Julio Le Parc, Light in Movement (1962)
Julio Le Parc, Light in Movement (1962)

As the name implies, the Light and Space movement of the 1960s and 1970s depends mightily on perception and experience. For East Coast viewers, however, the group has mattered most as an exercise on paper. The bulk of the great Light and Space artists—Doug Wheeler, Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and others—emerged in California, offering a counterpoint to the stolid Minimalism taking shape in New York around the same time. A few noteworthy shows and commissions notwithstanding, provincial East Coast curators have been reluctant or unable to bring Light and Space to Eastern Standard Time.

Just one example: In January, at age 72, Wheeler finally had his debut gallery show in New York. “SA MI 75 DZ NY 12,” at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea, offered an “infinity environment”: a room illuminated so brightly that its contours and limits were obliterated. Fans waited hours in 30-degree weather to stand in an utterly featureless room.

Those who did may have some sense of what they’re missing in “Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color and Space” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Others are out of luck. The exhibition puts Light and Space in an odd light indeed.

“Suprasensorial” aims to show how artists hailing from Latin America anticipated the work of the Light and Space artists. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the exhibit puts forward five expansive installations as evidence that Latin American artists manipulated the same elements in similar ways. Unfortunately, these artists’ works fail to make a cohesive case for a unified approach to experience and perception. Far from it.

One of the installations—Cosmococa: Program in Progress, CC1 Trashiscapes (1973), by Brazilian artists Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida—serves as “a respite of sorts” from the rest of the show. The loungey installation, which features low-flung futons and a stoner-rock soundtrack, is basically a sample of coffee beans to smell in between perfume samples. In a show of neon and fluorescent tubes, this room is barely lit, barring the projected images of cocaine culture and paraphernalia on the walls. It’s a shock, frankly, to see an artwork so obviously cast as a neutral reset for viewers overstimulated by the other visuals in the exhibit.

Suspended over the Hirshhorn’s escalator banks is Lucio Fontana’s Neon Structure for the IX Triennale of Milan (1951). What might first appear to be a pragmatic decision—this lobby is one of the museum’s larger ones, after all, and the Fontana sucks up a lot of oxygen—turns out to have strategic purpose. Viewers filing up the escalator are ushered toward the sculpture and into its light. Here, the Hirshhorn has set the terms of the engagement: Motion becomes an ineluctable aspect of the experience of the work. The viewer’s knowledge of the piece grows at a more or less fixed velocity.

That’s in keeping with the Italian, Argentina-born artist’s original presentation of the work, which he installed over a stairwell. He meant for motion to be a component. (And arguably, an escalator is much effective here than stairs.) The strategy fits with Fontana’s larger theory of reconciling light and color—but not so much with the Light and Space movement. Artists like Wheeler and Turrell prefered incredibly still, ordered, totalistic environments. The neon sculpture, realized by manufacturer Angelo Musumeci in conjunction with Fondazione Lucio Fontana (the artist died in 1968), is gestural and expressive, much more so than anything in the Light and Space toolbox. Other works by Fontana fit Light and Space better. His Spatial Concept paintings—the slashed-canvas works for which he is well known—are more effective in conveying motion and illusion with minimal shape and effort, a Light and Space hallmark.

The French, Argentina-born artist Julio Le Parc’s Light in Movement (1962) will be familiar to contemporary-art viewers. The piece—a shimmery display of mirrors and dangling polished metal squares illuminated by spotlights—looks immediately and unmistakably like a rough cut of an Olafur Eliasson. Viewers in the semicircular room at the Hirshhorn stand awash in Le Parc’s reflected light, which dances along the curving wall as the metal squares sway in space. While it might seem backward to attribute the innovation to Eliasson, who was not even a glimmer in his mother’s eye when Le Parc made this piece, it was Eliasson who, relatively recently, took light from op artists like Le Parc and mastered it as a medium. Which is neither here nor there, as far as the show is concerned: This aggressive motion of reflected light is not something much seen in Light and Space work.

There’s one bona fide Light and Space work in the show, all right: Chromasaturation (1965), by French, Venezuela-born artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. The harsh fluorescent lights set into the artist’s makeshift pavilion obliterate shadow, making it difficult to perceive the limits of the room. Wheeler would be proud (or maybe it’s the other way around).

But a signature work by another French, Venezuela-born artist, Jesús Rafael Soto, almost wholly undoes the thesis of “Suprasensorial.” The installation, which involves thousands of blue nylon strings hanging from a steel frame, asks viewers to walk through and immerse themselves in its claustrophobia-inducing tendrils.

If a Soto installation anticipates the Light and Space movement, then the movement doesn’t mean much as a category. Look to the adjacent gallery of works from the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection, where there rests a Dan Flavin sculpture: What’s to prevent viewers from inducting this long fence of harsh blue fluorescent bulbs into the Light and Space continuity, too? The proximity of these all-too-different light works is a tension that the Hirshhorn cultivates. Viewers would be forgiven for mistaking that Flavin’s fluorescent tubes belong with the rest. At first glance, the Flavin certainly works better as part of “Suprasensorial” than the coke lounge does.

At MOCA in Los Angeles—where Light and Space matters as a local tradition—“Suprasensorial” surely makes more sense: By their lack of cohesion, these Latin American works inadvertantly show that Light and Space’s California artists were a notably tight bunch. Much of “Suprasensorial” is unrepresentative of the artists’ careers, and the works don’t fit any school in a clear way. Instead, these discoveries are tangents—off the artists’ trajectories and off different artistic categories. But here at the Hirshhorn, viewers aren’t likely to understand them in that light.