“One might not think of light as a matter of fact, but I do. And it is, as I said, as plain and open and direct an art as you will ever find.”
Happy Winter Solstice! To mark the turn of the season and welcome back those extra minutes of daylight, I’m sharing three of my favorite works of 20th-century art in the PAM collection. Each has light as an essential material. Beginning in the 1960s conceptual artists challenged conventional notions of art’s authority and permanence; they sought to dematerialize the artwork by foregrounding experience, time, perception, and ideas.
To explore how consciousness shapes perception, Robert Irwin created immersive experiences of light and space from everyday materials including lamps and scrims. Untitled is an early example: lights positioned below a white disc throw shadows onto the surface of a white wall. What is solid and what is ephemeral is thrown into question by what our brains and our bodies sense before us. Irwin often drained colors from his works, whereas Dan Flavin embraced them.
Flavin grouped industrial fluorescent light fixtures together to flood the viewer’s vision with vibrating energy. PAM’s corner piece untitled (to Donna) 2 plays with the ways colored light sources interact, crisply saturating the wall behind it and playfully extending the work beyond its physical construction into the realm of perception.
Mary Corse’s Untitled (Light Painting, Grid) mixes an industrial material with acrylic paint to give form to the intangible. Glass microspheres reflect light and engage our eyes only when we move around the work and see it interacting with the available light. It is very difficult to photograph! Corse relates how the microspheres “create a prism that brings the surface into view. I like that because it brings the viewer into the light as well.”
—Sara Krajewski, The Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Robert Irwin (American, born 1928). Untitled, ca. 1966/1967. Sprayed enamel on aluminum. Gift of Robert B. Egelston, 1997.229 © artist or other rights holder
Dan Flavin (American, 1933–1996). untitled (to Donna) 2, 1971. Fluorescent light. Museum Purchase: National Endowment for the Arts Purchase Plan Grant, with matching funds provided by the Contemporary Art Council, 81.53 © artist or other rights holder
Mary Corse (American, born 1945). Untitled (Light Painting, Grid), 1970. Glass microspheres and acrylic on canvas. Bequest of Marcia Simon Weisman, 1997.191.2 © artist or other rights holder