There’s a certain Slant of light
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—
So goes the first stanza of “There’s a certain Slant of light,” Emily Dickinson’s doleful poem which addresses light as a suspect entity—a presence weighing down on those who observe its behavior. The light Dickinson describes, or some quality of it, now fills the Morgan Library and Museum’s cavernous Gilbert Court where Brooklyn-based artist Spencer Finch has created a site-specific installation named for Dickinson’s poem and further inspired by the Morgan’s collection of medieval Books of Hours.
Finch’s piece is comprised of numerous, jewel-toned transparent squares made from theater gels that have been affixed to the glass of Renzo Piano’s four-story atrium. These colored filters form kaleidoscopic arrangements when light shines through them, altering the appearance of the space from the inside and skewing the look of surrounding architecture when seen out of the Morgan’s windows. The filters can be found on the entrance and covering slim windows in corners of the atrium that get little foot traffic. Twelve square panes of partially reflective clear glass, the same size as the gel pieces, dangle from the ceiling and gently sway in response to natural air fluctuations in the atrium. Skewed prisms and fluttering patches of indigo, crimson, and daffodil yellow come and go when sunlight moves between buildings on Manhattan’s East Side.
Finch offers color and light as transient forces to be scrutinized in relationship to nature and memory. His commissioned piece unveiled earlier this year at the September 11 Memorial & Museum, entitled “Trying To Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning,” is also comprised of many nearly-identical parts which are linked conceptually. There, 2,983 pieces of painted blue paper can be counted, one for every life lost at the World Trade Center. However, the structure of Finch’s installation at the Morgan is most similar to “Following Nature,” a window installation he created last year that dominated the pavilion entrance of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Gel patches of muted, pond-like greens and blues were positioned to mimic the light effects of Monet’s water lilies at Giverny.
The 365 colored panels placed around the Morgan’s atrium are meant to suggest the days of a devotional book. Each square of color resembles a day in a monumental calendar that glows as if laid in stained glass. Contingent upon the output of light altered by the weather conditions on a given day, no moment feels like any other. That Dickinson sought to articulate the look of specific lighting conditions in her poem, and did so with writing that was restrained and unromantic, contrasts with Finch’s lavish array of hues. Nevertheless, Finch’s conceptual framework reminds viewers to look beyond the immediate impression of visual pleasure. Seeing the world fluttering in such a vivid spectrum intensifies and slows observation. This reflection becomes pressurized by questions that Dickinson posed repeatedly in her poems, often re-thinking her notion of faith or death through close observations of nature.
With such broad points of cultural reference in play, between 19th-century poetry and 16th-century liturgical texts, Finch takes on a great deal using simple, geometric forms, many of them taken unapologetically from the canononical structures of post-painterly abstraction. He isn’t the first to build a formalized, chroma-focused framework to present broad cultural references (MoMA’s 2008 exhibition Color Chart showcased many luminaries of that lineage). Where colored grids in Ellsworth Kelly or Frank Stella’s paintings broke formalist purity with readymade hues plucked from American industry or consumer culture, Finch imbues his own similarly staid, crisp squares with references that are challengingly oblique. One might find monasticism in the quietly echoing atrium and then, a moment later, psychedelia abounds. In these moments, Finch’s colors shed their piety, sounding off in hallucinogenic lilts of near-neon pinks and acid greens.
These disparate references create a daunting ravine that separates form and concept in the installation. Fortunately, the Morgan has bridged that gap for viewers by staging Miracles in Miniature, a concurrent show of works by the 16th-century French illustrator, the Master of Claude de France, which includes his calendar miniatures, prayer books and Books of Hours in the tiny Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery just off the atrium. Within those fragile texts, time is a stiffly encoded element rendered with invisible brushstrokes. The books seem to fight the loose boundaries of observation prompted by Finch’s calendar of light and, through that discord, time is defined in strikingly opposing terms.