Light Imitating Art: The Magic of the Light and Space Movement

Light and Space artists have captured, investigated and metamorphosed light into unexpected artwork that implores us to look — really look.

If art asks us to pause and look deeply, Light and Space works require us to look again and again. From a different angle, at different times of the day, in the same room but under different lights. These pieces suggest we look from afar and close up, from both our peripheral and direct vision. We squint, trying to decipher the nature of the artwork with the information our brain gives us — then looking one more time after realizing maybe that information was false, or just one possibility.

Experience the beauty of light and space on “Artbound.”

The term “Light and Space” is primarily traced back to the 1971 exhibition “Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space,” displayed at the UCLA University Art Gallery. It loosely organizes a group of Southern California artists that, starting in the 1960s, worked with (as the name suggests) the possibilities of light and space. Whether through sculpture, installation, performance or other mediums, these artists made use of both artificial and natural light. They also often incorporated materials like epoxy resin, glass and scrim. Some of the figures associated with the movement include Helen Pashgian, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Fred Eversley, James Turrell, Bruce Nauman, Mary Corse, Doug Wheeler, Eric Orr, Maria Nordman, Ron Cooper and more.

Light goes through one of Larry Bell's models for his Light and Space artwork | Still from Artbound "Light & Space"
Light goes through one of Larry Bell’s models for his Light and Space artwork | Still from Artbound “Light & Space”

At its height, the movement often received critique — particularly from the East Coast art world — for its choice of materials. Could art made with materials from the automotive and aerospace industries not be seen as part of those fields? In addition, the movement’s fascination with light became proof to some critics of West Coast artists’ dreamy fascination with the sun, which they got too much of, it seemed. In reality, many of the artists from this movement wanted to capture, investigate and metamorphose this light into something that made for an unexpected artwork.

So while East Coast artists focused on minimalism and dealing with actual changing seasons, the artists of the Light and Space movement continued to experiment with new materials and ways of seeing.

An abstract looking white sphere with a slit in the middle over a white background.
Robert Irwin, “Untitled (#2220),” 1969. | Collection Orange County Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John F. Kelsey

In “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface,” art historian Robin Clark writes that Light and Space artists “created situations capable of stimulating heightened sensory awareness in the receptive viewer.” This emphasis on the artwork as a situation required that the artists look beyond the aesthetics and requirements that previously defined a piece as an artwork.

A situation also implies malleability — elements like changing light, your eyes’ adjustment to visuals and your perception of what an artwork appears to be doing can all influence that experience. Pashgian’s “Light Invisible” (2014), for example, cloaks the viewer in darkness save for luminescent molded-acrylic columns of light. Inside, wooden molds become decipherable, then indecipherable again to the viewer.

On the LACMA website, Pashgian states: “One must move around to observe changes: coming and going, appearing and receding, visible and invisible — a phenomenon of constant movement.”

Click left and right to see works by Helen Pashgian:

Sixteen years in the making, Irwin’s “untitled (dawn to dusk)” transformed a former army hospital in Marfa into one large artwork. Using scrim walls, Irwin laid out “antechambers to the right and the left are open to the sky,” according to the Chinati Foundation. One side remains mostly dark, the other light. The natural lighting, framed and filtered by Irwin’s architectural choices of scrim and paneless windows, transforms the work hour by hour. The natural phenomenons of dusk and dawn become part of the piece.

Helen Pashgian, “Untitled,” 1970. | Collection Orange County Museum of Art. Gift of George E. GeyerArtists like Irwin and Turrell worked with experts in aerospace; Pashgian communicated with experts from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Over the decades, they’ve adapted and evolved their work after tinkering with new materials and production models — and many of them continue to do so.

Click through to see Robert Irwin’s work:

And while the refractive, reflective nature of these pieces might make for the perfect photograph to share on a social media feed, the pieces continue to ask that we experience them in person. Of course, the desire to photograph yourself with a work of art doesn’t limit itself to one medium. While social media channels might seem to flatten the essence of light and space pieces on the one hand, the root of the matter actually points to a larger question. It all goes back to photography and the way in which installation images, magazine shoots and personal snapshots can’t possibly capture the luminescence of these works. They focus on three dimensionality, after all, and that begs for the interaction of the viewer. As they walk around, through and near the piece, the work takes on the role of shape-shifter, never looking quite the same from any one angle. Light and space artists largely created them this way. Pashgian, for example, has consistently tinkered with the ways that the eyes and the brain communicate. Both her means of constructing these pieces and her choice of how to display them call for the viewer to pay attention to the subtleties and shifts of perception.

The pieces also exist in tandem with their environments — not just as part of (or in spite of) them. In fact, some of the artists resisted the need to have their works reproduced.

A blonde woman in black stands slightly behind a large yellow orb.
Helen Pashgian behind one of her light and space artworks | Alix Spence

But anyone paying attention to pop culture would be remiss not to notice the influence of the movement. Take for instance, the LACMA exhibition “James Turrell: A Retrospective,” which included light projections, prints, drawings and installations. One of the exhibition’s works was “Breathing Light,” which required visitors to wear boot covers to walk into a space flooded with color. If you angle your peripheral vision just so, it almost feels like you’re on the brink of falling into a brightly hued black hole. In 2014, rapper Drake visited the exhibition; in 2015, he released the video for “Hotline Bling,” which featured him dancing in boxes suffused in different colors. One of these backlit sets strongly resembles the shape of “Breathing Light,” particularly in its use of a rectangular shape with round edges.

Click through to see Larry Bell’s work:

And while art lovers might feel irked at the co-opting of Turrell’s work into a music video, with no real reference to the artist, Turrell’s reaction was largely positive.

If the artworks of the Light and Space’s movement leave us with one legacy, it’s to look — really look. In our everyday interactions with personal and commercial spaces and our experiences of nature, how does light imbue everything with a certain mood, a certain magic?

A bright white square atop a light gray background.
Doug Wheeler, “Untitled,” 1968. | Collection Orange County Museum of Art. Gift of Melinda and Edward Wortz