If I had any intention in starting this blog (which is questionable), it was not to serve as a space for autobiography or memoir. But neither was it to present a record from which the autobiographical subject is entirely absent. Both principles, the inclusion of something which for want of a better term I’ll call “subjectivity,” and demurral from making self a world of its own, do not seem like positions I take so much as automatic and reflexive responses that are in a sense taken for me. All this to say that in the course of things on this blog I will describe what I see; and if doing this I also happen to describe facets of myself, so be it. (But if I start posting pictures of my late grandparents, please contact the authorities.)
This past weekend I visited several New York City museums. It was intensely hot outside; inside, the crowds were overwhelming. In these crowded spaces I saw three current exhibitions that make light and the absence of light a central subject: James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim and two exhibitions on separate floors of the Whitney: Hopper Drawing, pairing the sketches and finished canvases of Edward Hopper, and Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil – Black Rectangle – Natural Light, a recreation of the 1977 exhibition in that space. The exhibitions by Turrell and Irwin are natural complements, as both artists are associated with the Light and Space movement originating in southern California in the late 1960s. Hopper’s use of light, his lifelong fascination with the properties and effects of light, is legendary.
Each of these exhibitions is well worth seeing. To exhibit these works in summer, the season of sun and long hours of daylight, makes perfect thematic sense too. The Hopper exhibition is large and intricately curated, featuring two main types of work: preparatory drawings for his major paintings, paired with those iconic works; and free-standing sketches. This latter type of Hopper’s work (to me equally as exciting as the sketches for the famous canvases) contains early self-portraits, including several sketches of his hands, occasionally bearing the tools of the artist’s trade; of his wife Josephine, portrayed tenderly, or at times with frank eroticism; of New England, Gloucester and coastal Maine (among other places), its architecture and bleak natural beauty. The centerpieces of James Turrell’s exhibition are the installation pieces, including the site-specific installation Aten Reign (2013), which fills the space of the Guggenheim rotunda in concentric circles of colored LED light. A separate room contains Turrell’s works on paper, each lit from above by a powerful spotlight, creating impressions of stark whiteness on a dark surface, as in an image backlit, or illuminated from within. Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil is simplest of the three exhibitions, consisting of one large installation, but may to my mind be the most powerful of the bunch. The Scrim Veil is Irwin’s name for the diaphanous barrier that extends across the upper two thirds of a large museum room (the “Black Rectangle” of the title), which it cuts in half along its length. This barrier is solid at its narrow base of steel and wood (most spectators will need to duck to pass from one side of the room to the other), but its sheer vinyl plane is partially transparent as it rises to the ceiling, illuminated across its surface by the natural light that makes the third element of the title.
I take away from these exhibitions a single, simple impression, a retinal afterimage of sorts, of light in an empty (or near-empty) room:
Edward Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room” (1963)
Turrell’s “Meeting,” from the portfolio First Light (1989–90)
Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil — Black Rectangle — Natural Light (1977).
Each of these images is marvelously resonant, evoking a sense of quiet and secular mysticism. That these spare, majestic, auratic works of light are also all creations of white men is not I think entirely incidental. What is it in these vacant illuminated spaces that tells of self? And why should that self be coded as a privileged one? Light is on one account impersonal and available to all: that the sun rises and sets on the good and evil alike is a notion as old as the Gospels (Matthew 5:45). But the enjoyment of sunlight is also of course a privilege. Light is not guaranteed to all, as the New York Times’ Real Estate section and Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” both clearly remind us:
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night
It is in the nature of privilege that its lack is more clearly specified than its possession. Light confers visibility on objects, but the possession or enjoyment of light (e.g. as whiteness) is itself less visible than its absence. To be “Born to sweet delight” (the language of inheritance is unmistakable here) is to be born to space and light in plenty — the vacant sovereignty of privilege, the room of one’s own. The object of privilege is here clearly pronounced in Blake’s powerful lines (“delight” / “de light”) and conspicuously absent from it.
Formless and contentless, the medium of light focuses attention to a great degree on the act of seeing itself. One way of putting this is to say that the vacant space invites introspection. But the dark room penetrated by beams of light is one of Locke’s prominent metaphors of mind too. The vacant and illuminated interior, far from representing a site of extreme impersonality, can thus represent a sublime figure of Mindedness in its own right. Such a figure is evident in Hopper’s Sun in an Empty Room (1963). A late work, Hopper’s painting removes the solitary human figure that most often appears in his interiors, leaving the geometrical play of light and shade in a straw-colored room (“outside” is represented by a single windblown tree seen through the window). The painting verges on abstraction, but it is no less inclined to narrative than other of his great canvases — only the narrative subject is more obviously Hopper himself. The painting lays bare, theatrically as in other of his great works, the principle that has animated his life’s work. (“All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house.”) When asked what he was after in creating the painting, Hopper said, “I’m after ME.”
Of the three artists, Turrell is most explicit that what one sees as a spectator of his light-based art is in large part nothing other than perception itself. So too, the exhibition struck me as most willing of the three to invite association between the artist’s work and the fiat lux of the creator. At the exhibit, one woman within earshot had a brief exchange with another about the spiritual feeling that Turrell’s light works instilled in her. I felt at once the deep truth of the sentiment and embarrassed to overhear it.