Review: “Light and Space” at the Seattle Art Museum

A one-room show brings together two art movements, resulting in a playful and thought-provoking experience.

Photo credit: Installation view of Light and Space at the Seattle Art Museum. ©Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Mark Woods.

I knew I was in for a treat when I entered the “Light and Space” exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. The show features sculptures, some with reflective surfaces and translucent materials, which are complemented by subdued paintings. Individual works by Donald Judd and Robert Irwin immediately caught my eye, but the cohesiveness of this show kept me lingering. Together, this exhibition creates an active and ever-changing viewer experience.

The show’s title is a nod to the west coast art movement, Light and Space, that began in the 1960s and 1970s. Reflective materials, color gradations and prism-like effects were among the ways artists explored light and space in sculpture and painting. The exhibition also includes Minimalist artwork, which originated on the east coast in New York around the same time. This art is characterized by geometric shapes and the use of unconventional materials, such as industrial and manufacturing supplies. Selections associated with each movement are brought together in this one-room show.

I am accustomed to seeing Light and Space art or Minimalist art in isolation, but not together. The combination is laudable. It conveys the similarities and differences between these two art movements in an experiential way.

First, the similarities. The geometric theme abounds in this show: squares, circles and rectangles. The ten displayed artworks are large in size and rich in experience. The size alone draws you near, but the nuances — reflections, shadows and color gradations — keep you lingering. The clean aesthetic in each piece questions whether the artwork was made by man or machine.

Yet, differences between the movements manifest here. You sense the mass in works by Minimalist artist Donald Judd. Shadows cast on the floor and walls emphasize the weight of his steel and aluminum pieces. In contrast, there’s a delicate appeal in the cast acrylic column by Robert Irwin, a Light and Space artist. It reflects rays of light onto a white plinth extending onto the wood floor.

Untitled, 1969, Donald Judd, clear anodized aluminum and violet plexiglas, 33 x 68 x 48 in. (83.8 x 172.7 x 121.9cm). Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2014.25.36, ©Artist or Artist’s Estate

There’s also an experiential component to the show. Judd’s “Untitled,” consisting of a large, square box with a hollowed interior, sits on the gallery floor — occupying your space. Its weighty presence evokes a fear-like quality, and causes you to cautiously move around it. John McCracken’s “Untitled” does something different. A square column made of stainless steel invites interaction. Its reflective surface is another way to see artwork around the gallery. There’s also a narcissistic quality to his work: it’s hard to avoid your own reflection.

A joy of the show is watching others engage with the art. A person spends about 30 seconds looking at an artwork, according to The J. Paul Getty Museum. Not here. People are enthralled the artwork displayed, noticing how it changes over time and space. A woman noticed the changing reflections in Irwin’s column as she walked around it, pointing out and photographing rays of light.

“Light and Space” offers an engaging conversation through experience, not words. The artwork tacitly asks you to see and understand art on your own terms. The gallery space helps: a large room with tall white walls prevents overcrowding. Above all, “Light and Space” rejuvenates two familiar movements in a show that is both playful and thought-provoking.

“Light and Space” is on show at the Seattle Art Museum until November 6.

Programmer and Writer: amymhaddad.com | programmerspyramid.com | @amymhaddad