The Art of Light and Space

The Art of Light and Space


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Ethereal and evocative, the art of Light and Space pushes the viewer beyond the everyday limits of perception. It takes many different forms and uses many different materials, ranging from natural daylight and scrim to glass, plywood, neon, and fire. It taps into far-ranging ideas and systems of knowledge, including alchemy, Buddhism, aerospace technology, witchcraft, astronomy, physiology, and phenomenology.

Written by the foremost authority on the subject and based on more than two decades of research, The Art of Light and Space is the first book to provide an overview of this powerful and increasingly public art form. With rare photographs, extensive artist interviews, and her own insightful observations, Jan Butterfield vividly documents the history of this diverse and sometimes elusive work.

Following a useful introduction that succinctly places the art of Light and Space in the larger context of modern art, the book is divided into ten chapters, each focused on one artist: Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Maria Nordman, Douglas Wheeler, Bruce Nauman, Eric Orr, Larry Bell, DeWain Valentine, Susan Kaiser Vogel, and Hap Tivey. Insightful portrait photographs by Jim McHugh open each chapter and capture the quirky individuality of these inexhaustibly creative men and women. The innovative graphic design emphasizes the artists' own words, both in sidebars and in the text, making their voices unusually accessible.

No two artists have followed the same path, but in many cases the work has become increasingly approachable in recent years. Architects and urban planners have begun to incorporate Light and Space installations into public spaces ranging from the Old Post Office Building in Washington, D.C., to the new building in Pasadena, California. Corporate, nonprofit, and private collectors have commissioned numerous major works, including a solar fountain in Denver, a tea house in Paris, and a fire-and-steam sculpture on a busy Los Angeles street corner.

The processes of creating the works seen here are as intriguing as the final results, and all are illuminated by the text, the illustrations, and the design of this provocative, invaluable volume.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780789201713
Publisher: Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/1996
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 11.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Jan Butterfield is currently head of Access, a consulting firm for artists in Santa Monica, California. Previously she was executive director of Lapis Press and public relations director for the Fort Worth Art Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A well-known art critic, she has contributed to Art in America, Artnews, and many other publications; she is also the author of numerous catalogs.

Jim McHugh, who is a contributing photographer with People magazine, lives in Los Angeles and has been photographing artists for the last ten years.

Read an Excerpt

The Art of Light + Space

By Jan Butterfield, Jim McHugh

Abbeville Press

Copyright © 1996 Jan Butterfield
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7892-0171-3


In the mid-1960s a small cluster of artists in Southern California began intense investigations. Aware of each other but not yet interrelated or counter influenced, each of them began to discard selected truths about art and to build a structure within which new or (for them) more “real” truths could be examined. This work did not become known to the larger art world for some time, but now nearly thirty years have passed, it can be seen as a major development in the history of modern art.

The terms art and object are virtually synonymous, yet for a decade and a half these artists produced essentially no objects. Light and dark, sunlight and shadow, time and space, sound and silence, fire, smoke, scrim, and string were their original materials. Eventually they began to utilize far more complex media and methodologies, and over the years their materials have included di-electricoated glass, luminescent or phosphorescent materials, Plexiglas, polyester resin, cast acrylic, fiberglass, neon, fluorescent lights, high-intensity xenon projectors, and so on. The results could not be easily collected, exhibited, or even transported to a locale other than the one for which they had originally been conceived. In most cases the artist’s intent was to offer a tabula rasa on which the percipient could inscribe his or her specific experience. The Mondrian was no longer on the wall—instead the viewer was in the Mondrian.

Key among the artists making such work are Robert Irwin, Jim Turrell, Doug Wheeler, Maria Norman, Larry Bell, and Eric Orr. There are others—such as DeWain Valentine, Bruce Nauman, Hap Tivey, Susan Kaiser Vogel, and Tom Eatherton—whose investigations, while not precisely parallel, at times intersect with the concerns of the first group. More recently a new generation has started, with Lita Albuquerque and Peter Erskine. Work by these artists has been variously termed experiential, situational, phenomenal, phenomenological, site-specific, ambient, or simply Light and Space, despite the fact that all of the artists have avoided such designations. The similarity of their investigations in no way indicates cohesiveness; in fact, to understand the work of these artists it is crucial to recognize that they constitute neither a group nor a movement. There is no manifesto. Yet even though they have never banded together, they have given each other strength, and an astonishing amount of each artist’s work has been seen by all the others. Their independence and their egos have not crowded out honest admiration for the contributions of their peers.

The artists to be discussed here acquired their knowledge through trial and error, weighing this against that and that against something else, until what felt right resulted in what was right. In this sense many of them are as much philosophers as artists. Robert Irwin, for example, has said: “Any one of us, when we sit down…and ask ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What do I mean?’ ‘What is life about?’ is being a philosopher. That is the whole point about being a philosopher…examining your existence in the world, your moment in the world…The real beauty of philosophy is the examination of your own moment, your own being in circumstance.”

This procedure comes close to an illuminating description of phenomenology proposed by Axel Madsen:

Phenomenology was…a movement trying to understand the way man thinks and to redefine his relations with himself and the world…Phenomenology wanted to go back to basics by describing things—phenomena—without trying to explain or analyze them, and from the narrowed notion of thinking moved forward to a new, more intuitive grasp of our sense of being. Phenomenology meant to stand back and suspend all judgment and to try to grasp things and ideas with a kind of primal intuition.

How we see has been a crucial aspect of art since its beginning. Cavemen knew that painterly gestures depicting a head, four legs, and a tail would mean “horse” if they were put together in a specific way. The invention of one-point perspective in the Renaissance provided illusions of depth for the first time. Three hundred years later the Impressionists’ application of scientific color theories yielded new sensations of color and movement. The Cubists sought to convey an even more sophisticated visual concept: the simultaneous representation of multiple facets of an object from different points of view.

In our own time, changes in attitudes about time and space brought about by the new physics have radically altered our thinking yet again. In addition, an increased comprehension of and tolerance for Eastern philosophies have led to a deeper understanding of humans as metaphysical beings. These expanded attitudes have resulted in an expanded art; it is no longer an art of illusion or even of abstraction but one that is possibly more human than either of them, because it takes shape only through the viewer’s directed perception.

To comprehend this new art requires examining existing attitudes based on the idea of art as illusion. Centuries of learned logic have encouraged a willing suspension of disbelief: we have learned to accept the illusion because we have been conditioned to do so. And yet it is not simply mathematical perspective, the seeming veracity of the image, or the painterly stroke that appeals to us. It is the search for truth, for a different state of being that causes us to find a given work compelling. It is this reality and not a literal one to which we respond. As Gaston Bachelard has noted, “The soul employs reverie to apprehend the poetic image.” It is in this state of reverie that the participant in a work of Light and Space slowly lets go of rational, structured reality and slips into an altogether different perceptual state. In this “double depth of the dreamer and the world,” the presence of light, the sense of color, and the feel of space merge, becoming far more real than any literal representation of them could be.

The history of modern art has encompassed a progressive reduction of imagery and of gesture. The Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich wrote in 1915: “Over the past millennia, the artist has striven to approach the depiction of an object as closely as possible, to transmit its essence and meaning; then in our era of cubism, the artist destroyed objects together with their meaning, essence and purpose. A new picture has arisen from their fragments. Objects have vanished like smoke, for the sake of a new culture of art.” It seems that Malevich’s explorations and those of other Russian artists, such as El Lissitzky, would eventually have led to an art without objects. However, the calamitous October Revolution cut short their breakthrough investigations, and the possibility of a new art of being rather than seeing was swept away with the storming of the Winter Palace.

After the Suprematist movement was derailed, it was some time before the original impetus was recaptured in new works of a phenomenal nature. In the intervening years there were numerous handcarts on the main track. Wassily Kandinsky took the journey, and so did Piet Mondrian. Later Ad Reinhardt, “The Black Monk,” produced a body of work that made clear his comprehension of the route. But it is Suprematism that provides the most important frame of reference for the phenomenal art of Light and Space.

At the same time that Malevich and El Lissitzky were proclaiming a new art with metaphysical implications, the de Stijl artists in Holland, led by Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, were attempting to create a new, universal language of art. Each group was utopian in its beliefs, and each attempted to integrate art into all aspects of life. Out of these attitudes evolved the room environments that are the antecedents, philosophically at least, of many of the Light and Space installations.


Excerpted from The Art of Light + Space by Jan Butterfield, Jim McHugh. Copyright © 1996 Jan Butterfield. Excerpted by permission of Abbeville Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

7 Preface
8 Introduction
17 Robert Irwin
67 James Turrell
95 Maria Nordman
117 Douglas Wheeler
131 Bruce Nauman
151 Eric Orr
175 Larry Bell
189 DeWain Valentine
205 Susan Kaiser Vogel
219 Hap Tivey
245 Afterword
247 Notes
254 Acknowledgements
256 Selected Bibliography
266 Index

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