Iván Navarro's Flashlight: I'm not from here. I'm not from there, 2006
Photo: Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution Iván Navarro's Flashlight: I'm not from here. I'm not from there, 2006

Drawing from selections in its own permanent collection, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. examines the role of light in contemporary art since the 1950s with its current exhibit Refract, Reflect, Project: Light Works from the Collection. The exhibit's premise is that “throughout the history of art, light has been linked to fundamental questions of vision and perception.” In turn, artists have “struggled and experimented with how to depict the ephemeral and intangible qualities of light in all mediums—from painting to photography, sculpture to installation—using both natural and artificial light as a material.”

Organized by artistic movements with art works representing minimalism, conceptualism, kinetic art, immersive environments, photography, and experimental film, the exhibit displays a wide range of work from the familiar to the new. Artists one would expect to see in such an exhibit—Dan Flavin, James Turrell, and Olafur Eliasson—are all represented, and in turn provide core selections.

Flavin's Monument for V. Tatlin, 1967, a sculpture of cool white fluorescent tubes seems remarkably fresh and pertinent proving the staying power of this revolutionary artist who pioneered the use of working with light as both a physical and qualitative material. James Turrell's Milk Run, 1976, a light projection of fluorescent tubes with red, yellow, and blue gels within a “room,” challenges the viewer's sense of space, color, and depth while maintaining a calm, serene, and “other-worldly” viewing experience. The effect of Olafur Eliasson's Round Rainbow, 2005, is mesmerizing. Comprised of a 575W spotlight with barn doors, the light is projected through an offset round plate disc with a small opening onto a rotating faceted acrylic ring suspended from the ceiling and positioned approximately eight feet away from the spotlight. Light refractions cast moving projections on the three adjacent walls. Deciphering the speed at which the acrylic ring turns, and following the changing thickness and thinness of the lines has a hypnotic effect.

One of the next generation of artists working with light, Spencer Finch's Cloud (H2O), 2006, a sculptural chandelier that interprets the formation of water molecules is poetic in both its simplicity—suspended clusters of light bulbs—and its scale—it stretches across the better portion of the gallery ceiling.

A refreshing view of light's artistic qualities whether viewed as an object or experienced, Refract, Reflect, Project: Light Works from the Collection, is an excellent introduction for those not familiar with light. And it no doubt also serves as a reminder to museum and curatorial staff of the treasures within their permanent collections.