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Commentary: The Light and Space movement in art shows the effect of a work’s surroundings on the artwork itself

Nancy Kranzberg
Nancy Kranzberg

I was familiar with many of these artists--Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Mary Corse, James Turrell and the list goes on, but I was unclear on what the art movement Light and Space which originated in the 1960's in Southern California really was about.

A recent art exhibition at the Palm Springs art museum titled "Light +Change" by artist Phillip K. Smith lll piqued my interest in this sort of mini art movement.

The Light and Space movement was influenced by the California Impressionists in combination with Minimalism in the 1960s.The movement focuses on utilizing light to create color and form similar to the California Impressionists.

According to the information provided on the wall text in the Phillip Smith exhibition, "California Light and Space artists worked with unconventional art materials and technologies such as neon and cast acrylic in order to create perceptual experiences, and often blurred the line between physical reality and environmental effects. If you begin to assume that the object is no more real than the space around it, no more important than the shadows, it is simply one of a series of events, and you begin to try to deal with the consequences of that, then it becomes obvious you can't make an object any longer or you can't make anything that is not relative to the circumstances that it exists in."

Wikipedia describes the Light and Space Movement as a loosely affiliated art movement related to op art, minimalism and geometric abstraction originating in Southern California in the 1960s and influenced by John McLaughlin. It is characterized by a focus on perceptual phenomena, such as light, volume and scale, and the use of materials such as glass, neon, fluorescent lights, resin and cast acrylic, often forming installations conditioned by the work's surroundings. Whether by directing the flow of natural light, embedding artificial light within objects or architecture, or by playing with light through the use of transparent, translucent or reflective materials, Light and Space artists make the spectator's experience of light and other sensory phenomena under specific conditions the focus of their work.

John McCracken says, "I was always primarily interested in form alone, but then to make a form, you have to make it out of something. So color seemed a natural material to use, because color is abstract. If you make a form that seems to be composed of color, then you have something, an object, that's pretty abstract. Just form alone would be more abstract, of course, because it's just a mental idea, but you don't have anything there for your perceptions to grapple with unless you make it out of a material. However if you make it out of metal, or stone, or wood, or whatever, then you have something that to my mind may overemphasize the physical aspect and therefore be difficult to perceive as purely mental. An important thought behind this is that all things are essentially mental that matter, while quite real on the one hand, is on the other hand composed of energy, and in turn, of pure thought."

Robin Clark who I knew when she was responsible for the "Currents" exhibitions at the St. Louis Art Museum, refers to the Art and Space Movement as ambient art and all about the experience using light as a medium.

The movement was developed in parallel to the dominant Minimalist Movement and both movements were characterized by use of industrial materials with a hard-edged geometric aesthetic.

Another founder of the Art and Space Movement, Robert Irwin, says that the Art and Space movement defies the rules of what art can be. He began as an abstract expressionist and was influenced by the California light and by the Russian artist Malevich. He referred to the movement of Art and Space as ephemeral and conditional and went on to influence generations of artists.

James Turrell spent much of his career devoted to a still unfinished work, “Roden Crater," a natural cinder cone crater located outside Flagstaff, Arizona that he is turning into a massive, naked eye observatory and for his series of sky spaces, enclosed spaces that frame the sky. His father was an aeronautical engineer and his mother a medical doctor and as a result Turrell has brought the sciences into his works.

Mary Corse lives and works in Topanga, California and is fascinated with perceptual phenomena and that light itself can serve as both subject and material in art. Her practice in art can be seen as existing between abstract expressionism and minimalism.

Even though universities have a division of arts and sciences, the two fields are mostly separated. The Academy of Arts and Sciences in America was actually founded in 1780. Now the two fields are coming together as they should.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than forty years on numerous arts related boards.