Bruce Nauman, Green Light Corridor, 1970, painted wallboard, fluorescent light fixtures with green lamps. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, 2011. Photo: Pablo Mason.

Bruce Nauman, Green Light Corridor, 1970, painted wallboard, fluorescent light fixtures with green lamps. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, 2011. Photo: Pablo Mason.

“Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface.”

Bruce Nauman, Green Light Corridor, 1970, painted wallboard, fluorescent light fixtures with green lamps. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, 2011. Photo: Pablo Mason.

ONE FELT A STRONG APPLE GLOW upon entering “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface.” Curated by Robin Clark, this meticulously installed survey of the work of thirteen artists affiliated with Light and Space and Finish Fetish brought to mind not only the even lighting and virtual emptiness of Apple stores but also the subconscious draw of the “Designed by Apple in California” promise emblazoned across the company’s products. Even if iPhones, iPads, et al. are “assembled in China,” the connotations of opportunity and innovation that still cling to the Golden State—despite every budget deficit and traffic jam now associated with it—lend these objects’ cool white curves a valuable association with palm trees, Silicon Valleys, and crystal clear swimming pools. The architecture of the three venues where the show was held seemed to embrace such connections: MCASD’s La Jolla site has windows offering wide Pacific Ocean views, while its two downtown spaces contain the dark rooms that this work needs to shine.

Among such pieces, Doug Wheeler’s untitled 1965 square of acrylic on canvas backlit by neon brightened an otherwise dim room by turning the materiality of the monochrome into a luminescent gestalt. One wasn’t sure at first whether it was a solid or a void, whether one should be entering it or basking in its glow. This effect was pushed further in the luminous portals of James Turrell’s Stuck Red and Stuck Blue, both 1970, which cut into the gallery’s walls to find their form. Many works, in fact, suggested that confusion is endemic to Light and Space: Still sculptures can appear bewilderingly tumescent, as does Helen Pashgian’s untitled ocular orb from 1970, and sheer transparency becomes miraculously heavy, for example in a 1969–70 (also untitled) acrylic column by Robert Irwin. All that is solid melts into air, we know, but it turns out that the process can be reversed as well: Light and space can also be consolidated into concrete works of art.

Given that “Phenomenal” formed part of “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945–1980,” it is perhaps significant that no dates were included in its title. The movement’s keywords were here presented as timeless, even sublime things—which is how many of these artists understood their work as well. Turning away from collective experience, they made anechoic chambers and primordial craters privileged sites of isolated experience, laboratories in which vision might be truly understood. Such an interest in pure perception may seem at odds with how many of the “Phenomenal” artists joined up with the vanguard of technology, collaborating with the plastics and aerospace industries and learning from their styles and techniques. Arguably, light and space never functioned so much as media for these artists as did polyester, acrylic, neon, and vacuum-coated glass—even if they thought these materials were just means to an end. As a result, several of these artists look like latter-day versions of Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, whose streamlined sculptures helped usher in a new phase of what might be called capitalist constructivism. “There will be something akin to the work of Gabo and Pevsner in tomorrow’s auto, tomorrow’s store front, and perhaps tomorrow’s vacuum cleaner,” an astute critic wrote in 1948. The same has rung true for Turrell, Wheeler, and Co. By paying more attention to artists’ visions than to the material environment of which they were a part, then, “Phenomenal” declined to fully articulate the historicity of its moment. Instead, one was led to believe that Plexiglas and tungsten lights might actually have transcendental properties.

Happily, a few pathways out of the sublime were made available in the exhibition. Craig Kauffman’s big throbbing pink plastic Untitled, 1968, served as one Pop-friendly and sci-fi-savvy antidote. More antagonistically, Bruce Nauman’s Green Light Corridor, 1970, one of the few works in the show to overtly emphasize the relationship between embodiment and vision, presented viewers with a claustrophobic passageway suffused in green light. Once they had squeezed through to the far side, a pink after­image allowed them to see the world (and the ocean view framed by Irwin’s 1° 2° 3° 4°, 1997) as if through cheap rose-colored glasses. The enveloping experience of Eric Orr’s Zero Mass, 1972–73, a pitch-black room wrapped in photographer’s seamless background paper, similarly evoked feelings closer to anxious panic than the Zen-like blankness that the artist intended. Several projects by Maria Nordman (who unfortunately chose not to participate in the exhibition) would have activated the space in other ways. The emphasis on collective interaction throughout her practice would, moreover, have suggested the generative site that Light and Space once was for many artists, if only as something to be “socialized,” rebelled against, and revised.

In part because of such omissions, the power of Light and Space here appeared most profound when considered as a prototype for twenty-first-century production. Devoid of information, inept at communication, and fearful of touch, these works nevertheless manage to seduce. In spite of itself, the exhibition showed that their allure was achieved not through the elemental attractions of light and space, but rather through the manipulation of materials and surfaces: In the very proximity of these works’ effects to regimes of contemporary design, one could not but draw parallels with the smoothness and blankness that so feverishly attracts us in products and interfaces today.

Alex Kitnick is a 2011–2012 fellow at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.