Almost a decade before the Light and Space movement emerged in this country, in the late 1960s, Latin American artists were working with light and color in innovative ways. Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space, at the Hirshhorn in Washington presents a small gem of a show curated by Alma Ruiz, featuring the work of artists at the forefront of the movement: Carlos Cruz-Diez, Lucio Fontana, Julio Le Parc, Hélio Oiticica and Jesús Rafael Soto. Challenging the idea of art as a static experience to be looked at, these artists created work that bursts forth from the traditional confines of picture plane or 3-dimensional sculpture, and in some cases fully envelopes the viewer.
I am a sucker for light—have far too many luminaria of all kinds in my possession—so this show is a natural for me. Right off the bat, you’re greeted by Fontana’s grand squiggle of cool, white light, Neon Structure for the IX Triennial of Milan, 1951 that’s suspended over the escalators. A nice counterpoint to this expansive gesture is Le Parc’s 1962 intimate installation, Light in Movement, that uses mirrors, angled metal squares and spotlights to cast reflections around a darkened room, creating the effect of being underwater in some otherworldly, nocturnal pool.
I loved Soto's lawn-sized rectangle of blue plastic tubing, Penetrable BBL Bleu. It reminded me of a piece I saw when I was a child in New York, an entire room of ceiling-to-floor. clear plastic strips one had to make one’s way through. It really was a seminal piece for me, opening my mind up to the possibilities of what art could do: it could be visually arresting and it could also be fun! As a youngster, I was particularly taken with the notion of touching and moving through an artwork. This was a revelation. I remember it being at the location of the folk art museum on 53rd, but think there was another museum there, possibly of contemporary art?
Much like that earlier piece, you must breaststroke your way through Soto’s plastic tubes, which slap against your face and body and resist gently your forward movement. I felt like I was in some weird plastic jungle or savanna. Looking at people making their way through it produced an almost stroboscopic effect and the piece remained animated for some time after one exited, the moving tubes producing a wonderful striated pattern. It’s a fairly recent work, dating from 1999, but Soto has been exploring the idea for 30 years.
The showstopper is Cruz-Diez’s 1965 large-scale box, Chromosaturation. Walking around the front, one sees rectangles of intense colored light: red, blue, green that turn out to be windows. Around the other side, is the entrance to the box, which is divided into three zones with rows of colored fluorescent tubes in each space suspended from the ceiling. The color is not as intense as it appears looking through the windows, which must have some kind of film on them. Still, it’s plenty intense, surrounding one in a haze of color that is almost tangible, yet curiously, looking at another person, he appears normal in terms of form and colors. Standing in the corner and looking across the entire box, seeing the colors meet and bleed into one another was simply ravishing.
I gather that at the exhibition’s installation at MOCA in Los Angeles where it originated, there was an installation by Oiticica and Neville D'Almeida that featured a swimming pool ringed with blue neon and illuminated by green spotlights. On the opposing walls, slides of John Cage's 1969 book of musical notations, as well as drug imagery were projected. Visitors were allowed to swim laps in the pool—what a sensory experience that would have been, and talk about engaging with the work!
Too bad for me I was at the Hirshhorn during the day and couldn’t see the new commission by Doug Aitken Song 1, a 360° projection that at night, illuminates the museum’s entire façade.