Light and Space: Art's Most Universal Movement

There is perhaps no artistic movement more universal than Southern California's Light and Space. The entire artist collective questions our perception using light, a material that resonates with all humans. Surprisingly, the movement was consistently overlooked in art history and museums until the Getty Initiative Pacific Standard Time in 2012, but it is seeing a continued resurgence and especially as society is now looking to the art exhibit as an “experience”. The sheer fact that Drake can pull from James Turrell’s work to create a rap video speaks volumes of the movement’s universality.  

Still from Drake’s Hotline Bling Music Video

Developing out of minimalism in the 1960s and 1970s, Light and Space is synonymous with the West Coast and in essence captures that same dramatic effect light has on the California landscape. The movement stands as an effortless experience and a sharp contrast to the blatant effort spewed on canvas seen in Abstract Expressionism. The movement’s artists and activity is somewhat disjointed, but one theme remains constant: how interactions with light shape our personal experiences, sensory perception and might offer a communion with a higher power.

The Key Players

The entire movement can essentially trace back to the 1971 UCLA Art Exhibition: Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space. The artists involved in the show were the predecessors of the movement’s different branches of thought and presentation. James Turrell, Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler are more concerned with creating immersive environments for the viewer, while Mary Corse, Dan Flavin, Craig Kauffman and Peter Alexander are more concerned with manipulating light through transparent materials.

Doug Wheeler

“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.”

SA MI DW SM 2 75, 1975, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Wheeler’s work reacts to a space’s architecture and creates an immersive sensation of infinite space, resulting in an abstract world. He became enamored with light in the early 1960’s when he started attaching lights within the canvas. He graduated from the limitations of the traditional surface when he began embedding lights within the walls.

Synthetic Desert III, 2017 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Wheeler takes the experience a step further with his 2017 installation at the Guggenheim of his 1968 concept, Synthetic Desert III. The installation was a near total sound suppression that replicated the sensation of distance in Arizona’s Painted Desert.

Robert Irwin

“We have two kinds of knowing; we have a sentient being, and a cognitive self.”

Untitled (Slant/Light/Volume), Robert Irwin 1971

Robert Irwin’s work also began in painting, but found that the medium limited his investigations of perception through light and space. His work Untitled (Slant/Light/Volume) was one of his first ventures outside of the confines of canvas. Commissioned by the Walker Art Center in 1971, Irwin’s piece contemplated if we ever have a pure moment in front of art. The Walker Art Center reinstalled the piece in 2009 to ask a new generation the same questions and challenge our ever-changing understanding of art.

Left: Excursus: Homage to the Square at Dia Art Foundation. Right: Light and Space at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego

Irwin’s Light and Space (2007), Excursus: Homage to the Square (2015) and his entire career celebrates how our brain processes art and its intrinsic beauty.

James Turrell

“With no object no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking.” 

Roden Crater Interior

James Turrell is more of a maximalist than a minimalist; the artist’s lifelong existential exploration turns an inactive volcano, known as the Roden Crater, into an immersive light experience. Raised on Quaker values, Turrell had no television or modern luxuries, allowing the sky and landscape to be his sources of entertainment. Inner light plays a central role in Quakerism and becomes a focus for meditation and transcendence, both of which are crucial in understanding his art.

Aten Reign, 2013 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Turrell’s artistic endeavors culminate in his Skyspace structures. His transformative installation in the Guggenheim Rotunda reimagined the gallery as one of his Skyspaces, creating an enormous immersive volume with shifting artificial and natural light.

The Color Inside, University of Texas in Austin
“All you have is a primal relationship to light.  We award the sky its color and it is the artist’s duty to change perception.”   - James Turrell

The painterly experience of color interactions gave a new dimension to his earlier light concepts, as the sky becomes colored by its surroundings. In this context, color also takes on the “thingness” of light and goes beyond a hue, saturation and brightness to having a spatial quality. Turrell’s work consistently asks the viewer to contemplate their spiritual awareness within a space, allowing us to realize that in order to understand within, you must see out.

Dan Flavin

“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.” 

Untitled (to Donna) 6, 1971 Dan Flavin at David Zwirner Gallery

Dan Flavin approached light art from an almost purely minimalist perspective; his interest in Donald Judd and Robert Morris is evident in his shapes and compositional arrangements. He experimented with electric lights in 1961 and serves a deadpan and ironic contrast to the transcendental spiritual voice of much West Coast light art.

Untitled 1996 installed in Richmond Hall at the Menil Collection, Houston.

Mary Corse

“I think as time goes on, physics discovers what artists are already painting or doing.” 

Untitled (Electric Light), 1968/2017 and Octagonal Blue, 1964. Courtesy Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Although men appear to dominate the Light and Space movement, Mary Corse stands out amongst the testosterone (not sure of this work here). Her work is also more rooted in the tangible realm of painting, but still focuses on perceptual experimentation and light. Using glass, paint, fluorescent light, clay and a myriad of materials, she experiments how light interacts with her created surfaces. After years of monumental work, the artist will be having her first survey at the Whitney Museum in June 2018.

Mary Corse, Untitled (White Multiple Inner Band (2003). Courtesy Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

The Next Generation of Light and Space

Although the movement’s founders are still largely active and creating, their work has unsurprisingly spurred a reaction from artists across the globe, who are finding their own language in challenging perception, light and spirituality.

Olafur Eliasson

“I want to expose and evaluate the fact that the seeing and sensing process is a system that should not be taken for granted as natural - it's a cultivated means of reality production that, as a system, can be negotiated and changed.”

The Weather Project, 2003 at Tate Modern

Eliasson has become somewhat of an art superstar since his 2003 Turbine Hall installation The Weather Project. The artist transformed the space into a captivating artificial environment using an assemblage of 200 mono-frequency bulbs arranged in a semi to create a giant fake sun. Coupled with a light misty fog, the entire affect was an alluring microcosm. The awe-inspiring experience reportedly attracted two million visitors, evidence that Eliasson's mission to influence an individual's reconnection to the world around them was indeed successful. The artist challenges how we inhabit and experience the world in the same vein that a Turrell piece asks us to contemplate the self.


Eliasson’s current installation at the Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles, responds to its history as a former theater and Los Angeles’ history of filmmaking. The sounds are reminiscent of a city or movie set, while the beams and panels create abstract windows. The effect is almost as if you are participating in a voyeuristic scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, Rear Window. His piece’s true beauty is not always in what is seen on the main wall, but the interactions with the other surfaces as well. The Light and Space movement as a whole is a genuine response to the location and light’s interaction with that surface. Eliason’s work consistently engages the viewer in a sensory experience to promote engagement and involvement with the space itself, just as one might interact within a Doug Wheeler sensory experience or a Dan Flanvin column emanating light.

Tom Friedman

"Art, for me, is a context to slow the viewer's experience from their everyday life in order to think about things they haven't thought about. Or to think in a new way."

Tom Friedman, UFO, 2017. Video projection, silent.

Tom Friedman’s current show at Parrasch Heijnen (on view until April 14th) also builds off of the Light and Space movement with a series of video projections and light sensations in an effort to avoid materiality, yet remain reminiscent of tangible objects. A relatively new direction for the artist, he is taking a chapter from the Light and Space movement. He defies constraints of form, color and scale to continue his interests in the paranormal and question objecthood.

Spencer Finch

“You try to do something again and again to get closer to the essence. Because the experimenter’s perception is a little off, the subjective comes into it, which is fascinating to me. It’s about the attempt to represent something—and in the attempt is where there’s the humanness or poetry.” 

Following Nature, 2013, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Spencer Finch pursues “experience” in his work and is best known for his ethereal light installations that investigate the nature of light, color, memory and perception. His extraordinary range of mediums focus on the effects of natural lighting and precise settings that immerse the viewer in beauty. Merging art and scientific exploration, Finch consistently strives to capture the ineffable qualities of light/color, perception/memory and show how they fall short.

Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning, 2014

His powerful 9/11 Memorial Museum installation, Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning, combines 2,983 watercolor squares each representing their own shade of blue and a victim of the 2001 and 1993 attacks. The artwork revolves around a memory and the perception of color. There is power in the realization that our own concept of blue is not the same as another’s, yet our memories all share a common frame of reference.

Phillip K. Smith III

“These works make us step away from our pattern, our life, our work, our errands, and our conversations and allow us to see sublime beauty shifting and changing before our eyes. Those are the moments that make life worth living.” 

Circle of Land and Sky, Desert X, 2017

It comes as no surprise that Phillip K Smith’s works have often been compared to Light and Space founders Robert Irwin and James Turrell -- the artist guides the viewer through similar abstract and illusory worlds that play upon perception and the lighting of the piece’s surroundings.

Lucid Stead, 2013 (Photograph by Steve King)

Unfulfilled by his work as an architect, Smith looked to the sky and made his mark in the art world with his 2013 Joshua Tree installation, Lucid Stead. The artist started a fundraiser to transform a 70-year-old homesteader shack with mirrors and lights that allow the piece to glow or entirely disappear. The installation caught the attention of Coachella, Desert X and led to numerous works throughout California. Although he is more often shifting light in an overt and colorful manner, Smith’s Light + Shadow series from 2015 rests solely on the light’s purity across white sculptures in a minimalist manner to create a three-dimensional experience.

Light + Shadow Works, Faceted Disc Variant, 2015. From the artist’s website.

The structures rely fully on the interplay of ambient light and shadow and poetically address light’s subtleties and its most primal state of being. The artist is definitely one to watch as we anticipate his installation with London-based fashion brand, COS, for this year’s Milan Design Week.