ANDOVER — “Light, Space, Surface: Works from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” now open at the Addison Gallery of American Art, is a big, heady, occasional head-scratcher of an exhibition of the particular kind of conceptual art that bloomed in the eternal sunshine of the far left coast in the 1960s. But couldn’t it also be three-word shorthand for how we, as frozen Northeasterners, see our Pacific cousins? Aren’t we dark, cramped, and — this is the important part — of bottomless depth, very serious while they skim blithely along the froth of their sun-soaked wonderland? Maybe that’s just envy talking. With a snow bomb of a nor’easter on its way this weekend, can you really blame us?
Since the dawn of Modernism a little more than a century ago, regionalism has rarely been a welcome rubric, with the particularities of place an unwanted intrusion on the purity of ideas. But when Abstract Expressionism began to cede its avant-garde status in the early ′60s to an array of upstarts from Pop Art to minimalism to conceptualism, it became clear there was something different in the water east to west. New York gave us brainy, hands-on proto-conceptualists like Sol Lewitt and Carl Andre, who countered AbEx’s painterly chutzpah with stacks of fire bricks and cinder blocks; Los Angeles produced James Turrell, who gave us light on a wall, weightless and transient as the flip of a switch.
Turrell, of course, is here, with “Afrum (White),” 1966, one of his earliest works, a searing beam cast into a nook of wall. And to be clear, there are objects — a lot of them. But where their East Coast counterparts wanted to deflate AbEx hubris and make art to be seen as less precious, more workaday, the Californians just wanted you to see.
“Afrum (White)” is a best effort to give light itself dimension; bisected by the corner of wall, it’s an immaterial, not-unconvincing mimic of a cube. With soft arcs all linked to a central pink disc looking for all the world like a giant Spirograph drawing, Robert Irwin’s “Untitled,” 1966-67, is in fact the product of precise light casting even more precise shadow; flicked off, all but the central disc would vanish. Down a short hallway in a room all on its own, Doug Wheeler’s hypnotic “Untitled (Light Encasement),” 1968, deceives the eye entirely, the impossibly soft glow at its heart lending the impression you’re walking through mist. (You’re not; if you look closely, you’ll see that the sharp plaster seams between walls and ceiling have been rounded smooth, completing the illusion.)
I met with Turrell last spring at Mass MoCA, where he had just opened a brand-new Skyspace — his freestanding, perceptual thrill rides, open to the sky but somehow in control of how you see it. He recalled an early review: “It said, ‘This is just light on a wall.’” He chuckled. “Which was fair.” Conceptualism, of course, has never been so empirical. A significant passage of the exhibition is devoted to the early critical reaction as one too focused on form.
The critic William Wilson coined the term “finish fetish” in 1966 to describe the sleek surfaces the movement seemed to favor. Objectively, that was fair enough. In the disheveled scrapyard of post-industrial downtown New York, artists made work from whatever was on hand, the more prosaic and unremarkable the better. In California, burgeoning car culture combined with space-age optimism prompted sunny, blue-sky dreaming, which led in a different direction.
Sheen mattered, though not as Wilson assumed. John McCracken’s “Plank,” 1976, a long, slim rectangle of dark ochre propped against the wall, has the reflective quality of a car hood; what you see in it matters as much as the thing itself. Nearby, Helen Pashgian’s “Untitled,” an undulating column of sea green, seems to drink light itself, giving none back. Pashgian, a first-generation finish-fetishist, made the piece in 2011; for her, some 40 years after it all began, the limitless potential of perceptual play is still fresh.
Connecting past to present is something “Light, Space, Surface” does well. It’s not just a history lesson, which feels important. Just as minimalism and conceptualism spawned generations’ worth of fellow travelers and reactionaries, the Californian movement has a significant lineage of its own.
There are newer works among the old, and a curiosity for materials persists: Near McCracken’s piece, Peter Alexander’s “Rincon,” from 2014, looks like long swabs of parallel, multicolored light; they’re actually slim blobs of tinted silicon. In a different room, Gisele Colón’s “Monolith,” 2016, a squat, sleek, cartoony obelisk, shimmers with a rainbow sparkle beyond its silvery surface. Whatever its affable goofiness, its form is the product of precise mathematical formulae, a property it shares with its nearby neighbor: Norman Zamitt’s “Untitled,” 1984, a broad triptych of canvases that evoke a beachside sunset. Its landscape-y tease aside, the luminous gradient you see was arrived at by less-than-romantic means: Zammitt created the work by weighing out precise amounts of dry pigment of five basic colors, and then used rudimentary computer logarithms to determine how much of each shade would be painted, in order.
A little more simply: The gap between what you’re looking at and what you see can be considerable, a brain-teaser that’s core to a lot of conceptual art, east or west. Perception, though, was the Californian lingua franca, a soft-sensate entree to a movement that artists like Lewitt had defined with wordplay and math. Conceptualism can truly be a realm of the art nerds — caveat emptor, my natural home — and to go down its rabbit hole can as easily lead to befuddlement as pleasure. Here, the Californians, with their sunnier dispositions, have a natural advantage.
You don’t need to know much about perceptual psychology to be absorbed in Wheeler’s work, which I went back to again and again for the sheer delight of its cheery confusions. Mary Corse, who, like Wheeler, has a room of her own, offers a counterpoint with “Untitled (Clear White),” from 1966, a square of flickering light that seems to levitate off the wall. It’s jagged where Wheeler’s is soft, and there’s a lovely little coda to it just outside its space: A Corse work on canvas from 1996 is made with ghostly white reflective paint that changes every step you take toward, away, and across it. Its three vertical bands have a spectral, barely-there presence. Does it mean to bury the bold, red-versus-blue austerity of Barnett Newman’s “Voice of Fire,” a totem of old-school colorfield painting, the last gasp of American abstraction, part one? I thought so. But that’s more context than you need to marvel at its shimmering magic.
“Space, Light, Surface” brims with connections, underpinning its revolutionary intent. You might appreciate the fact that Irwin, who cut his teeth as an abstract painter, turned to shadow play and fluorescent tubing in the full glow of the warm California sun. The material dissonance, east to west, also matters. There are a lot of pieces here that use resin, whose fluid properties make for endless visual possibility; it could almost seem as though the air itself has been made solid. It all leads to a fine point: The eye is so easily led. Art is what happens when you let the mind follow.
LIGHT, SPACE, SURFACE: WORKS FROM THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART
Through March 20. Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy. 180 Main St., Andover. 978-749-4015, www.addisongallery.org