- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

Historically and now, light dominates art. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden shows several modern takes on light as art — unfortunately containing only a few arresting examples — with “Refract, Reflect, Project: Light Works From the Collection.”

Associate curator Anne Ellegood recentlydelved into the Hirshhorn’s cache of “light sculpture” and found such art from the late 1950s to today by notables Dan Flavin, James Turrell, Ivan Navarro, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Chryssa but also less impressive art by Jordan Belson and Giovanni Anselmo.

Unfortunately, the curator missed a good opportunity to highlight the notables — for example, a small room could have been built to show four Flavins instead of one and not show just one work by each artist because of space limitations.

Instead, she appears more interested in deciphering minimalist, conceptual Italian Arte Povera, kinetic, immersive environmental, abstract and pop-art movements through light than in showing how light is experienced as material and perception.

She could only have done this by showing several works by fewer of the top artists.

Miss Ellegood wisely exhibits the most interesting and adventurous artists first, such as Mr. Flavin, the famed minimalist sculptor. His work ” ‘Monument’ for V. Tatlin” (1967), in vertically arranged white fluorescent light tubings, appropriately leads off the show. “Monument” was part of his white works series dedicated to the Russian constructivist sculptor Vladimir Tatlin.

Nearby, Mr. Navarro, who both wittily and seriously takes Mr. Flavin’s ideas a step further in his 2006 “Flashlight: I’m Not From Here, I’m Not From There,” presents a “wheelbarrow” of fluorescent tubing named after the Julio Iglesias song of the same title.

In the accompanying video, set to Mr. Iglesias’ song, Mr. Navarro pictures a man pushing the cart and running along deserted train tracks. The artist shows him as a drifter who survives in the city, a man who has lost his identity, as have so many in our modern world.

Moving through the exhibit, visitors come across “Round Rainbow” (2005), one of its most beautiful sculptures by Olafur Eliasson. Long an experimenter with movement in different mediums, he uses swirling acrylic glass, HMI spotlight, motor and tripod to create revolving rainbow circles and ovoids in a darkened lavender room.

The unusual prism mechanism creates a gallery filled with continually moving rainbows of lights, shadows and colors.

Comparable in beauty to Mr. Eliasson’s piece is Robert Irwin’s one-room, beige-and-transparent “Untitled” (1969), a cast acrylic disc — painted with acrylic — that floats in space. Mr. Irwin spotlighted it with two floor-placed lighting fixtures.

During 1968, Mr. Turrell, known as the other light sculpture revolutionary, experimented with creating altered states of consciousness with shadowless light and lightless rooms.

One is Mr. Turrell’s “Milk Run” (1996), an installation of winding black galleries, with only little white arrows directing visitors to the last room. There, the artist creates a warm, wall-sized red wash through a light projection of fluorescent tubes and colored gel. The museum presents benches for visitors savoring the piece.

By contrast, the “kinetic artists” 1960s section does, indeed, jump.

Greek-born Chryssa, using timers and blinking neon lights, creates the most exciting work of the section, perhaps of the show. When she came to the U.S., she wrote, “I saw Times Square with its light and letters, and I realized it was as beautiful and difficult to do as Japanese calligraphy.”

Always interested in signs of communication between humans — arrows, letters from the Roman alphabet, Japanese words and, more, her work here — “Study for ‘The Gates No. 15 (Flock of Morning Birds From “Iphigenia in Aulis” by Euripides)’ ” — demonstrates her love of neon-lighted urban spaces.

The red writing at top left, set on honeycomb black tubing activated with a timer, runs close to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s “Gates to Times Square,” considered one of America’s most important sculptures.

Unfortunately, the exhibit loses pace and interest thereafter with Joseph Kosuth’s “Four Colors Four Words” (1966); Thomas Wilfred’s unoriginal “Study in Depth, Opus 152” (1959), dedicated to moving colors; and Yaacov Agam’s “Transparent Rhythms II” (1967-1968) of oil on aluminum. Mr. Agam’s earlier work was better, and visitors must love conceptual art to appreciate Mr. Kosuth’s “Four Colors.”

Purported to show work from the late 1950s to the present, the exhibit is at its best with its 1960s artists — most of whom, such as Mr. Flavin, Mr. Irwin and Mr. Turrell — are very good. This is an ambitious undertaking that tries to do too much in too small a space.

If Miss Ellegood had concentrated on about six good artists, each represented by six top works, she would have come up with a much better show.

What: Refract, Reflect, Project: Light Works From the Collection”

WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street Southwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through April 8

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEBSITE: hirschhorn.si.edu

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