Light and Space

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Light and Space denotes 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.[1] It was 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 made the spectator’s experience of light and other sensory phenomena under specific conditions the focus of their work.[2] They were incorporating into their work the latest technologies of the Southern California-based engineering and aerospace industries to their develop sensuous, light-filled objects.[3]


The nature of the works was reflected in the title of the exhibition at UCLA which introduced the emerging movement in 1971: "Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space".[4] The show presented the work of Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, John McCracken and Craig Kauffman. Other artists associated with the movement are Ron Cooper, Mary Corse, Bruce Nauman, Maria Nordman, Eric Orr, Helen Pashgian, James Turrell, DeWain Valentine, Doug Wheeler, and more recently, Gisela Colón.[5][6][7] A famous group of abstract color theory artists were influenced by the Light and Space Movement, notably: Frederick Spratt,[8] Phil Sims, Anne Appleby, and David Simpson. Notable contemporary and emerging female artists inspired by the Light and Space Movement include Jennifer Steinkamp, Marcia Roberts and Sophia Collier.


Irwin and Turrell, for instance, investigated the phenomenon of sensory deprivation (which influenced the development of their similarly spare light works) as part of the art-and-technology program initiated by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1967. Wheeler’s RM 669 (1969) comprises curved white walls encased by a floor and ceiling that seem to recede with every step one takes toward the square of light positioned on the far wall,[9] rendering viewers unable to fix their eyes on any surface.[10] For his series of works on the theme of alchemy, Eric Orr has used natural light as well as blood and fire in his environments that produce extreme retinal responses.[11] Mary Corse's large white-on-white glass canvases have glass micro-beads embedded in the acrylic paint to create a surface that shifts dramatically with the light. Helen Pashgian created acrylic spheres, globes with an unreal glow, seemingly lighted from within.[12] Gisela Colón, melding formal principles of Minimalism with Light & Space perceptualism, creates “non-specific objects,” wall sculptures that are inherently mutable, shifting color before the viewers' eyes depending on lighting, and the viewers’ choice of location.[13][14][15]

McCracken states the following. "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 appears 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." [16]


Light and Space art from California was shown at Germano Celant's influential exhibition of environment-based art at the 1976 Venice Biennale, "Ambiente/arte dal futurismo alla body art".[17] The movement has rarely been shown together, as Wheeler rejected to be included in major museum exhibitions, because of his doubts that the works would be shown in the way they were intended,[18] and Nordman refuses to be in group shows on Light and Space.[19] In 2010, David Zwirner Gallery, New York presented an historic exhibition titled “Primary Atmospheres,” a term coined by art critic Dave Hickey to describe the contributions of Southern California artists to the Light & Space movement.[20] As part of a series of exhibitions funded by the J. Paul Getty Foundation during the 2011 Pacific Standard Time initiative, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego held the most significant survey exhibition of perceptual art titled “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface," organized by the Museum’s then curator Robin Clark.


  1. ^ Butterfield, January The Art of Light and Space
  2. ^ Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, September 25, 2011 - January 22, 2012 Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla.
  3. ^ Views and Visions: Exploring the California Landscape, March 1 - July 20, 2003 Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach.
  4. ^ Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space: Four Artists. Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman (1971) Ex. Cat.
  5. ^ Kenneth Baker (December 24, 2011), S. California plays with the light-space phenomenon San Francisco Chronicle.
  6. ^ Michael Duncan (9/11/2010), Helen Pashgian at Pomona College Museum of Art Art in America.
  7. ^ Gleason, Mat. "Gisela Colon at Ace Gallery: Light & Space Art Gains Content". Huffington Post. Retrieved 8 March 2015. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ Doug Wheeler, RM 669 (1969) Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
  10. ^ Randy Kennedy (January 15, 2012), Into the Heart of Lightness New York Times.
  11. ^ Light and Space art Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
  12. ^ Jori Finkel (September 18, 2011),Lesser-known artists are poised for a breakthrough Los Angeles Times
  13. ^ Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter (April 2015). Gisela Colon. Los Angeles: Ace Gallery. pp. 40, 149, 153, 154. ISBN 978-0-692-41011-0. 
  14. ^ Gleason, Mat. "Gisela Colon at Ace Gallery: Light & Space Art Gains Content". Huffington Post. Retrieved 8 March 2015. 
  15. ^ Biller, Steven. "Gisela Colon: 'Pods' at Ace Gallery". Art Ltd. ART LTD. Retrieved 13 May 2015. 
  16. ^ "McCracken" Kunsthalle Basel (1995) Ex. Cat.
  17. ^ Jori Finkel (September 18, 2011), Shining a light on Light and Space art Los Angeles Times.
  18. ^ Randy Kennedy (January 15, 2012), Into the Heart of Lightness New York Times.
  19. ^ Jori Finkel (September 18, 2011), Shining a light on Light and Space art Los Angeles Times.
  20. ^ Johnson, Ken. "‘PRIMARY ATMOSPHERES’ Works From California 1960–1970". New York Times. New York Times. Retrieved 12 May 2015. 

External sources[edit]

Butterfield, Jan The Art of Light and Space, 1996, Abbeville Press ISBN 978-0-7892-0171-3