experiments consisted of objects that manipulate your perception of space by looking through or at them. The first room you encounter in La Jolla is devoted to the work of Larry Bell. On the wall, you can see Little Blank Riding Hood, of 1962, the rhombus shape of which on a shaped canvas tumbles off the wall with surprising ease. Bell then took that play with geometry into cubes of glass he tinted in layers and fades, so that your sense of the object’s presence changes as you walk around it, or even if you stand still and other people cast their shadows in walking past. Sometimes you see only a window, framing the gallery. Then the view disappears, and you find yourself looking into the cube’s dark space, only to find implied geometries.


atlan-james-turrell (2)


James Turrell went beyond the object, creating fields of color that seem to float in space and imply immensity. In reality, he would build a false wall into the gallery, cut a hole into it, finish the frame into knife-edges, and light the space with saturated color. Pure form and color appear. Bruce Nauman’s Corridor (1970) is so thin you have to squeeze through sideways, an extreme space that makes you aware of your body. He painted the interior surfaces green and, after negotiating this slot, everything around you looks magenta for a minute or two.


nauman corridor_3


Not all the artworks in this exhibition are so ethereal. Some are rather blunt, like Robert Irwin’s cuts into the museum’s windows (1’2’3’4', 1997), which deny the corners, imply an object, and let the air and light of the adjacent beach and ocean flood the gallery’s refined precinct. The less well-known Helen Pashgian (could the lack of recognition be because, unlike the surfer dude “finish fetish” types, she is a woman?) produced cast spheres out of polyester resin she dyed or into which she inserted acrylic to imply space and form. De Wain Valentine’s Slabs, from the late 1960s, recast monumentality into the endless space of colored polyester.



“Light and space art,” writes essayist Dawna Schuld in the exhibition’s catalog, “does not deal with light space as media as much as it deals with the participating subject’s personal adjustment…” Robert Irwin said much the same thing when he repeated his mantra that what interested him was the ability of art to make the observer aware that he or she was observing. Or, as the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard put it: “the aim…of modern art is to make the fact that the unpresentable exists … within presentation itself.”


What makes all that even better is that is a visceral, astonishing, and wonderful experience to find yourself seeing spaces, colors, and forms where they don’t exist. It is like magic, evoking the kind of wonder to which architecture should aspire.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.