New York

Otto Piene, Nam Jun Paik, Jack Burnham and more

Howard Wise Gallery

The Christmas season was not, perhaps, the most tactful time for an exhibition entitled Festival of Lights at the Howard Wise Gallery. As the gallery version made clear, the real competition was in the streets, and Le Park (Avenue) looked lots better than Le Parc (Julio).

The exhibition contained over thirty works, international in character, ranging from catastrophically boring light boxes from Brooklyn, to electric flowers from Germany (Otto Piene), to “an authentic antique Japanese scroll adapted to the electric age” (Nam June Paik). It was a dull exhibition, because no one seemed to be interested in employing the medium of light toward the end of creating works of art, and the most frequent comment heard in the gallery was the most inaccurate: “Gee, the kids would love this.” The kids would have been bored silly in five minutes; they live in the electric age.

Yet light remains the most plausible of all areas for a genuine breakthrough in art, though light shows hitherto have only served to mark out the problems which must be overcome. The element of performance is depressing and unrewarding. The temporal organization of many light works tends to defeat them as art; either they are literally endless in time, spinning out their fatiguing variations infinitely, or they are cyclical in time, completing their programmed rounds, coming to a clumping stop and then commencing their jigglings and flashings all over again. Because light is so active a principle, movement also presents a problem, and in general the best light works thus far have been notable for their lack of it (Jack Burnham’s Photo Kinetic #7 in the current exhibition stands out for its reticence in this regard). Color, too, has been repeatedly disappointing: in the current exhibition, again with the possible exception of Burnham’s quiet, dark tones, the color in light works has been harsh, lacking in nuance, or candied to the point of nausea. Lastly, light art seems immediately compromised by being exhibited in a darkened interior, for this only brings out the theatrical burden which must be overcome.

Philip Leider