The Confounding Lightness of Helen Pashgian

SANTA FE, N.M. — Helen Pashgian, the pioneering but long underrecognized California Light and Space artist, recently took a break from installing her full-on retrospective here at SITE Santa Fe to recount one of the defining moments of her life, how around age 3 she had accompanied her family from their comfortable lodgings in Pasadena to their summer shack in a secluded cove north of Laguna Beach. She’d regularly caper down to the shallow tide pools below, when one day, she suddenly noticed the way that light shimmered off the windswept surface of the water, and then, less than a foot beneath that, the way that same light shimmered in a completely different manner off the scalloped sand.

“Now granted,” she explained, “my little 3-year-old brain couldn’t really make out what was going on, but I was completely captivated by the play of that light.” She paused before sighing expansively: “And I remember it as if it were yesterday.”

It was not yesterday.

In fact, it was almost 85 years ago, and in the meantime that light-besotted toddler grew into a lanky light-besotted teenage tomboy (swimming team, surfer, intrepid explorer of the mountain slopes just beyond the family’s Altadena manse) and then a light-besotted academic, specializing in art history (specifically Vermeer and Rembrandt and the light-besotted artists of the Dutch Golden Age). Moving through Pomona College to graduate work at Columbia and Boston College to the brink of a Ph.D. push at Harvard, she instead demurred. In another pivotal moment, she woke bolt upright one night to the twin realizations that she had to return “to the eucalyptus scent and, of course, the diaphanous light, of Southern California,” and to find some tangible way, she wasn’t yet sure how, though definitely not academically, of engaging with that actual light.

“Untitled” (2012-2013) by Helen Pashgian at SITE Santa Fe, formed acrylic columns custom lit on a dimming cycle from above. The artist says she loves getting the eye and the mind working against each other in a vertigo at the very cusp of knowing.CreditCredit…Angelo Silvio Vasta for The New York Times

Which is how she became one of the founding members of the group of artists (including Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Peter Alexander and others) who would forge the Light and Space movement that came to epitomize the Southern California art scene of the late ’60s and ’70s and ever since. Albeit one of the least well known. That is, until relatively recently, when her signature forms — columns, lens-discs and spheres not just activated by light but somehow harboring and releasing it as well, bafflingly, from layers within layers — started being widely celebrated.

If things began to turn for Pashgian in 2011, with the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time reappraisal of local art history, 2021 has been proving the real annus mirabilis when it comes to things Pashgianian (she pronounces her name Pash-KIN), with the past month in particular seeing successive openings of her first New York gallery show since 1971 (at Lehmann Maupin’s West 24th street outpost in Chelsea, through Jan. 8); this one-artist retrospective at SITE Santa Fe (through March 27); and then a big Light and Space show at the Copenhagen Contemporary international art center (through April 9) in which for the first time her own contribution to the movement is being foregrounded. In addition, Radius Books is releasing a sumptuous full-color monograph devoted to her, “Spheres and Lenses.”

Pashgian, who still lives and works in Pasadena, regularly gets asked whether she thinks her art had so long been slighted mainly because she is a woman, and her answer is always the same. “No,” she pronounces simply, definitively.

Two lense discs from Pashgian’s exhibition at SITE Santa Fe. What seems to bulge out like a bluish globe of light when seen from the front, turns out to be thin as a blade, and yellow-green, when seen from the sideCredit…Angelo Silvio Vasta for The New York Times
The disc, an amorphous polyurethane form, is custom lit on a dimming cycle. From head on, it bulges like a sphere.Credit…Angelo Silvio Vasta for The New York Times

Others disagree: for instance, James Turrell. As it happens, Turrell likewise grew up in Pasadena (his father was the principal of Pashgian’s high school, and their families were friends) and he also went to Pomona, though he is eight years younger and they had relatively little actual interaction until the past few decades. Reached by telephone, Turrell insisted, “Of course, she was handicapped on account of being a woman. In fact, she had three things going against her: she was a woman, she was beautiful, and she came from a family of some means. So there was no way she was going to be taken seriously in that macho competitive environment. But thankfully, at long last now she is being, it’s about time, and she deserves every bit of it.” Turrell paused. “I suspect that one reason she is so insistent that being a woman wasn’t held against her in the early days is she doesn’t want to see merely being a woman as weighing in her favor today.”

“I just kept doing my work, head down,” Pashgian told me, “and frankly I preferred to be doing it by myself. Indeed, I pretty much stayed in Pasadena the whole time, which as far as the guys on the west side were concerned was just about as far removed from all the action as Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin were out here in New Mexico, and I did so for the same reasons as they did, and to the same benefit. Anyway, I was hardly being entirely ignored. I had a steady, albeit smaller, gallery presence. And then, too, it took a long while for the materials I was exploring — the resins and the urethanes and the epoxies and so forth — to mature to the point where I could really begin doing what I wanted with them.”

“Untitled” (2020) by Helen Pashgian, one of her cast lens forms fashioned out of more than a dozen thin epoxy pours, on a dimming light cycle at SITE Santa Fe.CreditCredit…Angelo Silvio Vasta for The New York Times

Doing the work, hands-on and by herself, unlike many other artists (Koons and the like), has always been at the center of her practice. She described how after her return to California in the mid-60s, she was invited to spend a year with a few other artists exploring the artistic potential of newfangled materials that were just then being declassified by the military. She brewed up a thick, 60-inch-diameter block of polyester resin, a material of almost ludicrous lethality, and then spent weeks striding atop it, sanding down its edges with power equipment, culminating (following a polishing regime), in the giant gleaming lens, mounted vertically atop a pedestal, that proved the unquestioned hit of the artists’ exhibition at the Caltech gallery. Indeed it was so prized that within a few nights of the show’s opening, somehow it ended up getting stolen, never to be seen again.

Unfazed, Pashgian persisted. While most of the other Light and Space artists (having arrived by way of painting) were busy dematerializing the object, Pashgian seemed to come from the other side, attempting to fashion objects that veritably materialized light. She went on to create a brace of gloriously colorful, bowling-ball-size spheres (clear, colored epoxy encasing cast acrylic forms), the interiors of which seemed to morph disconcertingly from moment to moment as the viewer toured around them. Likewise, a series of glowing flat pieces seemed to burrow deep into the wall, until the viewer moved, at which point the interior forms seemed to warp and then disappear entirely.

Spheres made of epoxy and acrylic in an installation view of “Helen Pashgian: Spheres and Lenses” at Lehmann Maupin in New York.Credit…Photo by Daniel Kukla

Twenty years on, she continued her aesthetic investigations while receding somewhat from the art world for a couple of decades to care for her aging parents and to support her alma mater, Pomona College, as a trustee. But around 2006, she plunged once more into full artistic commitment across a series of ever more sublimely confounding pieces.

For starters there was a new series of lens works — 30, 45 and presently 60-inch discs produced in exactly the opposite fashion from the stolen one at Caltech. “I began to experiment with a sequence of thin urethane pours into a shallow concave mold: 12, 15, 18 layers per piece, each evincing a slightly different pigmentation across slightly different sized spreads” she said (the trick being how to keep the colors pure, so that they didn’t turn all muddy when seen one behind the next after the lens was mounted on a translucent pedestal).

The urethane was not quite as dangerous to work with as the polyester resin, though it did contain cyanide, so Pashgian still had to be masked with respirators and goggles. By trial and error, she developed exacting protocols for the pours — 50 steps in painstaking order. “Half the work is technical and half aesthetic, and I have to divide my focus between the two modes, totally committed to one or the other from one moment or the next.” But the results (both Santa Fe and Lehmann Maupin feature several examples) are breathtaking.

Spheres at SITE Santa Fe. Forms within the spheres seem to appear and disappear as one walks around them.Credit…Angelo Silvio Vasta for The New York Times
Credit…Angelo Silvio Vasta for The New York Times

Faced head on from the far side of a room, illuminated by recessed raking lights on a five-minute dimming-dawning-and-brightening rotation) they appear to hover, a mistlike cloud of not-quite-sure what pulsing through various configurations of expanse and tinge. Pashgian says she loves getting the eye and the mind working against each other in a vertigo at the very cusp of knowing. At times the apparition seems momentarily to congeal into an eye looking back at the viewer, and the effect can be almost existential.

The pièce de résistance of the SITE Santa Fe show, however, is on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (whose director, Michael Govan, has become a huge Pashgian fan): across a darkened hangarlike expanse, a ghostly colonnade of 12 translucent double-columns fashioned out of molded acrylic sheets. Inside the hollow of each, Pashgian has secreted a different tangle of mysterious reflective forms that project a continuously evolving shadowplay of image and color onto the outer skin of the diaphanous tubes: Walking by you see things and then you don’t, an effect both futuristic and deeply primordial.

Helen Pashgian peers out from behind  “Untitled (lens),” from 2021, a form fashioned out of heat-treated polyurethane, at SITE Santa Fe.Credit…Angelo Silvio Vasta for The New York Times

It is almost impossible to capture Pashgians with still photography, though the Radius book comes as close as I have seen; video tends to capture more, though still hardly all, of the experience of being in the presence of these works. The SITE show bears the name “Presences.” Paradoxically, though, the word “presence” implies the very opposite of present-tense immediacy; rather it summons forth the experience of being-across-time, of duration, which Pashgian has come to feel is central to the experience of light.

Speaking of time, asked how it felt at long last to be mounting this career-summing retrospective in Santa Fe, the 87-year-old Pashgian shot back: “What are you talking about? This is merely a midcareer survey. Wait till you see what’s coming!”

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