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Phenomenal:  California Light, Space, Surface

by Robin Clark; foreword by Hugh M. Davies
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2011
240 pp., illus. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 9780520270602.

Reviewed by Giovanna L. Costantini

Phenomenal:  California Light, Space, Surface is a catalog published to accompany an exhibition by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego from September 2011 to January 2012.  The MOCA San Diego exhibition formed part of a broader collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum and more than 60 other Southern California cultural institutions entitled “Pacific Standard Time:  Art in L.A. 1945-1980,” that culminated in a major exhibition at the Getty from October 2011 to February 2012.  Phenomenal aimed to document one aspect of the history of Modernism in Southern California, the “Light and Space” movement, a loosely-affiliated group of artists working in Southern California during the 1960s and 1970s.  Some members of the group gained recognition through exhibitions at the Ferus Gallery in L.A. in the early 60s, later to coalesce around a 1971 UCLA exhibition titled “Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space” that featured Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, John McCracken and Craig Kauffmann. In five essays, Phenomenal explores the work of these artists and others: Ron Cooper, Mary Corse, Bruce Nauman, Eric Orr, Helen Pashgian, James Turrell, De Wain Valentine and Douglas Wheeler whose art, realized primarily through the medium of light, is characterized by an interest in visual perception, process and phenomenology over the traditional materiality of the art object.

Robin Clark’s overview identifies key works by these artists that contribute to an understanding of the LA movement.  She notes the emergence of certain figures such as Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler and Larry Bell from various painting trajectories that include Abstract Expressionism, Hard Edge and Color Field.  It was in these areas that ideas connected to Minimalism pushed abstraction (yet again) to the reductive limits of art production, to the dematerialized ethos of ideation, the purity of Zen consciousness and self-reflexivity.  This was a period in which Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and others launched E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) with Billy Klüver at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory in 1966, one of the springboards from which art, music, dance and other transitory performances probed the boundless, museum-less, gallery-less mental space of creativity.  Labels attached to alternative foci during the 60s and 70s included Environmental, Ambient, and Phenomenal Art.  In So Cal, the mix was also joined to interests in fabrication processes such as vacuum-form molding; new aerospace technologies; resins, polymers, acrylics, fiberglass and plastics appropriated for their reflective, refractive and translucent properties.  Despite known relationships to the work of John McLaughlin, whose contemplative grid-based paintings were inspired by Asian art, Phenomenal artists concerned themselves with effects of light, space and energy within purely contemporary sightlines without recourse to metaphysics or symbolic spirituality.  Their interest in sensations of confinement, release, isolation, immersion and rapture was conceived perceptually, at once psychologically complex, immediate and exploratory.  Even in work not traditionally associated with figures such as Irwin, Turrell and Wheeler, installations referenced Frederick Perls’ theories of Gestalt psychology through manipulations of light, space and constructed elements that could induce unexpected human responses.  In Bruce Naumann’s Green Light Corridor installation in La Jolla (1970), for example, a narrow corridor illuminated by green fluorescent light elicited feelings of oppression and entrapment.

Michael Auping’s essay, “Stealth Architecture:  The Rooms of Light and Space,” describes his own reactions to installations of the 1970’s by Michael Asher, Robert Irwin, Maria Nordman and James Turrell.  He observes that many of these artworks interrogated relationships between content and context, material and immateriality in ways later set forth in Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube, essays concerning artistic space that appeared in Artforum in 1976.  For some, the perimeters of rooms represented framing devices that prompted distinction and symbiotic interaction between ephemeral experience and the articulated space of architecture.  For others, it was space itself, envisioned as a focal field, that became the subject of the artwork as in Michael Asher’s 1974 installation at the Claire Copley Gallery in which the empty (aesthetic) space of the gallery constituted the exhibition.  Though one of the more fundamental aims of artists associated with this movement was to move beyond the confines (and materiality) of painting to non-relational, non-associative references, Auping compared Asher’s work to Yves Klein’s gestural Le Vide (The Void), a 1959 installation in Paris in which Klein painted the walls of the gallery as if they were white canvases citing a definition of painting as  “radiance.” Yet Asher’s interest in spatial composition, as other artists such as Larry Bell and Robert Irwin, also centered on the visual language of perception, the nature of light and the science of perspective studied since the Renaissance.  While Minimalist artists of this period resolutely sought to deny anything but the recent past, rejecting European influence, most would acknowledge that the reductive drive that propelled modern art throughout much of the twentieth century was significantly accelerated by Kasimir Malevich and El Lissitzky. Their Suprematist artworks investigated dimensional relationships between geometric configurations and painting, architecture and space in ways that overturned Renaissance theories of pictorial perspective and anticipated the concerns of later conceptualists who sought to isolate the aesthetic space and its praxis from history.

Dawna Schuld’s essay “Practically Nothing:  Light, Space, and the Pragmatics of Phenomenology,” grounds the work of Irwin, Turrell, Orr and Nordman in the phenomenological philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty whose embrace of cognitive science and descriptive psychology formed the basis of a concept of the body as a membrane through which perceptions about the world are assimilated into consciousness in an ongoing process of “becoming.”  Her essay does much to further an appreciation of the Light and Space movement’s roots in Minimalism and its program of dematerialization though she bypasses Lucy Lippard’s influential Six Years:  The Dematerialization of the Art Object (1973) that traced the emergence of Conceptual art from 1966 to 1972.  She points up the importance of experiments conducted between 1968-71 at LACMA in Curator Maurice Tuchman’s “Art and Technology Program” in which scientists and engineers were paired with artists in tests that involved sensory deprivation, particularly within an anechoic chamber, a soundproof structure used for astronautic and psychological research.  Irwin, Turrell, Wheeler, Nordman and Orr all spent time in the chamber, an experience to which they attributed an increased sensory awareness upon their release.  Installations that followed emphasized the enveloping softness of darkness or a nascent encounter with light as inchoate awakening.

In Stephanie Hanor’s “The Material of Immateriality” the ephemeral aesthetic of LA art of the 60s and 70s is described as a sophisticated conversion of physical products largely associated with post-war American industrialism into immaterial essence. She considers sheet acrylics, lacquers, cast resins and metal coatings adopted for their surface properties that could be machined to “almost perfect optical clarity” through flawless polishing.  Larry Bell used precision finishes employed by the US Air Force to create the mirrored surfaces of his highly reflective glass cubes; Robert Irwin utilized transparent acrylics banded by metallic centers for Discs whose subtle ethereal transformations from shadow to light, opacity to translucency approximated transcendence.

“Work and Word” by Adrian Kohn ponders the inadequacy of verbal language to approach abstraction, especially in visualizing phenomena that is transient and fugitive.  It calls attention to the ambiguity of artist statements that are often obscure and circuitous, frequently resorting to feelings to convey intrinsic qualities of the artwork.  Since this problem plagues Light and Space art as well as other works that pose a challenge to photography, it alerts readers to the limits of transcribing certain phenomena into theoretical discourse.

The catalogue contains numerous black and white and full color illustrations of works treated in the text along with a chronological Select Exhibition History (both one-person and group shows), Select Bibliography, Exhibition Checklist and Index.  It does not address the overlapping contextualization of Phenomenal artists in exhibitions dedicated to sculpture, new materials or other areas tangential to evolving interests in “primary structures.” It does not explore the ideological background of Conceptualism and Minimalism, categories to which several of the more prominent artists have been assigned through their radical involutions of high modernist tenets of flatness, autonomy, surface, shape, edge and pure opticality, qualities traditionally assigned to painting.   Nor does it probe debates surrounding Modernism and Post-Modernism unleashed by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried’s redefinitions of painting that triggered reactionary conceptions of sculpture.  While the catalogue looks forward to the work of Tara Donovan, Olafur Eliasson, Kimsooja, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Spencer Finch as examples of artists who have been influenced by So Cal predecessors, it circumvents Lucio Fontana, Dan Flavin, Julio Le Parc, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chryssa and the Denise René Gallery in Paris where GRAV/Groupe de Recherche Visuel conducted experiments in environmental light manipulations and performance during the 1960s.

The identification of artists included in the catalogue within a range of heterogeneous strategies whose precise coordinates remain at issue (artists such as Michael Asher and Maria Nordman chose not to be included in the exhibition) points up the problematic nature of critically designated movements, particularly ones whose emphases include geographic distinctions and claims of shifting epicenters.  This, coupled with the highly complex network of cross-currents exchanged among Pop Art, New Realism, Minimalism, Conceptualism, reductive abstraction and site-specificity during this period, should alert the viewer/reader to the arbitrariness of categorizations that act as scrims through which reception can be filtered much as light and space themselves.


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