In the 1960's, artists everywhere were experimenting with ways to move beyond the traditional disciplines of painting and sculpture. In Southern California, many of them wound up working with the properties of light. This show features the artists associated with Light and Space, a movement unique to Southern California: Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Doug Wheeler and Eric Orr along with many of the artists who were interested in the properties of reflection and transparency but worked in plastics, Craig Kauffman, Peter Alexander, Helen Pashgian, Dewain Valentine, Ron Cooper and John McCracken or glass, Larry Bell. Mary Corse covered stretched canvases with reflective paint.
Yet the most phenomenal moment of Phenomenal, is produced by the artist least associated with Light and Space: Bruce Nauman. His 1965 Green Corridor, as it is aptly named, requires visitor participation. I was barely able to squeeze through the foot-wide hallway entirely saturated with brilliant green light. When I came out the other side, the room and the view of the ocean appeared to be a deep pink until the after effect wore off. But then I realized that I felt cool ocean breezes and smelled the pungent salty sea. This was the effect of Irwin's intervention into staid museum convention. In 1997, he cut three square holes into the glass windows facing the Pacific; light and space come flowing into the gallery. This piece, which Irwin considers a personal favorite, is only rarely installed since the humidity would murder any other works of art so consider this a rare opportunity.
Green Light Corridor, 1970
Painted wallboard and fluorescent light fixtures with green lamps
Dimensions variable, approximately: 10 x 40 x 1 feet (3 m x 12.2 m x 30.5 cm)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Panza Collection, Gift 92.4171.
© 2007 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © Giorgio Colombo, Milano
The room sized installations by Doug Wheeler (see banner) and James Turrell may not be as intense but they are equally powerful in different ways. Both are in the Jacobs building. Walking into Wheeler's gallery evinces the sensation of being inside a cloud while a gallery given over to Turrell appears to contain two solid rectangular panels of red and blue hanging on the wall. Yet, they are projected light and give way to nothingness when I put my hand or head inside them.
This is amazing material and more amazing still is the fact that these pieces have been seen so rarely since they were originally produced.
The less ephemeral pieces, such as the excellent installation of coated glass boxes by Bell, or the cast resin towers by Valentine or Alexander, may be more familiar to viewers but seen in this context, the connections between the artists and their work become more visible and more enjoyable. These artists mostly lived near to one another and to the boardwalk in Venice so their mutual influences are understood but rarely seen. The show is on view in three separate museum buildings, the original Irving Gill-designed structure in La Jolla and the newer buildings adjacent to the Santa Fe railroad depot. The train from Union Station drops you right outside the front door.
(Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface is up at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art through January 22, 2012)
Banner image: Doug Wheeler, Untitled, 1965; Acrylic on canvas with neon tubing 87 5/8 x 80 3/4 x 4 in Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Gift of the artist and partial Museum purchase with International and Contemporary Collectors Funds and proceeds from the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Art Auction 2010 © 1965 Doug Wheeler. Photograph by Philipp Scholz Rittermann