Light Art Shines Bright this Summer

Light Art Shines Bright this Summer

Three artists – Jenny Holzer, Steve McQueen, and Anthony McCall – are bringing light-based art to the fore, says London’s Design Museum director Tim Marlow.
Three artists – Jenny Holzer, Steve McQueen, and Anthony McCall – are bringing light-based art to the fore, says London’s Design Museum director Tim Marlow.

T here’s something biblical in the museum world this year: out of the darkness, let there be light – or at least a flurry of light shows across Europe and the US that demonstrate the range and importance of “light art”. The art form, which took off in the late 1960s, used artificial light as its primary medium – and artists continue to expand its possibilities to this day.

While the Kunstmuseum Basel continues its exhibition of American artist Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tube sculptures (Dan Flavin: Dedications in Lights, until 18 August), the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, is gearing up for a group show in September. Plugged In: Art and Electric Light (20 September 2024–17 February 2025) features works by artists including Flavin and Andy Warhol from 1964–80.

This summer there are also three major shows opening in the UK and US focused on artists who harness the power of light in different ways – and in so doing, illuminate human experience on both intimate and epic scales.

Jenny Holzer at the Guggenheim Museum, New York

In 1989 the American artist Jenny Holzer installed a long, spiralling LED display across three levels of the Guggenheim Museum rotunda in New York. Along its length it flashed with Holzer’s signature provocative one-liner statements (“Abuse of power comes as no surprise”; “A lot of professionals are crackpots”).

Now, Holzer is reimagining and extending the installation in the same building, climbing up all six circular ramps of Frank Lloyd Wright’s great structure. The work, Installation for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1989/2024, will feature phrases from her 1980s Truisms and Inflammatory Essays series. Holzer’s focus may be the power of language, but she often uses electric light as a tool, particularly the flashing LEDs so associated with stock market tickers, advertising signs and other representations of capitalist society. In this way, light both carries Holzer’s message, and becomes a message in itself.

Jenny Holzer: Light Line is at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, until 29 September

Jenny Holzer, Untitled (Selections from Truisms, Inflammatory Essays, The Living Series, Under a Rock, Laments, and Child Text), 1989. Credit: Jenny Holzer, photo by David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Steve McQueen at Dia Beacon, New York

Oscar-winning British film director and artist Steve McQueen takes some of the basic elements of film works – light, sound and colour – and explores them in new ways in an immersive installation at Dia Beacon, a museum in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City. He prompts viewers to confront the ways in which these elements can upend our perception of space, time and ourselves.

The exhibition occupies the cavernous lower-ground gallery at Dia, journeying through the spectrum of visible light accompanied by a sonic component that responds to the space. Co-commissioned by Dia and the Schaulager museum in Basel, the work will travel to its partner institution following the run at Dia, and will be adapted to the Schaulager’s own distinctive spaces.

Steve McQueen is at Dia Beacon, New York, until April 2025

Steve McQueen, Bass, 2024 (detail). Credit: Randy Gibson, courtesy of Dia Art Foundation

Anthony McCall at Tate Modern, London

British artist Anthony McCall’s installations blend sculpture, cinema and drawing, and in June, the Tate Modern will open an exhibition of his immersive works. McCall rose to prominence in the 1970s for his “solid light” installations, in which projected illumination takes on sculptural form. The most pivotal was Line Describing a Cone, 1973, a short film in which a spot of light projected onto a screen gradually moves to describe a circle, evolving into a cone of light. McCall has since employed new technologies to realise more ambitious works, creating shifting spatial experiences and mazes of three-dimensional animated lines and geometric planes.

Anthony McCall: Solid Light is at the Tate Modern, London, from 27 June–27 April 2025

Anthony McCall. "Face to Face" (2013). Installation view, LAC, Lugano, 2015. Photograph by Stefania Beretta. stefania beretta

Cover image: Installation view of Anthony McCall, Face to Face, 2013. Credit: Jason Wyche, New York, courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly, New York and LA

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