The Birth of the Movement
Born under the Californian sun of the 1960s and 1970s, the Light & Space movement, also referred to as West Coast Minimalism, aims to give its audience an atmospheric, ethereal, multi-sensory experience. The term Light & Space was coined in 1971 after a UCLA exhibition called Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space: Four Artists. These artists include Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin and Craig Kauffman, known as the founding fathers of the artistic movement. The movement blossomed alongside Minimalism (which is why they have many overlapping traits), right after abstract paintings were the popular norm. Artists wanted to strip down, unload, and reduce art to its purest and simplest form. Furthermore, Light & Space was created in the middle of the Cold War, a time where technological development was moving at incredible pace. Artists were curious about how technology would impact the field, and the Light & Space pioneers honed on this opportunity, using innovative methods to create amazing installations.
The Aim and the Essence
The unique aspect of Light & Space is that the focus is not on the artwork, but rather on the feeling it induces to its viewers. In fact, there is no single defining aesthetic but rather commonalities such as geometric abstraction, radiant lights and varnish finishes. In most cases, the artist will aim for ‘sensory deprivation,’ where the senses may be completely puzzled. The viewer is brought to a state of utter confusion, but somehow also with an overwhelming sense of calmness. Some have even claimed Light & Space art to be meditative and relaxing – perhaps a break from our constant awareness is a requisite for all of us.
6x6 by Larry Bell, 2014, Courtesy of Mousse Magazine
“I’m hoping that the presence of these pieces will slow the viewer down, so that they’ll look carefully, move around them slowly, for the simple reason that [the pieces] change. That’s the beauty of light.” - Helen Pashgian, Artist
The Cultural Impact
Although the movement was initially California-based, it has spread to all parts of the world, with international artists subscribing to the style. The movement is even seeing mainstream media adoption, such as in Drake’s infamous Hotline Bling music video, an installation by James Turrell. Although the aesthetic is not yet worldly recognised as its own division of art, but rather as a branch of Minimalism, it is steadily growing and gaining popularity, offering more opportunities to artists and more diverse art installations. Contemporary culture aside, we love the movement's aesthetic and juxtaposition of shapes, lights and angles, and are sharing below a compilation of some of our favourite artists:
Skyspace, Austria, 2018 (Left), Courtesy of Ignant, Roden Crader, 1977 (Right), Courtesy of The Architect's Newspaper
Born in Pasadena, California, James Turrell is arguably one of the most renowned Light & Space artists who has created a name for himself by his perceptually puzzling installations. His art works are not only shown at Art Basel, but also across the world as permanent installation, in the Botanical Gardens of Culiacán in Mexico, a hotel & resort in Greece, a church in Berlin, and many more places. The artist started experimenting with light whilst enrolled at university for perceptual psychology in 1965. However, by 1966, Turrell dropped out of his studies to focus full time on his craft. As he worked on his first projection piece, Afrum-Proto, he brought along with him engineers and psychologist, two prominent components that can be noticed throughout his life’s work. Due to the positive reaction to his first show, he created a year later his next solo exhibition, James Turrell: Light and Space. This exhibition caught the eye of the media and the public, which pushed him to the forefront of the artistic movement. He is perhaps most known for his works named Skyspace, rooms and buildings in which there is an open roof where light seeps through, giving the audience what is described as a religious experience. Iconic rapper, and now collaborator, Kanye West even said Turrell’s works are like therapy, turning you “into a zen state.” With over 150 art pieces around the world, Turrell has created a truly stunning portfolio, and affirmed his undeniable influence on the movement.
Double Blind, 2013 (Top Left), Courtesy of Contemporary Art Daily, Excursus: Hommage to the Square 3, 2015 (Bottom Left), Courtesy of NY Times, Miracle Mile, 2013 (Right), Courtesy of LACMA
Born in 1928, Robert Irwin is considered as one of the founding fathers of the artistic movement, notably for his work at the defining exhibition, Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space: Four Artist. Irwin, however, did not start in this domain. While enrolled at multiple art institutes in California, Irwin specialised in abstract expressionist paintings, taking heavy inspiration from nature. While Irwin became quite notorious within the expressionist sphere during the 50s, he drastically changed his artistic style by the 60s, making experimental installations, playing around with lights and moving objects. What sense of personal, spatial environment Irwin lacked in his abstract paintings, he created in his installations. His goal was to guide the viewer’s perception – the blueprint to the Light & Space movement. In fact, Irwin created the term ‘Conditional Art,’ an environment responsive piece which should challenge its viewers’ perceptions. Since the 1970s, Irwin produced many installations for the likes of Dia:Chelsea, MoMA, Centre Pompidou, Walker Art Center and even the San Diego Federal Courthouse. His installations are recognisable with the use of tubular lighting, large spaces and squared shapes. With over decades of artwork, the artist has been exceptionally decorated. Some of his awards include the MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ award, the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and many more. Since the early 2000s, Irwin has gone back to his inspirational roots of nature, and has designed several gardens, including the Getty Central Garden in Los Angeles. Irwin uses his knowledge of both nature and space to create a unique garden, which still enables the audience’s perception to be at the centre of piece. Irwin’s influence on the Light & Space movement is undeniable and his work will continue to be recognised long after the movement’s first peak.
Untitled, 2018 (Left), Courtesy of Vito Schnabel, Light Invisible, 2014 (Right), Courtesy of Nashville Arts Magazine
Helen Pashgian is a hugely under-rated and under-recognised visual artists who as had an unequivocal impact of the Light & Space art sphere. As the one of the only female artists present during the birth of this movement, she had to fight against the 1960s and 70s gender prejudice against women, which was extremely prominent within the arts. Yet, she still achieved an outstanding career with a beautiful portfolio of work. While she studied art history and fine arts Ponoma College and Boston University respectively, Pashgian is known for her sculptural inspiration. Her works, distinguishable by spherical objects and columns with finished surfaces and vibrant colours, necessitates the viewer to actually walk around them to fully appreciate the concept. Her inspiration comes from her childhood; Pashgian would sit by the water, admiring the Southern Californian sun’s reflection. She uses materials such as resin, polyester and acrylics to emulate this memory. One of her most famous works, Untitled (Lens), 2014, consists of a turquoise-blue semi-translucent sphere seemingly floating on a white rectangular pillar. The art piece is not about the actual materials present, but rather how the light reflects on it at different angles of the room – a concept Pashgian has been consistent with. Other of her works have been displayed at the Getty Center, The Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, LACMA and many more. Pashgian has also received the award for Distinguished Women in the Arts from the Museum of Contemporary Art of Los Angeles. To deprive Helen Pashgian from the Light & Space conversation would be a severe wrongdoing. Her impressive body of work proves her competence and influence on the movement. While she has art comparable to the likes of every other person on this list, due to the socio-political climate of the 60s and 70s, she lacks the recognition her peers have gotten.
Luminous Earth Grid, 1993 (Left), Courtesy of Stuart Williams Art, Bridging the Divide, Proposed for 2020 (Right), Courtesy of Stuart Williams Art
This New York-born environmental artist uses space in quite a different way. Instead of using large empty rooms for his installations, Stuart Williams uses the space around him, such as big mountains and urban streets, for his site-specific installations. Although Williams was not producing art works during the 60s and 70s, he takes clear inspiration from this era, especially artists such as Turrell. Williams tends to use natural spacing and add some sort of technological art, to create an innovative and beautiful perception of the scenery. His work is recognisable by vibrant luminous colours and linear assortments. His most famous piece, Luminous Earth Grid (1993), situated in Solano County, California, ranges over eight football fields, using about twelve miles of electrical cables. The installation consists of grided green lights which, from a distance, looks like a floating, computer-generated image, showing the mesmerising marriage between technology and nature. Williams received immense international praise over this piece, and even caught the attention of Peter Selz, a former curator for the MoMA and founder of the UC Berkley Art Museum. While Williams’ work is usually set in the United States, he has been sponsored numerously by the New York Foundation for the Arts, which has allowed him to create installations all over the world. The artist has received copious awards, grants and commissions and has been published in many art journals, blogs, newspapers, and other publications. Although Williams was not so prominent during the birth of Light & Space, he interprets the elements of the movement in a novel manner, inspiring a newer generation of artists.
Impenetrable Room, 2017 (Left), Courtesy of Hypebeast, Heaven or Las Vegas, 2011 (Top Right), Courtesy of Purple Diary, Death Row, 2006 (Bottom Right), Courtesy of Artishock
Perhaps more loosely tied to the Light & Space movement, Iván Navarro is a Chilean artist who uses fluorescent lights and mirrors to deceive your senses. Originally wanting to study theatre, Navarro was rejected, and turned towards a fine art degree instead. By 1997, after having completed his studies, Navarro moved to Brooklyn, New York, in order to escape the ruthless Pinochet dictatorship of his birth country. In fact, most of Navarro’s work is heavily inspired by the fear this unstable regime fed him as a child. Whether it is through socio-political messages explicitly written out, such as in Dónde están? (2007), where names of the perpetrators of human rights violation are written in fluorescent lights, or through a more implicit message, such as in Sediments (2017), where the green neon lights represent the resistance against controlling regimes, Navarro uses his art to denounce these injustices. His artworks are less minimalist compared to other Light & Space artists – Navarro himself says that minimalism is the enemy. However, he still manages to capture the essence of the artistic movement through his perception-puzzling pieces. His art works have been exhibited at the 27/7 Gallery in London, the Millenium Museum in Beijing, the North Dakota Museum of Modern Art, and many more galleries and museums. However, his greatest accolade is having brought attention to the corrupt situation of Chile, but also corrupt governments in general.
The Future of the Movement
Although the movement first came into the spotlight in the 60s and 70s, Light & Space installations are emerging all over the world. In fact, the movement has expanded its borders well beyond California and has become a global phenomenon. No longer just a movement of the past, or a subset of minimalism, new artists are embracing the style and leading to a popularist resurgence. As Turrell and Williams have shown, Light & Space is versatile - it can be incorporated in grand architectural structures or on a smaller scale, a piece in your living room. The possibilities and boundaries are limitless. Light & Space has a bright future.
Six Columns by John McCracken, 2006, Courtesy of Art Basel
"My desire is to set up a situation to which I take you and let you see. It becomes your experience.” - James Turrell
By Juliette Eleuterio