A Certain Slant of Light: Spencer Finch at the Morgan Library & Museum
June 20, 2014 through Summer 2015
225 Madison Ave. (at 36th St.)
New York, 212 685 0008
Spencer Finch is well known for installations that reflect and alter perceptions of light and color. Typically they are installed in glass atriums or windows, and consist of colored gels or panels that act as intermediaries between external and internal chromatic effects. Finch often employs a scientific approach, gathering information on the intensity of color that is absorbed by a site, the movement of sunlight throughout a space, or the refractive qualities of water or clouds, translating the data into vibrant, kinetic works that immerse the viewer in kaleidoscopic silhouettes.
His current installation, “A Certain Slant of Light,” at the Morgan Library & Museum, consists of hundreds of square film panels affixed on all sides throughout the four-story glass walls of the Morgan’s Gilbert Court. As sunlight moves around the space each day, and during the seasons, it filters through the panels, sometimes casting intensely colored beams. Suspended from the ceiling, 12 clear glass panels turn slowly, transmitting further migratory reflections.
The piece takes its conceptual framework from books of hours — popular from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance — of which the Morgan holds the country’s most extensive collection. These were often lavishly illustrated prayer books containing several parts including, most importantly, the Hours of the Virgin, from which books of hours derive their name. This was a series of prayers to be recited throughout the day to the mother of Christ, who was regarded as an intercessor between humanity and God. They can be regarded as the iPhones of their day: religiously venerated, checked multiple times a day, directing life by the hour, and providing essential texts. A calendar was also a standard feature, not defined by 365 numerical dates as we would use, but structured around the feast days of saints, and events in the life of Jesus. The most important of these liturgical dates throughout each 12-month cycle were written in red, hence the origin of the term “red letter day.”
“A Certain Slant of Light” is intended to operate as a calendar of sorts, as well as an optical feast. When calendars in books of hours were illustrated, they depicted the traditional labors of each month, with color palettes varying according to those seasonal tasks. Finch has allocated a season to each side of Gilbert Court and varied the palette of his panels accordingly. The north wall is winter, the east is spring, the south is summer, and west, autumn. Throughout are intensely hued red panels, in reference to the most vital of dates in books of hours, only here they represent secular instances that Finch finds compelling — such as Isaac Newton’s birthday — and that were planned to align at noon with the sun’s trajectory on those dates.
The conceptual panoply upon which this project rests is magnificent: it spans centuries, draws directly from among the greatest canonical manuscripts, gleans motifs from the crowning events of religious history, while utilizing astronomy and the photonic power of our home star to ignite it. Even the press release conjures the sublime; though it is perhaps this illustrious framing that causes a sense of deficiency to come to light.
On a sunny day the visual allure of the piece is enjoyable, and it can be appreciated for this alone, but while many visitors may be only peripherally aware of the culture surrounding books of hours, the more one understands of them, the more derivative the installation becomes. The paralleling of colors, seasons and calendars istight and clever, but predictably, superficially so, as thin conceptualism often is when employed to imbue contemporary art with meaning and a patina of relevance. Here, it is insufficient to grant the piece its own authority or self-confidence when set against the mystical historicism surrounding Finch’s source material.
Despite the artist’s meticulous approach, there are practical incongruities that undermine the conceptual integrity. Knowledge of the work’s lofty inspiration doesn’t prevent its visual proximity to the kind of empty decorative design found in shopping malls — something Gilbert Court’s architecture convincingly emulates — where coloring vast glass swathes is an easy solution to transform bland environments. Furthermore, on overcast days the work is rendered disappointingly dormant.
Two of the four sides of the court are glass curtain walls with expansive connection to the sky beyond, effective backdrops for Finch’s panels. But the winter season is located on an internal glass wall that fronts offices. These panels are duller and, if the blinds are up, people can distractingly be seen working at their desks. Hopefully this isn’t explained as being passable because winter is a darker time. Autumn fares even worse, diminished and fragmented by the architecture where there are no substantial areas of glass, presenting an unwelcome contrast with how well the two external walls function.
Perhaps it was by necessity of having to fit in 365 panels, but placing them on the glass elevator seems excessive. Considering the sun’s stately influence and the sedate movement of light and color around the room, witnessing the elevator panels comparatively racing up and down is corrupting to almost comical effect. They are literally taken out of context. The work could be in place for a year and maintenance on such a long-term installation is important — peeling, bubbled panels cheapen the impression dreadfully. These points may seem like trifles, but collectively they undermine the work’s coherence and precision, separating it from the immense detail and quality that epitomize the artifacts from which Finch draws.
A larger question here is whether or not it is advisable in every instance for modern artists to reference as they please from art history just because they can or a site lends itself to it. When done with wit or social perspicacity it can initiate progressive dialog and render art valuable beyond economic worth elevating it into the canon. Grayson Perry, Kehinde Wiley, and Francis Bacon all engaged with art of the past to make fascinating cultural commentary. Alternatively, the Chapman Brothers’ smug, petulant vandalism of a series of Goya prints serves only to highlight their own vacuous posturing and artistic bankruptcy.
In selecting to operate between past and present, don’t contemporary artists have a responsibility to themselves, and their audience, to forge a meaningful relationship between eras, and excavate significant reason for doing so, or risk exposing their efforts as lackluster and flimsy in the face of the reverence bestowed upon art that has withstood the mercurial tastes of ages? Technical and visual execution must also uphold the artist’s intent.
Finch’s installation lacks the emotive capacity to fuel as much interest or controversy as some of the above-mentioned artists did, and while he was not trying to recreate an extant book of hours, that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility to the vast gravity of his source. “A Certain Slant of Light” siphons the language and culture of the masters who created such tomes, and that it draws any lineage with those treasures is to its grievous detriment.print