Light and Space in Contemporary Art

From bright sunlight to the small flame of a candle, humans are drawn to light and we cherish it. While architects have a long history of using the power of light to achieve their goals studio artists have traditionally been limited to merely representing or suggesting light. Recently artists have started using real light as the working material and conceptual content of their artwork. Here are two of those artists.

Dan Flavin was an American minimalist professionally active during the last half of the 20th century. During his career Flavin worked with commercial fluorescent lights in a few simple colors plus white. At first he used only straight fluorescent tubes similar to those commonly found in offices, warehouses and retail spaces. Eventually he expanded his options to include circular elements. These fluorescent lighting fixtures were mounted on gallery walls, tucked into corners and hallways, and even arranged in free standing configurations both indoors and outdoors. The lights made a bold visual statement when seen as isolated objects and they dramatically altered their surroundings when they were used to accent architectural spaces.

In his artwork Flavin celebrated mundane, mass produced objects (industrial lighting fixtures) and treated them as serious material for making art. At the same time, viewers were encouraged to experience the sensual and ethereal qualities of fluorescent light – something they would normally pretty much ignore. If you see a Dan Flavin installation in person it is nearly impossible to avoid sensing both the mundane and the ethereal. The fixtures are obvious and familiar while the atmosphere of the room is saturated with a strong fluorescent glow.

To read more about Dan Flavin click here.

James Turrell is a contemporary American artist from southern California who has been working with light and space since the mid 1960s. His early works involved totally blocking off architectural spaces to make them completely dark. Then he carefully and methodically made a variety of openings that allowed the urban and ambient outside light to enter the spaces in very specific ways and areas. These “light projection” pieces had the effect of radically altering the rooms and turning them into what appeared to be differently shaped spaces.

Turrell’s later installations were built around the premise of the viewer being in one space and looking through a portal at another space. His series of “skyspaces” were rooms with openings in the roof that presented the daytime and nighttime sky as if they were works of art mounted on the ceiling for the viewer’s examination. He also created gallery installations consisting of two adjacent rooms with an aperture cutout in the wall between them. One room was illuminated in an even glow of colored light. The room next door appeared to be a conventional gallery with anonymous low-level white light. When viewers entered this gallery they saw what appeared to be a colored rectangle floating on one wall. On closer examination the rectangle was revealed to be – not an object – but an opening into an entirely different space. The intensity of light in both rooms was so perfectly balanced that viewers had no idea they were looking at an opening in the wall until they were close enough to touch it.

James Terrell has created many wonderful light and space installations that stretch viewers’ perception and spacial expectations. His most ambitious project to date (and one of the most ambitious artworks you’ll ever read about) is the Roden Crater. In 1976 Turrell purchased this three mile wide (4.8 km) volcanic cone near Flagstaff, Arizona with the help of public and private donors. Since then he has worked to prepare it as a “naked eye observatory” for viewing celestial objects and events. When complete, visitors will spend time in specially constructed vaults and passages designed to showcase specific views of the sky and heavenly bodies.

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