Anthony McCall knows about life after death. Back in the 1970s, he made sculpture out of the dust motes and cigarette smoke that just happened to be floating in downtown New York lofts. He'd turn down the lights, as if for a film screening, and project animated, slowly moving line drawings onto a wall. The thick, low-rent air would materialize into ghostly shapes tethered both to the projector and to the wall: enterable, cinematic sculpture.
Soon, galleries and museums uptown wanted the sculptures. But in those spaces, the air was pristine. The sculptures were, quite literally, rendered invisible when they were moved to "legitimate" venues. Shortly thereafter, McCall disappeared, too.
This perfect parable is true. It's about economics and art, and the low-rent days—McCall remembers them as halcyon days, buzzing with ideas—before the market fever of the 1980s. Only seven years after McCall's seminal first "solid light" installation, called Line Describing a Cone (1973), the art world had moved on to neo-expressionist painting and gigantism of various kinds, and nobody wanted to buy sculpture made of thin (or even thick) air.
So McCall, for those reasons and for personal ones he says are best left to the province of the shrink, stopped making art for 20 years.
Fortunately, the market doesn't usually wipe things out so much as send them underground for a while—and McCall is back. The British-born artist made his reappearance at the 2004 Whitney Biennial with an installation called Doubling Back, based on two interlocking sine waves, animated digitally and shaped by a haze machine, that move through a half-hour sequence of two 15-minute segments played forward and backward. Seattle collectors Bill and Ruth True bought the work. It's the most fascinating thing on display in all the city right now.
Doubling Back is the cornerstone of Insubstantial Pageant Faded, a gem of a group show at Western Bridge titled after Shakespeare's lines in The Tempest: "The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,/The solemn temples, the great globe itself,/Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve/And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,/Leave not a rack behind."
The context of immortality can't help but emphasize the spirit quality of McCall's work, but he doesn't intend to be a spiritualist. He's often compared to James Turrell, the West Coast artist whose light installations are hushed, sacred spaces. "The difference between us is that James Turrell lives in a volcano," McCall said in a recent conversation at Western Bridge. "I live in a loft in New York."
McCall, in other words, is a materialist. His work originated in the avant-garde-cinema desire to transform film from an invisible carrier of narratives and spectacles into an event of its own, from something you look through to something you experience directly. In the early days, Richard Serra showed up to McCall's screenings, and the way Serra sculpts steel into experiences can be compared to McCall's filmic sculpting of shifting air, despite the total disparity in their actual materials. (McCall now quips that Serra makes ships, while he makes lighthouses.)
From Line Describing a Cone to now, McCall's shift to the pixilated imagery of digital technology has given his shapes a subtly striated skin, and in his most recent work, seen at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, he has begun to create not just geometric objects but shapes that represent the rhythms and habits of bodies. His progression, despite his hiatus, is unbroken. McCall has always given film a body. It's a moving body, one explored but never fully known. Quite human.
The milky-white shapes of Doubling Back appear across the 33-foot blackened stretch of the back room at Western Bridge. Stand next to the projector and your eye can follow lines of light projected straight down the space onto the far wall.
But step inside those lines and the shapes are complex and curved, like a series of oddly shaped, dreamily shifting tunnels with their vanishing points all at the sublime white light of the projector.
Between the tunnels of light—some large enough to contain you entirely—gaps are sculpted, too, out of darkness. The haze machine puffs intermittently, and clouds pass across the skin of the walls. The irrational desire to run a hand along these walls of air is overwhelming.
From inside, you can't see out. A person leaving looks like someone disappearing forever. The fiction of this premise does not matter in the least.