New York

Charles Ross

John Weber Gallery

Applying the same criteria to Charles Ross’ work as to abstract painting—that the importance of the work of art depends as much on the importance of the ideas as on how well the artist has handled them—I would have to rate Ross’ work highly. Light and time—in a universal sense—are Ross’ themes. Light is not only the source of energy, it’s pure energy, and considering that life wouldn’t exist without it, one certainly can’t accuse Ross of being trivial.

In this show, The Colors in Light, The Colors in Shadow, Ross exhibited six eight-foot-tall prisms, each a few feet from a painted column of similar size and shape—one red, one orange, one yellow, two white and one black. Looking through the prisms, one could see how they diffracted light bouncing off the painted columns into the colored bands of the spectrum. The spectrums varied in size and composition from one colored column to another as did the spectrums emanating from the edges of the columns’ shadows.

Ross’ prisms force the viewer to see differently or not see his work at all. When I first saw these prisms I was aware of their rather elementary shapes and somewhat unthinkingly assumed that they were the art. But after several visits to the show, I found the prisms beginning to dematerialize, and I became more and more aware of the light and colors I could see through them. With most art, the line of vision stops at the surface of the object, and one is inclined to let the same thing happen with this work. But one shouldn’t, because there’s nothing on the surface, and one really can’t get at this work until one can ignore the object and see through it. Like eyeglasses, these prisms are only aids to vision, intended to be looked through rather than at.

Most of Ross’ work has used natural rather than artificial light. In his Sunlight Dispersion works, sunlight or moonlight passed through a prism and was fractured into the spectrum on the floors, walls or whatever the light happened to hit. Sunlight Convergence/Solar Burn, 1971–72, consisted of 366 white wooden planks, on each of which the sun had burned its mark through a focusing lens for a single day. The complete work amounted to a one-year diary of the sun, with each “page” in the diary unique. With the huge star maps of Point Source/Star Space, begun in 1972, Ross didn’t use light but instead mapped the heavens, showing the locations of light sources.

Ross’ work with prisms differs from his solar burns and star maps in that it’s temporal. The work depends on the presence of light for its existence, and it therefore exists only when light is passing through it. Turn off the gallery lights at the end of the day, and the art disappears, leaving no record behind. Technically, it’s impossible to own this art simply because one can’t possess light or color: one can possess only the tools for making or seeing them.

This show was only a small part of a group of works related to light that Ross has been creating since 1965. The entire body of work to date has a grand sweep, covering astronomy, astrology, optics, light, time and the limited nature of man’s knowledge. Ross is a ferociously bright man, who takes genuine pleasure and interest in the conundrums of science. Although an admitted amateur at science, he seems well enough informed to have a pretty good idea of where the current boundaries of scientific knowledge lie. And that’s where he places his art, at that point between the known and the unknown, where science and mysticism converge and overlap.

How much should one’s knowledge of the artist’s life affect one’s evaluation of his work? I used to think the two should be entirely separate, and that still seems like a good rule of thumb when dealing with Morris Louis, Frank Stella or Kenneth Noland—artists who make very formal work. But with more idiosyncratic work, knowledge of the person may shed light on the work.

Jeffrey Keeffe