Light in art and Light art are two separate categories that should be distinguished before any definition of light art is attempted. Light is an element of art that is of the paramount importance for any artist. It sets the scene for compositions, brings atmosphere and dynamism to work and guides the eye of the viewer to the fulcrum of the image and narrative. Light art, however, is an artistic form of expression where light takes central stage and is the main expressive medium and tool of the autors. The light autors use can be natural, coming from natural sources, or artificial. Recent decades testify to the increased use of artificial light such as LED, fluorescent and neon light and light bulbs in artworks. Artificial lighting devices are not just an additional element of an artwork, but are often employed as the only element of composition such as fluorescent light tubes in Dan Flavin’s work.
Not going too far into the past, we can note how light changed in art from the Renaissance and Leonardo’s sfumato, to more dramatic chiaroscuro of the Baroque period. Impressionists were the first, however, to allocate to light the significance that will change the course of modern art. Light and effects it produces on objects became the sole elements of interest represented on their paintings, while figurative world and visual veracity slowly disintegrated. Contemporary art worlds still find great pleasure in playing with the light. With technological advances it became increasingly easy for visual practitioners to use versatile sources of light and light devices in their projects and design. In what follows some of the most fascinating works of light art will be presented and explained.
Editors’ Tip: Light for Visual Artists: Understanding & Using Light in Art & Design
Richard Yot’s introduction to light as an important factor in any visual art is an essential guide and point of reference for painters, designers, digital illustrators, animators and other visual creatives working in different media. It gives information and explains different modes and purposes light can be used for. Clearly written and generously illustrated, the book outlines fundamentals of lighting, basic principles of shadows and light, their qualities, colors and different surfaces. It also looks at lighting within diverse environments and addresses specific uses of light for composition and illusions of time and place.
Hiroyuki Masuyama - Morgennebel im Gebirge (after Caspar David Friedrich)
Instead of starting with the first historical examples of light art, we are turning to the most recent. Hiroyuki Masuyama is a Japanese-born author working on international scene who investigates the passage of time by using historical paintings as references. In photomontage series titled Caspar David Friedrich (2009) he references paintings of the famous German painter and creates LED lightboxes where he combines Friedrich’s paintings and photos. His method includes mixing of photography,light and original paintings. Masuyama takes photos of the places previously visited and depicted by Friedrich and through their combination, multiplication and layering creates contemporary visions that cross time-space barriers. Light that exudes from the boxes is an essential element in his expression as it creates atmospheric and ephemeral renderings of both history of a place and history of an image.
Featured image via art.hiroyukimasuyama.com
Dan Flavin - Greens Crossing Greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green)
In the world of modern art the name of Dan Flavin is well established as one of the pioneers of light art. His career developed stylistically from Abstract Expressionism with which he had contact early in his career to Minimalism, a movement which propagated the use of simple geometric forms, industrial materials and repetition. Flavin’s light art follows these postulates closely. Fluorescent and neon tubes arranged in geometrical forms often dedicated to close friends or historical figures and to which author referred to as site-specific ‘situations’ or ‘proposals’ instead of installations make the dominant material of his sculptural works, as for examle in Greens Crossing Greens (1966).
Featured image via guggenheim.org
Gyula Kosice - Aluminum Structure No 3
First artist to use neon light in his sculptures and installations, Gyula Kosice is less know than his American peers, but is nonetheless among the most prolific and innovative modern creatives. Beside neon lights Kosice used water and movement in his works as integral elements, creating some of the first kinetic and hydraulic sculptures as well. Neon light was discovered in the late 19th century and was mostly used for signs and commercials. Aluminum structure suspended on a wall from 1946 is one of the earliest examples of utilization of neon light in art form. Stylistically, this piece is also the precursor of Minimalist art with its simple, geometrical and abstract form.
Featured image via studyblue.com
Robert Irwin - Varese Scrim
A member of Light and Space movement known also as ‘California Minimalism’, Robert Irwin started out as a painter who deployed aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism in his works, only to later purify his style to minimalist standards in his installations. Along with neon tubes, Irwin also deploys natural light as material and inspiration in his work. In 2013 he created Varese Scrim, a variation to his previous project in Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza in Varese which now operates as a museum. He deployed natural light coming from the glass windows and transformed the room with transparent nylon panes, creating a maze-like space. Translucency of material and capturing of natural light on it create an atmospheric environment that is there to be emotionally sensed rather than seen.
Featured image via blog.rowleygallery.co.uk
James Turrell - Sight Unseen
Another member of California’s minimalist art scene, James Turrell also delves into light and space. His interest in light breaches the borders of art as a material medium as he uses hologram renderings of geometric forms as a basis of his light art. Instead of tangible forms, viewers are greeted with metaphysical objects created of pure light. Sight Unseen from 2013 invites viewers into a white room where the senses are stirred by changes in color lightings and the loss of sense of depth. The whole space thus becomes ‘ganzfeld’ or ‘total field’ in which observers are completely immersed. In 2014 President Obama honored Turrell with National Medal of Arts award.
Tim Noble and Sue Webster - Kiss of Death
Tim Noble and Sue Webster collaborate since the 1980s. Sue Webster is known also for her light and text based works, but with Noble she turn to everyday objects, taxidermy and trash to create sculptures which full potential is visible only in their shadows. It could be said that created sculptures are just one component of their light art works, as they are a pretext or material from which their shadow art is created. In Kiss of Death (2003) Noble and Webster used 34 taxidermy animals (1 mink, 8 carrion crows, 6 rats, 11 jackdaws, 8 rooks), metal stands and animal bones in order to project a gruesome image of heads spiked on rods on the wall.
Featured image via thisismarvelous.com
Francois Morellet in collaboration with Tadashi Kawamata - Pier and Ocean
Difficult to define as a minimalist, abstractionist or kinetic artist, François Morellet created his art with utmost importance given to ideas, which could classify him above all as conceptualist. His artworks often possessed humor and playfulness in combination with rigorous execution. Geometrical forms and simplicity combined with neon light gave him the possibility to analyze shapes and textures, together with flatness and dimensionality, figuration and abstraction. In Pier and Ocean (2014) he collaborated with Tadashi Kawamata in creation of a light art homage to Piet Mondrian’s painting of the same title.
Featured image via kamelmennour.com
Sophia Wallace - CLITERACY, 100 Natural Laws
CLITERACY of Sophia Wallace is a mixed media work monumental in scale and scope which through text addresses some of the contemporary taboos on female sexuality. The work explores tension between overtly sexualized female body and widespread ignorance of female anatomy in contemporary culture. Neon lights suspended from the ceiling make word cliteracy in front of textual panels. Use of words instead of bodies is Wallace’s way of giving voice to female subjects silenced by heteropatriarchy, but also a gesture towards thinking about female subject not necessarily through body. Neon lights mostly used in commercial purposes are here symbolically paired with feminist stance countering another bias that consumerism is inherently female and part of low culture.
Featured image via sophiawallace.com
Jenny Holzer - Projections (Florence, 1996)
Starting her career as a painter, neo-conceptualist Jenny Holzer soon turned to text and public spaces. Hozler is famous for her text and light installations Projections, in which she uses light as a tool for writing large texts on public buildings and spaces around the world. Interested in issues of torture, death, technology and consumerism her Projections gained her a moniker ‘the art world’s soothsayer’.
Featured image via jennyholzer.com
Joseph Kosuth - Four Colors Four Words
One of the leading figures of Conceptual art, Joseph Kosuth is interested in meaning of art and its tautology. He combines different media and materials in his work but the importance is given to the idea, instead of form, shape or color. In his Four Colors Four Words light piece he offers to the viewer literary what the title of the work suggests – four colors rendered in four words. As Kosuth explains, works of art are just propositions; they are artists’ intentions to call something art, which means that artworks are immediately definitions of art as well. They do not say or show anything about any matter of fact.