“The Primary Event was the Performance”: Anthony McCall’s Play with Light

Anthony McCall: Solid Light Works (exhibition view). Photo courtesy of Pioneer Works.

Anthony McCall: Solid Light Works at Pioneer Works is a triumph of an exhibition that is deservedly attracting massive audiences. The British-born McCall, long a resident of New York, earned his reputation in the 1970s as one of the leading figures of expanded cinema. Although his work has routinely formed part of just about every major exhibition on light and moving-image art of the postwar era, he has somewhat shockingly never been granted a solo institutional exhibition in New York until now. What distinguishes Pioneer Works’s achievement is not just the stunning display the institution has succeeded in granting McCall’s installations, but that the exhibition and its associated programming upturns many years of encrusted wisdom concerning the solid light works, recovering and recontextualizing them amidst the artist’s broader oeuvre. Historians and enthusiasts of expanded cinema, as well as modern and contemporary art—not to mention endless Instagram thrill-seekers—will find much to prize here.

The enormity of Pioneer Works’s main exhibition hall—spanning some 130 feet—brilliantly showcases four of McCall’s vertical solid light works, all completed between 2003 and 2010. The organizers have taken care to effectively black out the entire space and to keep it misted, which both allows the diaphanous projections to take on their famously uncanny materiality and makes for a rather humid experience. Who knew being bathed in light could be so literal? These vertical works, each more than thirty feet from floor to ceiling, aligned in a series, produce an intensely theatrical effect at first. Set off from this main space, two galleries host one horizontal piece each. As with all of McCall’s solid light works, these are quite literally moving projections of light. From a brilliant source, a beam of white light is projected (onto a wall for the horizontal pieces; onto the floor for the vertical works). This beam shifts constantly, moving, tracing sinuous patterns.

In the first such work—1973’s Line Describing a Cone—the movement was much more rigorously delineated: starting from a pinpoint projection, the beam traced a full circle over thirty minutes, thus simultaneously forming a hollow cone. Writing at the time, McCall firmly positioned the work in the context of expanded cinema experiments, noting that it “deals with the projected light beam itself, rather than treating the light beam as a mere carrier of coded information, which is decoded when it strikes a flat surface.”1 Whereas in ordinary cinematic situations, spectators ignored the projection source in order to focus on the screen, Line Describing a Cone militated against the dominance of that spectatorial configuration. Viewers would now be compelled to move about in relation to the emerging form of the projected beam. And McCall emphasized its real-time, non-illusionary nature, calling it a “primary experience, not secondary: i.e., the space is real, not referential; the time is real, not referential.” Combining radically participatory, activated spectatorship with a rigorous dismantling of the mainstream—that is, classical Hollywood—cinematic assemblage, Line Describing a Cone both reduced cinema to its fundamentals and decentered the narrative apparatus, expanding the very idea of “cinema.”

In the mid-1970s, the art world was still trying to come to terms with the scandals of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. Major wars were being waged in the pages of Artforum and, soon, October. With critical attention focused on sculpture and spectatorship, the monumentality and (ephemeral) sculptural quality of Line Describing a Cone allowed it to quickly be taken up by those discursive currents. Its austerity and radical reduction of the cinematic apparatus also attracted the sympathies of Structural filmmakers, and so the work passed into the history and historiography of art and film as: 

sculpture because the projected volumes must be occupied and explored by a moving spectator; cinema because these large-scale objects are not static, but structured to progressively shift and change over time; and drawing, because the genesis of each installation is a two-dimensional line-drawing.2

It is to the great credit of curator Gabriel Florenz and the Pioneer Works team that the current exhibition dramatically expands this reading by reactivating the solid light films within a broader artistic context.

Before Line Describing a Cone, before the solid light films, Anthony McCall had been concerned with problems of notation, spatial volume, and the body. Performance art, which most closely takes up all three, was at the heart of McCall’s practice. In 1972, McCall staged a public performance in Edinburgh. Using white smoke to obscure an entire building, along with gathered spectators and passersby, McCall crept backward along the ground, into the smoke-shrouded courtyard of the house, and disappeared from view. Gradually, the smoke dispersed, revealing an empty courtyard. He called it Smoke Without Fire. The same year, he staged a public performance comprising a group of fires ignited along a geometrical grid in defined temporal order, following a pre-determined score. Landscape for Fire was the film document that emerged from this event. Quite distant from notions of dramatic performance, these early works—as McCall has mentioned in past interviews—have much more in common with the contemporary choreographic and task-based experiments then being undertaken by Allan Kaprow, Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, the broader Judson Dance group, and others in New York. Not theatricality, then, and not immersive spectacle. Rather than retread the well-worn rhetoric of sculpture, think choreography, bodies moving in space, responding to unfolding events in real time. Think live performance. Isolated exhibitions of individual solid light works (usually it has been Line Describing a Cone) have consistently failed to invoke these crucial networks of intermediality, and the present exhibition offers a much-needed reorientation.

Anthony McCall interrupted his own artistic career for some twenty years after producing a series of solid light works in the 1970s. Since 2003, he has returned—but, interestingly enough, only to the solid light films, tinkering with them and producing variations aided by digital technology. In a 2007 interview, Olivier Michelon, now the chief curator of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, raises the issue of the reception of these works between the 1970s—when they were perceived as a “radical deconstruction of film”—and the 2000s—when they appear as “an ‘environment’ or as an ‘experience’.” Michelon’s point is underscored by the Instagram archive for the exhibition (#solidlightworks), which oscillates between invoking celestial illumination, a medieval imaginary, and Brooklyn’s latest rave. But McCall’s response is revealing: though initially concerned with problems of “the present tense of film,” his solid light films of the 1970s quickly revealed to him the absolute importance of movement and spectatorship to the very constitution of the event of projection.3 In years since, the solid light films have even left behind their “event-like” character. When Whitney curator Chrissie Iles included Line Describing a Cone in the landmark exhibition “The Projected Image in American Art 1964–1977” (2001–2002), it marked the first time a solid light film was shown as a continuous loop. Spectators moved freely in, around, and (always a delight) through the projection, some choosing to remain throughout its duration, others passing by. With the passing years, it seems the solid light works reveal more and more of their affinities not with discourses of medium specificity but rather an adjacent—even emergent—set of aesthetic concerns which may broadly be summarized by the legacy of John Cage.

An inspired stroke of programming genius that runs alongside the exhibition underscores this other, subterranean affinity toward Cagean aesthetics. On select dates, four soloists have taken up positions alongside the solid light works to play various instruments at modest volumes. Organized by composer and longtime McCall collaborator David Grubbs, this musical accompaniment—largely improvised—may either be experienced as a kind of ensemble or individually, up close. The musicians begin playing with the projections already in progress, and they leave off with the projections still running. The indeterminate nature of this choreography that comprises a lovely, delicate play of light, sound, and movement in space fully moves McCall’s work into a Cagean genealogy of the arts, and the simultaneous exhibition of multiple solid light works is precisely what enables their affinity toward performance and choreography to come into view as never before. Reconnecting after some four decades with McCall’s early concerns with scoring, notation, and performance art, the solid light works taken in their rich complexity continue to trace an unfolding history.


  1. Quoted in Anthony McCall, “‘Line Describing a Cone’ and Related Films,” October 103 (Winter 2003), 42.
  2. Gabriel Florenz, Pioneer Works, Anthony McCall: Solid Light Works. https://pioneerworks.org/exhibitions/anthony-mccall-solid-light-works/
  3. Anthony McCall: Elements for a Retrospective, 1972–1979/2003– Olivier Michelon. Exh. Catalogue published by Musée de Rochechouart and Serpentine Gallery, with Monografik Editions, 2007.

Anthony McCall: Solid Light Works is on view at Pioneer Works through March 11. www.pioneerworks.org


Swagato Chakravorty

Swagato Chakravorty is a Ph.D. candidate in History of Art, combined with Film and Media Studies, at Yale University. His research explores moving-image art and expanded cinema since 1989, focusing on the work of artists from the global South that intersect with documentary, archival, and performance-based practices. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.