New York

Helen Pashgian, Untitled, 2021, cast epoxy, artist-made pedestal, 45 × 45".

Helen Pashgian, Untitled, 2021, cast epoxy, artist-made pedestal, 45 × 45".

Helen Pashgian

One of the members of the California Light and Space movement that emerged in the 1960s, Helen Pashgian made her mark with translucent abstract sculptures crafted from pigmented acrylic resins—forms so seemingly perfect that they tested the limits of retinal vision. She and her cohorts, including Peter Alexander, Robert Irwin, John McCracken, and DeWain Valentine, were keen to explore the plethora of new industrial materials ushered into commercial applications after World War II and, notably, were pioneers with polyester resin after it appeared on the market in 1966. In those days, their approach was all so experimental: e.g., the infusions of color that occurred during the resin’s curing process; the fabrication techniques developed for molding and folding acrylics; the creation of surfaces so highly polished that they became exquisitely reflective, revealing trippy interior depths. Specially built environments and controlled lighting extended the potential for visual magic and theatricality. By the late ’60s, Pashgian had honed her methods so impeccably that her objects appeared to come alive and dematerialize all at once.

The artist never got her due. Her first solo museum show was in 2010 at the Pomona College Museum of Art in Claremont, California, and her most recent one-woman gallery exhibition in New York, prior to “Spheres and Lenses” at Lehmann Maupin, was in 1971. Her show here extended two ongoing series and included a pair of luminous, untitled “Lenses,” 1970–: large circular disks, across which were diffused varying shades of chartreuse. The show also contained seven jewel-like untitled “Spheres,” 1966–: immaculate shiny, colored orbs featuring embedded geometric forms or stacked strata that conjure imaginary spatial infinities.

The two lens sculptures—one was from 2020 and sixty inches in diameter, while the other, from 2021, was forty-five inches in diameter—were generative objects that hummed with radiant energy. Ambient lighting that imperceptibly cycled in a five-minute loop from dim to bright triggered the sensation of movement. Sheltered in niches built out from the gallery walls, the vibrant disks stood ceremoniously on slender pedestals, commanding our attention. The components of both works are cast from urethane, and their surfaces are treated to create a “frosted” effect, which is key to instrumentalizing the “disappearing act” the sculptures perform. Color ripples from their centers, but as the pigment dissipates, the disks seem to dissolve, testing the distance between the imaginary and the real. The pieces evince sleight of hand but don’t seem to comprise any specific content. In decades past, the work might have been dismissed as “eye candy.” Today, its reified presence is a predicate to meditation and transportive projection and is indeed an invitation to indulge in the sensuousness of existence.

The seven highly polished spheres, each one seven inches in diameter and made between 2018 and 2020, forfeited the environmental impact of the lenses but mesmerized with high-definition color and crystalline clarity (imagine the blue skies of the West Coast, a flaming sunset, or sunlight caressing the surface of a pond). When closely examined, these flawless gazing balls—created from cast epoxy and formed acrylic elements suspended in translucent interiors—reveal unexpected forms, like portals to the unknown. As viewers circle these highly mutable objects, reflected light plays on and through their surfaces, illuminating their interior mysteries while drawing us into an animated whirl.

When Pashgian pioneered her work in the ’60s, the sculptures were contextualized by “California dreamin’,” new space-age materials, and the rethinking of what art could be in a rapidly changing social landscape. Today, the cultural framework for her art is vastly different—not the “new vision” of the modernists, but machine vision: NFTs, deepfakes, and virtual realities. What’s amazing is the degree to which Pashgian’s work is in dialogue with current technologies and immersive interactive experiences. Compare her “Spheres and Lenses,” with all their visionary allure, to the first-ever NFT: Kevin McCoy’s Quantum, 2014, a pixelated octagon filled with various shapes that pulsate hypnotically. It solicits the viewer’s engagement in a way a Pashgian sculpture does. One suspects her day has just begun!