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Solid light provides radiant spectacle

With one last crowd-pleasing exhibition, the Albright-Knox countdown begins

A visitor interacts with Anthony McCall’s BETWEEN YOU AND I, 2006

Photo by Tom Loonan and Brenda Bieger


Through Nov. 3

Dark Rooms, Solid Light

at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

albrightknox.org, 882-8700


You might have thought the leadup to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG) two-year renovation and expansion, which begins November 4, would be a slow fade to black. Museum workers have a lot of packing to do, after all. Not so. Curators Cathleen Chaffee and Aaron Ott have organized an eye-popping final exhibition: a sculpture show of sorts, in which much of the art is an illusion. In some ways, the ethereal character of Anthony McCall’s Dark Rooms, Solid Light takes us one step closer to an empty museum.


The core of the seventy-three-year old artist’s first solo US museum exhibition is what he calls immersive solid light installations. “Solid” and “light” are words you wouldn’t typically associate with each other, but McCall’s intensely austere computer-generated line drawings, projected through hazer machine mist, form ghostly conical forms in space that are both there and not there. Viewers are free to reach through the spectral structures or step completely into their vortices to meld with the work. Inside, it’s like a slowly morphing tunnel of light, the eye of a silent hurricane, where hazy clouds billow and wedge-shaped shadows materialize as corporeal forms obstruct light waves.  


The large-scale installations occupy and transform the massive blackened galleries of the museum’s 1905 building, creating an instant wow factor as visitors enter the void. Walls, floors, and rear-projection screens provide surfaces onto which are projected the elemental drawings, suggesting mathematical curves like the spare contours in a Robert Mangold painting. But, unlike static painting, these light drawings slowly change over time, as do the resulting three-dimensional forms.


It takes a minute to realize that what you’re viewing are essentially minimalist films projected in dark, smoke-filled gallery “theaters.” McCall is a pioneer of structuralist film, and his impulse is to reduce the medium to its basic components: light and time. No narrative, no characterization. Then he welcomes viewers to intervene.


Installation view of Split Second (Mirror), 2018


The artist began experimenting with this melding of sculpture and film in the early 1970s, using 16mm projectors and cigarette haze, in such works as the seminal Line Describing a Cone. And like the late Buffalo-based artist, Tony Conrad—whose 2018 retrospective was organized by AKAG and University at Buffalo Art Gallery—McCall’s early film, installation, and performance work has gained recognition late in the artist’s life. Prior to being rediscovered, McCall took a twenty-year hiatus from non-commercial artmaking to earn a living; he returned to it around 2000.


It’s probably inevitable that McCall’s installations evoke a variety of popular movie tropes employed at least since Citizen Kane. Film noir, science fiction, and supernaturalism are all called forth. In the museum’s massive sculpture court, two vertical projections, titled Between You and I, beam down from the ceiling like twin alien abduction rays. Visitors can step into the slowly undulating whirlpool of light and gaze up at the source. Split Second (Mirror) enables viewers to see themselves within a reflected beam, looking like earthlings disembarking from the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These associations are likely unintended, but humans crave narrative, and our reference points are often media.


The exhibition also includes numerous drawings and artist notebooks, in which McCall works out his concepts. Many feel similar to Christo’s preparatory drawings, which provide some old-style object permanence in a technologically ephemeral world. One early work titled Pencil Duration on verso: no. 1 long strokes x3 in from each corner (light pressure) owes much to conceptual artists such as Sol LeWitt, conceptualism being another major influence on McCall’s work.


One room includes documentation of early installations and performance. A videotaped performance has the artist painstakingly pinning six pieces of paper onto a wall, then using a black string to create an arc, after which he snaps the charcoal infused twine to create a line. The assembled crowd bursts into applause. And they say artists lack humor.


When the projectors and hazers are turned off, and the gallery lights come on, the voluminous exhibition spaces are already largely empty—allowing McCall’s immaterial sculpture to create a fade to black after all.


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