Six Facets of Light, a new book by the award-winning writer Ann Wroe, is, in the author’s own words, “a love song to light”. Conceived while Wroe was walking the “luminous” Downs of southern England, between Brighton and Eastbourne, it contains a series of meditations on various painters, from Turner to Eric Ravilious, as well as poets such as Coleridge, who spent much of their lives pursuing light. Taken together, Wroe’s musings offer a universal truth: light has transfixed artists since time immemorial, and it will continue to do so.
A few examples of this obsession should suffice. The idealised landscapes of the 17th-Century French artist Claude, who imitated the effects of sunlight at dawn and evening with such aplomb. The stark intensity of direct sunlight casting crisp shadows across a Delft courtyard, in a scene by the Dutch Golden Age painter Pieter de Hooch. Turner’s pictorial experiments, sometimes verging on abstraction, exploring dramatic effects of light that dissolve recognisable forms in blazing incandescence.
The chief goal of my work is the clarity of light – Henri Matisse
And then there is the 20th-Century French artist Henri Matisse, who travelled the world looking for light that would inspire him. In January 1912, he arrived in Morocco for the first time. To his surprise, freakish, non-stop rain kept him holed up in his hotel for 15 days. He was devastated. “Shall we ever see the sun in Morocco?” he wrote plaintively to Gertrude Stein. “The light is as bright as in a cellar,” he lamented to a friend.
Years later, after another exotic trip, this time to Tahiti, he compared the light of the South Seas to the sensation of gazing deep into a gigantic golden goblet. By contrast, the light he encountered in New York, while travelling to Tahiti, was “crystalline”. “A picture must possess a veritable power for generating light,” he stated in 1936. Five years later, he told an interviewer: “The chief goal of my work is the clarity of light.”
All of these artists translated effects of light into another medium – namely, paint. Yet one of the most striking developments of modern art was that artists began to harness light directly, as a medium in its own right. And arguably the most celebrated exponent of this tendency was the US artist Dan Flavin, the subject of a current exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham.
Born in New York in 1933, Flavin attended a seminary in Brooklyn as a young man at the insistence of his father, who wanted him to become a priest. Flavin, however, had other ideas, and during the ’50s he studied art history at Columbia University. As a practicing artist he was entirely self-taught and to begin with he made derivative paintings in the manner of the Abstract Expressionists, who dominated art in the US at the time.
Flavin summoned gorgeous effects via the simplest means
Flavin’s breakthrough occurred in 1963, when he started to make works using commercially available white or coloured fluorescent light tubes, of varying lengths. Pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns), an 8-ft-long (2.4 m) pink fluorescent strip light, still set within its standard metal fixing, and carefully positioned vertically in a corner of the first gallery at Ikon, dates from this important year, the pivot in Flavin’s career.
Like all of Flavin’s work with fluorescent lights, which he often placed in unusual spaces such as atriums and stairwells, it emits a soft, almost numinous glow, which transforms the surrounding room. Flavin was capable of summoning gorgeous, sensuous effects via the simplest, most commonplace means. This tension is the chief animating principle of his work.
For anyone versed in the art-historical associations of light, which has often been used as an analogy for divinity, Flavin’s fluorescent lighting can seem quasi-religious or spiritual – a modern incarnation of the sublime. But according to Jonathan Watkins, Ikon’s director, Flavin, who died in 1996, actively rejected interpretations of this nature. “Because it’s about light, a number of collectors would get religious and spiritual about it all,” Watkins explains. “Flavin hated that. If people went supernatural on him, he didn’t like it.”
Flavin said that the art wasn’t in the tube or in the fitting – it was in the radiant light itself
Instead, Flavin preferred to emphasise the down-to-earth qualities of his art – which, after all, consisted of nothing but humdrum materials that anybody could pick up cheaply in a hardware store. The title of the Ikon show is one of his dictums: “It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else.” “One might not think of light as a matter of fact, but I do,” he once said. “And it is… as plain and open and direct an art as you will ever find.”
He even had an evocative phrase to describe the effect of his art: “blank magic”. For Watkins, Flavin should be seen in the context of other prominent artists of the ‘60s, who wanted to ‘dematerialise’ the art object. “Flavin said that the art wasn’t in the tube or in the fitting,” Watkins explains. “It was in the radiant light itself. Turn that off, and the art stops.”
Flavin was not the only modern or contemporary artist to work directly with light. Robert Rauschenberg incorporated blinking electric light bulbs in some of his experimental ‘Combine’ assemblages of the ’50s. In the ’60s, the French New Realist artist Martial Raysse was an early adopter of neon, decades before Tracey Emin started spelling out her own cutesy, confessional phrases using neon tubes. Raysse’s compatriot, François Morellet, who currently has an exhibition in London at Annely Juda Fine Art, is another celebrated ‘light artist’. So is the extraordinary American artist James Turrell, who has so far created more than 80 of his Skyspaces – specially designed chambers in which viewers can observe the shifting sky through a void in the ceiling.
“What I notice about Turrell’s work is how much it’s the work of a painter,” says the British artist Anthony McCall, who is famous for his own installations involving light, and is about to be the subject of an impressive exhibition, featuring a new work called Coming About (2016), at the Fundació Gaspar in Barcelona. “The void in a Turrell piece is really a framing device, and everything happens behind the frame, so to speak. Whereas I see my own work as being purely sculptural.”
I have never been drawn to painting. I prefer to work with intangible mediums – Anthony McCall
McCall came to prominence in the ’70s for his series of ground-breaking “solid-light” installations, which began with Line Describing a Cone (1973). In this memorable, stripped-back work of art, staged in a darkened room, a film projector emits a single beam of white light, which slowly traces an arc onto a wall. Eventually, after 30 minutes, this arc grows into a circle. As the beam of light progresses, it encounters atmospheric dust and smoke – or, these days, haze from a haze machine. This creates the illusion of a hollow, ghostly cone, hovering in mid air. “I’ve never been drawn to sculptural mediums that you can kick,” McCall tells me. “And I have never been drawn to painting. I prefer to work with intangible mediums like light.”
During the ’70s, McCall made six more artworks like Line Describing a Cone, before retiring as an artist to build up a business as a commercial designer. Much later, during the ’90s, when he began to receive recognition as a pioneer of ‘moving-image’ art, McCall, who lives in Manhattan, decided to become an artist once again. Today, he makes elaborate solid-light works, which have been shown around the world, from Stockholm to San Francisco. All of them share a poetic, spectral, elegiac quality: they seem to articulate something unsettling about loss. Yet, like Flavin, whose artworks he admires “enormously” – “their sheer sensuality, aligned with beautiful rigour, is astonishing,” he says – McCall plays down any speculative interpretation about his art.
“Of course, I am interested in what people find,” he says. “But that is the business of looking. And the business of making is a little different. I just have to build the work of art, which is like plumbing or carpentry. Your work as a spectator is to look at it, and be receptive to it.”
So does McCall, himself, not see any spiritual aspect to his work? “I would say no,” he says. “But I am aware that light comes loaded with associations which I don’t own. Our language is steeped in metaphors using light, which have to do with dying and the spirit, and so on. So when you step into that particular minefield, you carry all that with you – provided you can give a form which is compelling enough for people to want to look at.”
This question, though, of what form light art should take, is, he says, “not a given. I mean, you turn on a light bulb, it doesn’t do very much. On the other hand,” he continues, smiling, “if you turn it off, it might be art.”
Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.