String Curve and Pyramid are Hap Tivey’s shifting light sculptures shown recently at the University of Buffalo Art Gallery. Tivey uses Fred Sandback’s minimalism and James Turrell’s light constructions with the main difference that the forms shift in hue, volume, and shape – or appear to. In Tivey’s light art, unlike Turrell’s projections, the light constantly changes as the string, hanging like a line in space, articulates the colored volumes in the projection. The viewer’s movement in relation to the art also literally changes the colors of light seen. When I asked who did what first, Tivey related, “I did focus on changing color and volume before Jim did, but that was 1972 – tough to argue these days. My video projections are much more about programed change, but both mine and his evolve by physiology as well. Not many people get that, but the illusion of volume is produced by neurology trying to make sense of minimal information. That gets into a pretty boring discussion of neurophysiology that I generally avoid, unless someone brings it up first.”[i]
After visiting his East Flatbush studio, I began to understand why it has taken me ten years to appreciate Hap Tivey’s original ways of splitting light and making forms that move and change colors. His geometries alter both shape and color in relation to the viewer – to me, this is closer to the birth of a star than to a his multi-step process using simple props – the corner of a wall, a piece of string, its shadow, projected light, and color. I saw a roomful of his light sculptures around six years ago, and, in the clear, sparely-furnished rectangle of his present studio, even older pieces glow and come alive.
On the way to introducing me to his art works that split or change shapes, I discovered Hap’s Goya self-portrait in his bathroom. It demonstrates the degree to which Tivey harnessed digital technology in its earliest iteration. I consider it three-dimensional because he has layered his processes. First he scanned the image into dots using Adobe Photoshop 2.0. Then he converted the dots in an architectural plotter program; then he put this onto a holographic sheet that makes refractive light. Next, he painted the portrait with oil base and acrylic. The resulting face looks dimensional and is haunted by spectral color. “The whole idea of making these prints on holographic material is that there is no fixed color,” Tivey noted. “These refracted color surfaces change constantly.”
In the studio, Tivey explained, “This column of light will do the same thing. The whole idea was to simulate an electron and a positron separating. This is the track of two elements leaving random space in terms of subatomic quantum physics. It can be seen as two particles annihilating each other – or – being born and existing. You can look at it either way. This sculptural column is overly intellectual but has visual properties I love.” The spotlight at the base sends a beam up the column, and the stainless steel screen outer surface of the column and the transparent diffraction grading inside the screen create the column of shifting spectral light. The dynamic light shifts and changes color in relation to the viewer’s point of view.
Past the green Michael Dell portrait inside the back of an early Dell monitor are Duchampian table and floor “lamps” constructed from a copper-leafed metal base with looping clear flexible plumbing tubing with white and green LED lights inside. Mahakala, named after a protective Tibetan Buddhist deity, is a modulated image of a constructed and painted column inside a rear projection screen, creating red on red light. Blue Ladder, an intricate sculpted Cobra-like form inside a blue lightbox is at the studio entrance.
Hap’s two recent shows at the University of Buffalo Art Gallery and Rockland County Center for the Arts Center each converted gallery rooms into mutating light boxes. He uses the simplest props. Painting an Orange Box is a structure made with a string and its shadow in a darkened room. A fixed video projector is lined up with the corner to project a rectangle of light. This, then, is connected to a computer to make a color movie on top of the white rectangle of light. The approximately four by six foot space keeps changing hues and shapes as the viewer approaches or otherwise moves around.
Tivey was one of the pioneers of light installation in Los Angeles and for more than forty years his art has presented the phenomena of light. In installation, painting, sculpture and projection, he investigated the concrete experience of light, as well as the emotional and theoretical implications it holds for the human condition. His work has been shown extensively in the U.S., Europe and Asia. It has been included in diverse private collections, and exists in permanent public collections of more than a dozen major museums, including New York’s MOMA and the Guggenheim. Tivey is an emeritus art professor who taught at Bard College. He notes, “I like to think our conscious mind enjoys giving structure and color to emptiness.” Here are some links to his work:
[i] All quotes from studio visit on 2.21.16.