How Caravaggio, Turrell, and 3 Other Artists Revolutionized the Use of Light in Art

Artsy Institutions
Sep 4, 2015 8:44PM

As described by contemporary American artist James Turrell, “Light is not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation.” For centuries, revolutionary artists like Turrell have harnessed light to manipulate it as both subject and medium. In its many changing forms, light inspires—and provides flexibility to those who wish to use it metaphorically. Through various periods in art, light remains a common material that is revisited time and again; each time, the artist changes our understanding of what constitutes a work of art. 

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, better known simply as Caravaggio, is recognized for his skillful style of painting that uses light to dramatically highlight specific points in his compositions. His iconic work The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600) is purposefully placed below a real window in the church where it currently hangs, to create the effect of light emanating from the opening into the painting. The stark contrast between the dark and light areas in his work creates a charged, theatrical atmosphere. 

With the invention of tubed paint in 1841, artists were able to take their practices outside of their studios and into nature. This enabled pure and immediate studies of how sunlight interacts with its surroundings, pioneered by a group that is now revered: the Impressionists. Claude Monet captured the ethereal subtleties of color and light in his painting entitled Rouen Cathedral, West Façade (1894). The soft gradient of blues outlines the structure, capturing the cathedral in the fleeting morning haze. 

Impressionists like Monet blurred the lines of reality by replacing hard lines with painterly strokes. Contrastingly, photographers sharpened their skills at replicating real life using cameras to capture rich shadows and bright highlights. Much as the Impressionists emphasized passing moments by capturing the varied colorations of light at a single point in the day, photographers similarly focused on exact moments in time. Paul Strand’s New York (1915) demonstrates how the photographer used the time of day and the sun’s harsh shadows as fundamental elements in his composition. Rather than reiterating a familiar scene of pedestrians walking to work, Strand brings the viewer’s attention to the imposing shadows inside the building’s recesses. 

While photography’s strength lay in depicting depth through light and shadow, it still remained a two-dimensional medium. Seminal light artist Dan Flavin created art that could blur the boundaries of space by manipulating the principles of sculpture. With his light works, constructed with fluorescent tubes, he created sculptures that were diffused into their surrounding spaces. Flavin used light’s inherent radiating quality as both subject and medium, thus entering into new territory in the history of art. 

Perceptual artist James Turrell’s works can be seen as a continuation of the work that Dan Flavin first revolutionized. However, unlike Flavin’s sculptural light forms, Turrell’s light works embody a physical presence. They are immersive, inviting one to sit and contemplate space and light. For Aten Reign (2013), commissioned and staged within the iconic rotunda at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Turrell created a site-specific installation that transported visitors to another world, creating the sensation of having just jumped into a pool of softly pulsating purple. By doing so, he demonstrated that a work of art was no longer just a painting on a wall, but also a unique experience derived from a certain environment. 

The use of light in art spans movements and manifests itself in varied forms. From Caravaggio to Turrell, each artist used light in a way that shifted the paradigm of experiencing an artwork. Light’s universality is what makes it compelling, and it will undoubtedly continue to serve artists for centuries to come. 

—Nicole Shaub, Institutional Partnerships Liaison

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