Wise Lights

Ira Schneider and Frank Gillette: Wipe Cycle, 1969, live, found and prerecorded footage on nine television monitors; in “TV as a Creative Medium,” 1969, at Howard Wise Gallery. Courtesy EAI.

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“From coast to coast, no major exhibit of contemporary art these days is complete without the zap of neon, the wink of a wiggle bulb, the spiral shadows of a lumia or the ghostly glare of minimal fluorescence.”1 Though Time magazine published those words in April 1967—almost half a century ago—they once again ring true: light fills gallery rooms anew, from the blockbuster retrospectives of artists like Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell to expansive surveys such as “Light Art from Artificial Light” (ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2005), “Light Show” (Hayward Gallery, London, 2013) and “Dynamo: A Century of Light and Motion in Art, 1913-2013” (Grand Palais, Paris, 2013). There is even a specialized institution for such work—the Centre for International Light Art, which opened in Unna, Germany, in 2001.

As these developments suggest, light art is an elastic, tenuous medium, comprising works that utilize a variety of technologies and engage diverse art historical traditions and aesthetic paradigms. For example, the use of luminosity in contemporary art betrays influences ranging from the utopian concept of synesthesia (“Visual Music,” Hirshhorn, Washington, D.C., 2005) to the discourse of phenomenology to the ubiquity of computing. Ironically, these influences seem to exert a greater force on art today than the historical movement of so-called light art, which peaked around 1967.2 It was then that a publication as mainstream as Time could observe that “along with everything else, art has gone electric.”3 In the past decades, our desire to understand our own technological moment has led to increased interest in the histories of video, expanded cinema, and early artistic applications of software and systems aesthetics. But the sculptural objects of light art—more resolutely material, and hence seemingly more antiquated—recently have begun to emerge from the proverbial dustbin of history.

At the center of the little-known tale of postwar light art is New York City’s Howard Wise Gallery. Having retired from running the family business—a manufacturing firm that produced paints for industrial and military application—Wise (1903-1989) opened his first gallery in his hometown of Cleveland in 1957. There he presented works by contemporary American painters such as Milton Resnick and Elaine de Kooning, as well as new pieces from Europe. But despite his investment in established models of abstraction, Wise began developing an interest in the latest avant-garde experiments with art and technology. In 1959, he presented paintings by former Bauhaus student György Kepes (future founder of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT), and in 1961 he mounted the group show “Movement in Art,” which included “tangible motion sculptures” by Len Lye and “meta-matic” painting machines by Jean Tinguely.

After suffering a largely apathetic response, Wise decided in the spring of 1960 to open another eponymous gallery in the tony arts district of Manhattan’s 57th Street. Initially, he continued to promote the same familiar abstraction exhibited in his Cleveland gallery (which he closed in 1961), including works by George Ortman and Lee Krasner; but in 1964, his emphasis demonstrably shifted toward the use of real movement and light in art, typically effected by technological means. This trend was exemplified by the exhibitions “On the Move” (a kind of sequel to “Movement in Art”) and “Group Zero,” the first American gallery show of the loose international network of artists who were often influenced by technology in their search for new forms. (Zero has recently garnered much attention, culminating in the landmark survey “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s,” opening this month at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.)

With the assistance of his consultant, curator Douglas MacAgy, Wise would go on to present other young artists working in this vein, including the Argentinian-born Julio Le Parc, who was awarded the international prize for painting at the 1966 Venice Biennale for his kinetic, reflective mobiles. Wise strategically exhibited younger artists like Le Parc alongside the “old masters” of light art, Thomas Wilfred and László Moholy-Nagy, whose respective “lumia” and “light-space modulators” had become objects of fascination for the under-30 demographic. By the end of the ’60s, Wise had garnered a wide reputation as the premier dealer of light art: the New York Times designated his gallery “a hotbed for technologically-oriented artists,”4 while the countercultural magazine Cheetah, with a playful reference to electrical power, christened it “the semi-official power center for AC art.”5

Today, Wise’s gallery is best remembered for “TV as a Creative Medium” (1969), considered the first group show of what would come to be called video art.6 However, the gallery’s most representative exhibition—out of which “TV as a Creative Medium” would later emerge—was “Lights in Orbit,” which opened Feb. 4, 1967. This landmark group show made national headlines of kinetic light art, or “luminism,” as it was sometimes then called, following the nomenclature of artist and curator Willoughby Sharp. For a month, the show filled the two rooms of the gallery with glowing sculptures, flashing installations and moving-image projections accompanied by the sounds of whirring mechanics. In addition to reviews in papers like the New York Times and art publications like Arts magazine, the show garnered a full-color eight-page article in Time, a one-page review in Newsweek and a full-color three-page spread in the July 1967 issue of Popular Photography; it was also filmed by CBS-TV Chicago for the program “Eye on Art in New York.” Wise estimated that more than 20,000 people came to see the show, and it subsequently formed the core of the traveling exhibition “Light/Motion/Space,” which broke attendance records at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis later that year. While many of the artists in the show remain relatively unknown, some have become familiar to us, such as Le Parc, Nam June Paik, Group Zero’s Otto Piene and the countercultural collective USCO—names that are not always associated with each other, let alone with the short-lived American vogue for light art in the ’60s.

Regarding the show’s popularity with audiences across the country, Wise could only surmise that “light in movement gratifies a newly developed sensitivity within ourselves engendered by modern life.”7 Its appeal does seem to have been broad: though light art was often associated with young, “turned-on” audiences, a large percentage of the show was acquired by the entrepreneur Malcolm Forbes. His collection was then photographed for the magazine American Home, which forecasted the emergence of light art as a mainstream decorating trend in 1969.

Undoubtedly, the show’s notoriety stemmed in part from its rejection of trends then dominating the New York art world. “Lights in Orbit” comprised three dozen works by artists hailing from 11 countries, including persons trained as artists (such as Davide Boriani and Gregorio Vardanega) and as scientists (such as industrial chemist John Healey and nuclear engineer Earl Reiback). The list of participants also included aeronautical engineer Frank Malina, the future founder of the influential electronic arts journal Leonardo; his presence in particular suggests that “Lights in Orbit” is an important moment in the history of the typically fraught relationship between the mainstream and new-media art worlds. One of the most salient talking points about the show, in fact, was the unusual technologies the artist-scientists deployed. Reviews often quoted the show’s catalogue, which enumerated the use of “high intensity quartz-iodide lights; electronic circuitry; laser beams; magnetic distortion of electron beams; polarized light; plastics irradiated by gamma rays; polyester films coated with a mono-molecular layer of aluminum; [and] new phosphors having varying controlled rates of decay.”8

The strategies by which these materials were applied to aesthetic ends varied. Some works reflected ambient light, but most generated their own; either way, the works were constrained by the mandate to not luminesce so brightly as to interfere with adjacent works, and consequently tended toward an intimate, domestic scale. For example, Preston McClanahan’s Cloverleaf (1967)—three waist-high towers of four triangular plexiglass prisms—softly glowed with shifting colors generated by hidden fluorescent tubes. Like Cloverleaf, most works invited contemplation, while others, reflecting the trend then associated with Happenings and “intermedia” spectacles, required the spectator to participate in the production of chance effects: the contribution of noted biochemist and minor Op artist Gerald Oster, titled Instant Self-Skiagraphy (1967), was essentially an early version of the interactive “shadow walls” found in museums of science today. Though some of the works, like Oster’s, featured open systems, others, like McClanahan’s, utilized pre-programmed sequences, recalling a more traditional notion of composition and artistic agency.

Despite these many differences, the works shared one common denominator: the language of abstraction. The almost universal rejection of figuration here signaled the desire of many of the artists to de-instrumentalize or détourne the very technologies whose forms and operations they aped: namely, television and, to a lesser extent, film. Perhaps the most familiar example is Paik’s Electronic Blues (1966), an open system in which audio waves reconfigured the images on a color television screen via an electronic adaptor. This was only one of several works that corrupted and colonized the hegemonic televisual apparatus; others included Healey’s Box Three (1963), a black box containing a system of lights, lenses and mirrors that generated colored, patterned shapes on its dark screen. As for the specter of film, one might cite Jackie Cassen and Rudi Stern’s Kinetic Projector #1 (1966), a series of projected slides hand-painted with abstractions recalling natural forms, which updated the practice of abstract film for the psychedelic era (and in fact, the artists were enlisted by none other than Timothy Leary to produce the visual effects for his downtown happenings).

Thus, in retrospect, Howard Wise Gallery’s popularization of light art not only introduced international trends and new technologies but also heralded the artistic application of what we now term “new media.” In this regard, “Lights in Orbit” was not the gallery’s only pioneering show. Comprising work by A. Michael Noll and Béla Julesz, “Computer-Generated Pictures” (1965) was the first American exhibition of digitally produced images (though Wise was careful to avoid calling them “art”). The most cited of all of his shows, “TV as a Creative Medium” (1969), featured 11 works by artists including Paik and Charlotte Moorman, Thomas Tadlock, John Seery, Eric Siegel, and Frank Gillette and Ira Schneider; their projects dealt avant la lettre with many of the same issues that new media art addresses today, such as surveillance and hacking. In other words, Wise anticipated not only the ascendency of certain technological media but also their political ramifications.

Wise’s politics had always leaned left, and like many at that time, he was radicalized to some degree by the events of the decade; for example, he sided with his artists when they joined the protests against New York’s Museum of Modern Art orchestrated by the Art Workers’ Coalition, and included in his stable a relatively large number of culturally diverse figures.

It was Wise’s escalating interest in both the aesthetic and sociopolitical applications of new technologies that led to his gallery’s demise. On Dec. 16, 1970, “at the height of the Gallery’s success,” as he put it, Wise announced that the current show would be his last. In a letter to supporters, he explained that the “most adventuresome” artists were humanizing technology by pursuing projects that transcended the confines of the gallery.9 In 1971, in an effort to help them realize their work, he founded the nonprofit organization Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), which remains a major facility for the preservation, viewing, distribution, study and critical discussion of video and new media work. Of course, the collusion of art and technology (even—or especially—in the name of humanism) inspired skepticism from those wary of technocratic ideologies; ironically, this same skepticism motivates many (but certainly not all) new media artists today, even as it often undermines a fair critical assessment of their works.10

At their best, the artists whom Wise exhibited were more than mere techno-utopian proselytizers. While they championed the use of technology, their proper legacy is the way in which they made art and new media speak to each other in a nuanced dialogue that continues even now. In fact, the individuals associated with Howard Wise were among the first to negotiate—within the physical and discursive space of the art gallery—many paradigmatic properties of current information technologies: programming, feedback, the infinite commutability of data, the transcription of physical into virtual space. While the midcentury opposition between the “two cultures” of the humanities and the sciences is largely still with us (despite recent efforts to broker a détente, as seen in the rhetoric around the “digital humanities”), Wise’s lights continue to shine as examples of how art can reflect, refract and transform the role of technology in our everyday lives.