Light in Contemporary Art: 5 Artists Compared

Light as a vehicle of meaning in artistic practice, a material to be shaped, and a medium of communication. Five examples from contemporary authors.

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Highlights

In the 20th century, art moved beyond mere representation of reality, replaced by more faithful reproduction methods like photography and the “other” languages of avant-garde movements. In this context, light also emerged as an independent expressive medium.

In the 1960s, light became a true medium, tied to conceptual and minimalist art movements. Consumer society shaped an urban landscape filled with signs, writings, texts, and other objects whose colours stand out in urban twilight, effectively making the night a time to be lived and experienced.

Several artists have used light as an expressive medium, on par with canvases and brushes. Let’s briefly revisit the works of those who made lighting both a tool and a medium.

Lucio Fontana and the Spatial Environments

Lucio Fontana, born on February 19, 1899, in Argentina to an Italian family, initially worked in abstract sculpture. From the late 1940s, he created works that made him world-famous: the Spatial Environments series and the Spatial Concepts series (commonly known as “holes” or “cuts”).

Transcending the limits of painting and sculpture, Fontana focused on the viewer and the perception of the work, exploring the concept of light and surpassing the two-dimensionality of the canvas. In particular, his contribution to the 9th Milan Triennale in 1951 included neon tubes that incorporated the viewer into the work itself, making him participate in the changing perspective of the environment.

1. Lucio Fontana, Spatial environment with neon, 1967/2017, installation view in Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2017. Courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. ©Fondazione Lucio Fontana - Ph. Agostino Osio

Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Environments were featured in a retrospective at the Fondazione Pirelli Hangar Bicocca in 2017, gathered for the first time in a single space.

Mario Merz, Light and the Igloos

Mario Merz, a key figure in Arte Povera, used light to create dialogues between nature and technology. His Igloo series installations, made of natural materials and neon lights, elevate lighting from a mere decorative tool to a vital component. For Merz, light is an essential element, giving matter an alchemical character. The artist aimed to project his works into modern sensibility, where light transcends mere illumination and becomes energy, a sensitive element interacting with materials.

2. Igloos by Mario Merz, 2018 - Courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan - Ph. Renato Ghiazza. © Mario Merz, by SIAE 2018.

Dan Flavin, Minimalism and Lighting

Dan Flavin is considered the master of neon art. In 1963, he created his first work with fluorescent lamps, naming it and subsequent works Icons. Although many have attempted to interpret his work religiously, Flavin consistently rejected transcendental or metaphysical interpretations.

Unlike artists like Fontana and Merz, who incorporated neon lights into their broader creations, making it a medium, Flavin displayed simple, commercially available lights.

3. icon VII (via crucis) by Dan Flavin, 1962–64. © Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Ph. Bill Jacobson Studio, New York

Understanding his works requires thinking in terms of pure vision: the emitted light, colours, and luminous intensity. Flavin focuses on these characteristics’ purity, creating atmospheres and refuting pictorial illusionism, eliminating any symbolic reference that isn’t purely expressive.

Bruce Nauman, Light and Language

Bruce Nauman, an American artist with a multifaceted output, explored a more personal approach during his period working with neon lights (part of a practice incorporating a vast array of different mediums). His research was marked by the body and the space, as in the 1965 Manipulating a Fluorescent Tube performance. Nauman was also fascinated by neon as an expressive form of public advertising signs: Window or Wall, hung at the entrance of his studio, reads: “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.”

Through his neon works, Nauman investigated linguistic issues, testing the capacity of words to shape the world. He played with words, focusing on substitutions and assonances.

4. The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign) by Bruce Nauman, 1967. Kunstmuseum Basel, © 2022 Bruce Nauman / SIAE Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York

James Turrell, Light and Cosmic Tension

James Turrell, a Californian artist, works with light within a meditative and spiritual context. He, too, manipulates the viewer’s visual perception, focusing on space.

Ekeberg Skyspace by James Turrell, 2013 - ph. Ekebergparken / © Florian Holzherr

Among his most notable projects are the Sky Spaces, rooms with ceiling openings looking towards the sky, creating immersive environments. This metaphysical pursuit aspires to a cosmic tension, with coloured patterns creating liminal spaces suspended in perception and time.

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