Shining a light on Light and Space art

The artists associated with Light and Space, the movement dedicated to investigating patterns of visual perception and attention that began in Southern Californa in the 1960s, are an unruly bunch.

Most reject the label out of hand. Two of the movement’s giants, Robert Irwin and James Turrell, stopped speaking to each other decades ago and have never completely mended fences. One of the few women associated with this work, Maria Nordman, refuses to be in group shows on the subject. And Doug Wheeler, one of the first artists to make the shift from paintings to large-scale, mind-bending environments, routinely declines interviews.

So the mere fact that the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego was able to realize the exhibition and catalog for “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface,” part of the region-wide Pacific Standard Time celebration, is something of a feat. Curators Robin Clark and Hugh Davies have brought together work by 13 of these artists (Nordman is the biggest omission), ranging from deliberately subtle light projections to slick so-called finish fetish work associated with surfboard and hot rod culture.

One of the largest pieces is a room-sized installation by Wheeler that messes with your senses: He has outfitted a gallery with more than 200 feet of recessed neon tubing in such a way that an entire wall dissolves into a hazy, penumbra-like effect. It is a re-creation of a piece from 1968.


“Doug was working ambiently, making spaces rather than objects, very early on. The only other person doing it back then was Jim Turrell with his projection pieces,” says Davies, who is also the museum’s director.

The Times convinced Wheeler to sit down with Davies and talk about the powers of perception — and the challenges of making and showing his work. It is the first in a monthly series of artist and curator interviews tied to Pacific Standard Time.

Jori Finkel: A lot of Light and Space artists who work on issues of attention and perception have lived in the desert. What is it about the desert that shapes or fuels this work?

Doug Wheeler: I grew up in rural Arizona, and when I was young, I’d have to get up at 4:30 a.m. and “ride” fence line, which was my chore before breakfast. The idea was to check different sections of the fence to repair any spots that were compromised. So at first it’s dark and you can barely see, and then gradually the light is coming in. The sky was always everything. If there were a couple of scattered cumulous clouds, I found that the clouds created this sense of space, defining space, making it feel dimensional. You don’t see that so much here, where there’s so much pollution and clouds are two-dimensional-seeming. But out there there’s a real sense of volume, when you look at the vault of the sky. That’s what I started playing with as an artist: not looking at things but the tension in between things.

Hugh Davies: I think it’s no coincidence that many of the artists in our show lived in the desert and also flew a lot — your father was a doctor who flew all over the state to make house calls.

DW: He was called the flying doctor of Arizona. He had three Staggerwing Beechcraft airplanes — the Lear Jet of the ‘30s, they called them. He’d fly off to do surgeries in places where they didn’t have access to hospitals.

HD: You grew up in the desert with the three-dimensional quality of clouds and the really expansive horizon. And Turrell, who also flies, lives out there now. And Bob Irwin at one point in his career left L.A. for Las Vegas, and that was about the desert. I think what distinguishes this body of work from what’s happening elsewhere in the world — particularly what’s happening in urban New York — is the sense of horizontality and space versus verticality and claustrophobia almost.

DW: There are places you can go where you almost feel like you are the only living thing, and you become conscious of yourself in ways normally you’re not.


JF: Is that one of your goals as an artist — to give us a desert-like experience where we become hyper-aware that we’re in a particular body, at a particular time and place?

DW: One work that I want to do is called “Synthetic Desert” — I did a number of drawings for it. I call it synthetic because I don’t think any of us — though landscape painters might object to this — can duplicate what makes up a desert experience. My idea is to create an environment where sound or lack of it, or the light or the modulation of it, might feel to you like in a desert landscape. But I’m not trying to create a diorama-like thing. The art is in no way competing to be the real thing.

JF: Like it or not, the term Light and Space came to encompass a mix of perceptual work that came out of Southern California in the 1960s. What’s your feeling about the term?

HD: I like the fact it has “space” in it; to me that was the breakthrough of the work. The work became ambient and was about environmental experience instead of focusing on an object. New York minimalism, as I call it, was at that time very much obsessed with the object, and the objects were meant to be obdurate, cold, machine-made, obscuring the artist’s hand. To me that was like the military-industrial complex — they used to make landing strips for Vietnam out of the same material that Carl Andre made his work from. Here it was more handmade, with techniques borrowed from car culture or surfboard manufacturing or aerospace engineering. It was about translucence and transparence and this fabulous optical play that [Donald] Judd didn’t get into until much later, when he started using Plexiglas. He came around to what artists of Southern California were doing all along.


DW: I don’t like categories. They’re just limiting. We all in our own individual ways have this idea of what we’re doing. We think we’re really special making work all by ourselves. I thought I found my own valley where nobody else was camping.

JF: Some other groupings like Pop Art or assemblage art seem less contentious. Is it because the artists grouped together under the Light and Space umbrella all have such strong personalities?

HD: I would say that a breakthrough occurred in the ‘60s amongst Southern California artists interested in the phenomenal and perception. They to a certain extent spurred each other on and to a certain extent ripped each other off. It’s similar to the birth of Cubism, when you go back and ask the question: What exactly did Braque do, or Picasso, or Juan Gris? Well, with paintings it’s a bit easier, because you can trace their exhibition history. But in the ‘60s this work was being shown in the artist studios [and] labs, where very few people saw it, so the chronology is difficult to ascertain. But personally I don’t care who was the first one to find the vaccine, when there were four people here working at the same time and the discovery wouldn’t have been made otherwise. I don’t care who gets the Nobel Prize. I think the important thing is to celebrate what they all did as a group and introduce them to the next generation.

JF: Do you feel like artists at the time got more support from curators and collectors in Europe than from people closer to home?


DW: Without a doubt. My studio back then was an old dime store in Venice on Windward — it was big enough I could play basketball and ride a bike in it — and nobody ever came over. Then one day there’s a knock on the door and it’s Rudolf Zwirner and Hans Neuendorf, major art dealers from Germany, and Rudolf asked me to move to Germany, which I wasn’t ready to do for personal reasons. The thing is: He knew. They knew. That’s one reason why I like the idea of showing with David Zwirner [in New York] — he’s Rudolf’s son and I’ll be showing some LED pieces with him next January.

HD: It was like the jazz musicians early on. They got a lot of support in Europe before they were recognized here — in France, Germany.

DW: And Italy, England also.

HD: The first place I saw Light and Space from California was the 1976 Venice Biennale, through Germano Celant’s show “Ambiente” and going to see Count Panza di Biumo’s place in Varese. I’m an East Coast guy who went to East Coast grad school, and this material was never on my radar.


JF: People get frustrated by some of the work because it seems under the radar in another way — it’s barely there or hardly registers. A light beam is directed through a window. A wall is painted over. A scrim is hung.

HD: It happens in almost any new art form; when people don’t know what they’re looking at, they get upset. A lot of breakthrough paintings, from the Impressionists to Malevich, were hated at the time.

JF: Several Light and Space artists — I’m thinking of Bob Irwin now — went through periods when they refused to let people reproduce their installations in magazines or books. Are the works really that hard to photograph?

DW: I don’t think you can photograph my work. In 1968, Time magazine did a piece called “Place in the Sun” and they wanted an image of one of my light encasements. And I said make it two colors, black and white, because then everybody will know we’re just documenting the work, not trying to be it. So they made the image in the magazine green and blue. I don’t think they understood what I meant.


HD: I think the fact that the work can’t be photographed has really hurt its acceptance and dissemination. Pop Art photographs really well — it zips around the world. But how can a field of light be captured?