Contributed by David Carrier / Spencer Finch’s new and recent work at Hill Art Foundation in Chelsea are set in dialogue with The Creation and the Expulsion from Paradise, a magnificent 1533 stained-glass window by Renaissance master Valentin Bousch. “Lux and Lumen,” the exhibition’s title, comes from Abbot Suger of the cathedral at Saint-Denis, who praised the power of stained glass to transform natural light, or lux, into sacred light, or lumen. Inspired by that medieval idea, and by his visit to Claude Monet’s pond and garden at Giverny, Finch’s Painting Air, an immersive hanging-glass installation, is a dramatic visual essay on light. Among a number of smaller works, the most interesting is Rose Window at Saint Denis (morning effect), conceived specifically for this show, which uses LED lamps to replicate the lighting at the earliest surviving Gothic building.
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When you enter the main third floor gallery and approach Painting Air, the guard warns you not to step between the removing glass panels, which due to air currents created by the heating system are in constant (if gentle) swirling motion. You need to stand back to be safe. Walking up to the fourth floor, you can look down on these changing patterns of film color created by the work, which are reflections of Finch’s abstract wall paintings in the moving sheets of glass. Imagine an Alexander Calder mobile, but with panels made of glass rather than metal, rotating in front of geometric colored panels; then you can envisage some semblance of this effect. It was marvelous watching the colors move, as if looking into a gigantic kaleidoscope, with the light in perpetual motion. In and of themselves, the paintings on the walls are not especially interesting, but in motion they become visually enchanting. Standing at a distance, you see the patterns of light in full, as if projected onto the revolving sheets of glass.
The dematerialized color made me think of the 1960s spray paintings of Jules Olitski, in which, as Clement Greenberg said in a description quoted by Michael Fried in his Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, it is as if that surface, in all its literalness, were enlarged to contain a world of color and light differentiation impossible to flatness but which yet manage not to violate flatness.
Building on that assessment, Fried offered the brilliant insight about how, in the optical effects of Olitski’s paintings, “literalness and illusion are … inextricably mixed.” The colors seem to be unattached to any surface, floating in air. Finch achieves the same effect by using reflecting glass to mirror the painting. To take this exercise one step farther, as Fried suggests, imagine paintings composed of sprayed paint suspended in air, free of any tangible surface. Indeed, Finch’s title suggests as much: he is effectively painting air.
The Hill Foundation seeks to link Finch’s installation to sacred European artistic tradition. But Bousch’s figurative stained-glass windows look very unlike Finch’s abstract plays of disembodied light. Furthermore, the light in those windows presents static images, while the colored light in Painting Air is moving as we look. In a secular society, to link this play of light to medieval idea of the sacred power of light in churches seems a bit of a stretch. So is Finch’s description of his work as a response to Monet’s gardens at Giverny. In my judgment, those historical comparisons actually underplay the radical originality of this dazzling installation. Painting Air doesn’t need any help from allusions to medieval sacred art or modernist gardens to be completely successful.
“Lux and Lumen: Spencer Finch,” Hill Art Foundation, New York, NY. Through March 4, 2023.
About the author: David Carrier is a former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Princeton University; a Getty Scholar; and a Clark Fellow. He has lectured in China, Europe, India, Japan, New Zealand and North America. He has published catalogue essays for many museums and art criticism for Apollo, art critical, Artforum, Artus and Burlington Magazine. He has also been a guest editor for Brooklyn Rail.