November 15, 2021
At New York’s Lehmann Maupin, Helen Pashgian showed me around “Spheres and Lenses”—her first exhibition in the city since 1971—while mesmerizing me with her eyes, as glowing and multihued as the prismatic orbs on display. Though Pashgian has been making art since the late ’50s, her moment is now: On November 19, SITE Santa Fe will open the fifty-year retrospective “Helen Pashgian: Presences”; six days later, her work will be featured in Copenhagen Contemporary’s “Light and Space,” a survey of the titular California-based movement Pashgian was instrumental in defining.
I GOT INTO ART KIND OF SIDEWAYS. Somebody in college told me during my sophomore year to take an art history class. I had zero interest, but they said to take the course for the professor, it doesn’t matter whether they teach astrophysics or whatever. I studied with the legendary Seymour Slive, who in a profound sense changed my life. I minored in art history in college and then stayed in New England for six years until it got so cold that I came back to California, where I started painting with washes and oil paint. I was never interested in opacity; I was never interested in the figure. My paintings weren’t very good, but they started me on this path of depth and transparency.
In the mid-’60s, a few artists in Southern California started discovering polyester resins, which had been declassified after World War Two. Chemicals that had been used in bomb fabrications ended up in craft stores. The materials were poisonous and terrible, but very seductive. I quickly found out that if you do not control them, they will control you.
My first New York exhibition was in 1969 at Kornblee Gallery. I was working with clear polyester resins. Cornell University bought the only sphere on view; the rest were bizarre shapes. At the same time, Robert Irwin had a show at MoMA in a tiny room, like a closet, and Larry Bell had an exhibition at Sonnabend Gallery. All three exhibitions opened in the worst blizzard in fifty years. New York was shut down. Nobody came. About two weeks later, when the city started moving again, the reviews came out. I remember one where they said, This is nothing, it’s atmosphere. They called it “California Art.” It was very sarcastic, like, I think they’ve been out in the sun too long. Too much surfing. Their brains are fried. Too many drugs. That was the attitude. However, someone who showed Rauschenberg and Johns told me that all the New York boys were fascinated with our work. The critics just didn’t see it.
In the case of the small spheres, I pour the resins myself, and then they go to a fabricator, someone who rounds them, and then somebody else who does the polishing. It’s very important to me to try to keep these colors very clean and pure. If the pigment is too strong, it’ll get muddy. When you look at color like this, you’re looking at a hue that doesn’t really exist because the other colors are reflecting in it.
Some people find my lens works very mesmerizing. They tell me that when the light goes up really high and then comes down again we know it’s going to be the same color, but they feel they’ve changed themselves, so they’re looking in a different way. Some people see color moving all over the wall because it does expand your perception. The timing of the light cycle gives your brain and eyes time to catch up and then readjust.
The other thing about the lenses that everyone comments on is that they are so calming. In the frenetic, broken world we live in, when everything is fast and digital, this is the opposite. It’s quiet, it’s timeless, and it does things to people. It’s about what Light and Space is all about, which is perception and the phenomenon of really having an experience, not just an observation. Once you stop trying to find an edge—we always want to know where we are to feel safe—and relax, then you’re looking at pure color. It’s okay to say what you feel. No two people will feel the same.
— As told to Canada Choate