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'Light, Space, Surface' exhibit showcases art made of unconventional materials


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Industrial materials used in dramatic new ways, this is the focus of an exhibit at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, called Light, Space, Surface.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston gives us a look, as part of arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: Art changed in the 1960s and '70s. It took on a glimmer. It rippled. And it lured the eye and the mind with a seductive, mystifying glow. On its surface, art had a fresh polish, thanks to a host of repurposed materials.

Allison Kemmerer, Director, Addison Gallery of American Art,: Plastic, polyester resin, lacquer, some of these were new coming from the burgeoning aerospace industry, and some were developed by the artists themselves.

Jared Bowen: The exhibition Light, Space, Surface at the Addison Gallery of American Art presents the art created in Southern California by a group of artists mad about unconventional materials. They were described as having a -- quote -- "finish fetish."

Allison Kemmerer is the Addison's director.

Allison Kemmerer: That the artists who were ascribed to that didn't necessarily like, but it stuck, because, to them, finish fetish sort of implied that the finish itself was the most important part of the work.

And, really, for these artists, finish is a means to an end. It's a way to explore light, whether it's light that's reflected or refracted, whether it's light that you can see through.

Jared Bowen: Or that we can't even distinguish, something artist Robert Irwin toyed within his disc paintings.

So, Alli (ph), how am I seeing -- what am I seeing here?

Allison Kemmerer: What are you seeing? Exactly.

So, this piece by Robert Irwin is a painting. It's an aluminum disc that's painted with acrylic, and is attached to the wall by a metal armature that's extending about 20 inches out. It's convex in shape, and simply lit in four different directions. The light animates this object, and completely blurs the object. It's confounding our perception.

Jared Bowen: Light had a new dawn in the 1960s.

It's when James Turrell, son of an aeronautical engineer, cornered the market on light in the first of a series of sculptures and installations that would define his career, while Doug Wheeler, a one-time pilot, began navigating in neon.

Carol Eliel, Los Angeles County Museum of Art,: So you walk into the Doug Wheeler room, and you're not really sure what you are seeing. You can't define, is it a form? Is it a mist? It comes in through various senses, and it's a total perceptual experience.

Jared Bowen: Carol Eliel is the senior modern art curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which curated this traveling exhibition from its permanent collection.

Most of these works surfaced when New York was the epicenter of the art world and still adhering to painting traditions. But fitting for California, says Eliel, the West Coast artists assumed a frontier mentality.

Carol Eliel: These materials were never conceived of as art materials, so they totally made them their own. The works don't look like other works.

Other artists simply weren't using these materials elsewhere, so it wasn't as if there were templates for them to follow. They each developed their own vocabularies.

Jared Bowen: So, they became pioneers.

Peter Alexander dipped into the wonders of liquid resin after realizing it could do more than repair his surfboard. Billy Al Bengston was a motorcycle racer who took a shine to sheen.

Carol Eliel: He repaired a lot of motorcycles, and was at the same time a painter. And then he became sort of enraptured by the metallic surfaces and spray-painted acrylic, and started making art that way.

Jared Bowen: As a way to rev up her career, in 1964, artist Judy Chicago enrolled in an auto body course, the only woman among 250 men.

Carol Eliel: She started spray-painting not on metal, which is the traditional, of course, automotive surface, but on sheet acrylic. The acrylics chemically fused, and she said it felt like skin to her.

She made a series of these tabletops with the three half-dome, molded, spray-painted spherical forms, which, of course, one can read as breasts or as bellies. She sort of came out of car culture, but in this very feminist way.

Jared Bowen: The foray into finishes has made much of the work tops, including this fiberglass one, for being irresistible, so much so that the Addison has added don't touch signs to the galleries. They could equally translate to the greatest measure of success for these artists.

Carol Eliel: The viewer is having an experiential conversation and a back-and-forth with those objects. And I think that's a really important part of those surfaces.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Andover, Massachusetts.

Judy Woodruff: Fascinating.

And that exhibit is up through the middle of March.

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