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“Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface” at MCASD

by Sarah Zabrodski

Bruce Nauman, "Green Light Corridor," 1970 (installation photograph, 2008). Image from Robin Clark, ed. "Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface." San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2011.
One of the most interesting highlights of the massive Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time initiative is the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s exhibition focusing on Light and Space art of the 1960s and 1970s. Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface is spread across MCASD’s three venues in downtown San Diego and La Jolla. The focus on so-called Light and Space art is unprecedented and long overdue. While the artists included under the umbrella of Light and Space art have rejected the idea of a cohesive movement or a common theoretical premise, the moniker is applied generically to art that deals with light as its primary material.

Most of the work included in Phenomenal was created not in San Diego, but in the Los Angeles region well over 100 miles away. This trend makes the MCASD location a somewhat puzzling choice. Yet over one-third of the works on display are drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection, and a handful of works are site specific to MCASD. Moreover, the La Jolla location overlooks the ocean, making it an ideal vantage point from which to contemplate the effects of light and space on Californian artists.

Eric Orr, "Zero Mass," 1972-1973 (installation photograph, 1975). Image from Robin Clark, ed. "Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface." San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2011.
Light and Space artists of this time period were often more concerned with the perception and experience of space than with conventional aesthetic or material considerations. Phenomenal offers, in turn, a variety of experiential moments and immersive environments within which perception takes on a nebulous, mutable quality.

In Eric Orr’s Zero Mass (1972-73), for example, “viewers” enter a seemingly pitch-black room where a large loose paper wall encircles the space and acts as a guide around the installation space. Only after a significant time spent bumping blindly around the room do one’s eyes adjust and subtly allow the silhouettes of the surrounding people to become clear. The wall label refers to this sensory field as “the corners of your perception.” Without question, Orr’s work prompts a different sort of visual acrobatics than one experiences when looking at a painting or sculpture.

Bruce Nauman, "Green Light Corridor Looking Out on Sky & Ocean at La Jolla," 1971. Image from Robin Clark, ed. "Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface." San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2011.
Bruce Nauman’s Green Light Corridor (1970) was first realized for the Body Movements exhibition in 1971 at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art (now MCASD) and has thus returned to its original location. As a preparatory drawing illustrates, the corridor is meant to look out onto the ocean and sky outside the museum’s windows. The corridor measures exactly one foot wide, so participants must make their way through in a sideways shuffle. In the heart of the corridor one’s eyes are inundated by an unrelenting green light, which sets the stage for the final surprise. After emerging from the corridor, the world is suddenly bathed in a heavy magenta tint. The purple after image is a result of the retina adjusting and compensating for the intensity of the green lighting. Rarely does an artwork alter so completely or surreptitiously the very way in which we see the world around us.

Robert Irwin, "1° 2° 3° 4°," 1997. Image from Robin Clark, ed. "Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface." San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2011.
Green Light Corridor exits onto another site-specific work by a well-known Light and Space artist. Robert Irwin’s 1° 2° 3° 4° (1997) consists of three rectangular apertures cut into the grey-tinted exterior windows of the gallery. It takes a moment to realize that these are legitimate holes; you can stick your arm outside and feel the ocean breeze. The holes frame postcard-perfect vistas of nearby palm trees and blue water, both capturing the view and transforming it into art. Irwin’s work appears several times throughout the exhibition in different forms. The upper floor of the downtown building is devoted to his sculptural wall hangings and to those of his one-time studio mate, Craig Kauffman. The space is lit entirely by natural light, which allows Kauffman’s bulbous plastic creations and Irwin’s delicate gradations of curvature and color to show off their quiet luminescence. One work by Irwin, however, is easily missed. Although a dramatic intervention, Square the Room (2007) barely draws attention to itself. Normally an irregular shape, the gallery has been made rectangular by the introduction of a white scrim stretching across and dividing the room. The transparency of the scrim is almost unnoticeable, but with careful attention one can perceive the second room beyond. Such minimal yet meaningful manipulation of space is characteristic of Irwin’s art.

James Turrell, "Stuck Red," 1970; and "Stuck Blue," 1970. Image from Robin Clark, ed. "Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface." San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2011.
One room in a downtown location is devoted to James Turrell’s Stuck Red and Stuck Blue (1970). What appear to be two flat rectangles–one glowing red; the other blue–are in fact part of a three-dimensional installation. Each rectangle is a hole cut into a wall behind which light emanates from a mysterious and unidentifiable source. The diffuse quality of the light makes it nearly impossible to determine the outline or contours of the niche, thereby lending a surreal sensibility to the entire space. In another Turrell work on display across the street, Afrum (White) (1966), light acts in reverse. Here, projected light creates the illusion of a white cube floating in the corner junction of two walls. Only upon closer approach does the 3D shape reveal itself as a flat projection of intense white light against grey walls.

James Turrell, "Afrum (White)," 1966. Image from Robin Clark, ed. "Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface." San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2011.
Even those artworks that approach the more conventional mediums of painting and sculpture attempt to push the boundaries of vision and our experience of space. De Wain Valentine’s sculptures are a highlight of the exhibition. Diamond Column (1978) exemplifies the phenomenal properties of resin and, by extension, Valentine’s mastery of the material. While the interior of the massive column is a thick seemingly opaque marine green color, the edges blur out into apparent transparency. Depending on the angle from which the sculpture is viewed, the various sections appear translucent or opaque in unexpected ways. A passing figure behind the sculpture creates an almost kaleidoscopic effect of optical doubling and transmutations.

De Wain Valentine, "Diamond Column" (1978). Image from Robin Clark, ed. "Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface." San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2011.
Resins and plastics are on ample display in the works of other artists such as Ron Cooper, Peter Alexander, Helen Pashgian, and John McCracken. Rather than focusing on light installations alone, these artists employ light to animate their material objects. Cooper is best known for his “light entrapments,” layers upon layers of resin and fiberglass that bounce and absorb light in an understated yet intricate manner. Alexander’s characteristic wedges act as prisms, reflecting and refracting light in unexpected ways, while McCracken’s densely lacquered boxes draw attention to their own highly reflective surfaces. Whether mirror or glass, plastic or resin, all of these objects explore the possibilities of light as an activating agent.

The works in Phenomenal have a magical double quality to them. They can be simultaneously transparent and opaque, as well as reflective and absorptive. Some works play with singularity and multiplicity, while others are sources equally of shadow and light. It hardly bears mentioning that photographs utterly fail to capture the essence of these works and their potential to alter light, space, and our perception of these elements. For anyone traveling through Southern California this season, Phenomenal is a must-see. Go not only to learn about this underrepresented slice of Californian art history, but also to be transported outside of our normal realm of viewing and seeing. Leave behind all preconceived notions about the boundaries of perception, and prepare to enter a world in which the barrier between real and surreal dissolves.

Sarah Zabrodski received her M.A. from the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU in 2011. She writes at


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