In Conversation with Anthony McCall

New Solid Light Works and Early Drawings on View Now at Sean Kelly Gallery

Written by

Sofia Ziman

Photographed by

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Installation view of Anthony McCall: New Solid Light Works and Early Drawings at Sean Kelly, Photo: Brica Wilcox, Courtesy: Sean Kelly

Anthony McCall turns on his camera, at first hard to spot he is positioned at the bottom of the screen against a backdrop of scattered imagery. Before the exchange of any words, it is as if I have peered into a vivacious sliver of the artist's mind. McCall is live from the library section of his New York City studio. Most of his time is spent at the desk he is calling from, his creations are imagined in this very spot. The wall behind him has not an inch of negative space, it is covered with ideas, photographs, maps, sketches, scribbles, drawings and everything in between. McCall says that the work on his walls are things that have "gone through my mind over the last 10-15 years, and simply just stayed there. They are rarely taken down. These can be very useful, because they remind me of things I was thinking of, and perhaps didn't finish." Throughout the interview my eyes are glued to a large yellow and green drawing at the right hand corner of the room. McCall points it out– a map of an estuary in Tasmania– he explains that it is where he did a performance years ago, revealing that his history as a performer is what led him to the initial creation of solid light works.

McCall’s exhibition at Sean Kelly Gallery in Los Angeles, New Solid Light Works and Early Drawings, presents the artist’s exploration of light as a sculptural medium. As McCall’s first solo exhibition in LA, he delivers a unique experience of both novelty and archived works. Challenging artistic norms, he invites viewers to engage with temporality and their immediate surroundings. Stepping out of the bright and bustling Hollywood street into the Sean Kelly gallery, viewers are swallowed by darkness as they enter into the abyss. Eliminating any traces of the world beyond, one can barely tell who else is in the room. The centerpiece, "Split Second (Mirror) III," 2022, disrupts light with a mirror, creating a multidimensional experience. "Skylight," 2020, further enchants with its evolving light sculpture atop a plinth, complemented by David Grubbs' musical composition. The exhibition's third floor surveys McCall's career, with a spotlight on his progression through photographs and drawings.

As I prepare to ask the first question of the interview, McCall stops me. “Before we start, tell me about yourself a little bit. Do you describe yourself as a journalist or a critic?” he laughs. As I learned, Anthony McCall is a curious man, so it is no surprise that he asked how long our interview may last. “No longer than twenty minutes,” I guess. Fast forward about three-quarters of an hour and we are still on the call. It’s not often that the interviewee asks questions back or cares to hear the opinions of the other side. With McCall’s first project of the exhibition debuting in 1973, and his most recent in 2023, his work has continued to grow and evolve with time as a variable. He proves that art is not rushed, so why rush a conversation about it?

Installation view of Anthony McCall: New Solid Light Works and Early Drawings at Sean Kelly, Photo: Brica Wilcox, Courtesy: Sean Kelly

When you're working, do you create with a gallery space in mind ahead of time? Or do you look for locations that align with your vision after the fact?

I very, very rarely make site specific work. So it's much more of the case that I'll make a work and then we'll be looking for a space that would be suitable for it. Which is…most spaces? I mean, my installations don't require anything more than a rectangular room and darkness. 

How do changes in geographic location bring new meaning to preexisting works? Do you think that applies to your medium? Or is it ubiquitously similar because you are creating closed off environments?  

Every location, and every installation is a little different from one another. And, of course, it does change the way that you– the visitor– might see it.  As you observed in your visits, whether there are other people in the space versus when it is just yourself, it's a very different kind of experience. So I would say no, did that help answer your question?

Very much so. It's inevitable that new meanings arise when artwork is brought to new spaces and audiences. I suppose an environment is always subject to new interpretations, even if the location never changes. That leads us to the next set of questions. I wanted to ask about the show, specifically the use of mirrors in the first piece, “Split Second (Mirror) III”.  Is there a symbolic or functional purpose?  May this enhance a viewer's experience or add a unique or personal element to each viewer's memory?

I don't think so. I don't use a mirror in order to have a new effect. I have a mirror because it seemed like the right thing to do with that group of works I was making at the time. So, the idea isn't to evoke a new emotion in the viewer, it's certainly to create something that has to be looked at and thought about. 

I think that's really refreshing because I'm used to seeing a lot of art nowadays that practically places the audience into the frame of the work. People like to see themselves in artworks, which may offer a kind of personal connection to the piece. I think that this can be a quick route to media recognition because people like to photograph themselves with works like that. Your installation is so captivating that it doesn’t need any tricks to absorb the viewer.  I admire that this wasn’t your intention with the mirrors. 

Not at all. And you know, the word that's loosely thrown around is the virtue of something being quote “immersive” unquote. I'm quite skeptical about whatever that means and I'm not even sure what it means. Obviously, when one is creating experiences it doesn’t have a dramatic intent to produce cheap thrills. Often, as you know with my works– they are actually quite slow and need some time. My belief has always been that the fastest object in the room has got to be the visitor. And the work itself–whether it moves or not– is an entirely different thing.

Coming back to the mirrors; the mirror is not an add-on, it was integral to the work. So it can't really be separated. It's not by adding mirrors  you get this, and that happens. You don't always know what's going to happen with one's audience. You make the work then wait and see. You make the work, and you wait and see. Otherwise it’s just a design problem. It is not saying “let's create some new thrills for the viewer,” that’s not actually how you create art. 

Inevitably, viewers will put their own associations with any artwork. It’s about the mindset of the artist too, so I love to hear that you don’t create works purely for the reactions of others. It’s not always about them, it's for you and the piece itself, and then people can add their own meanings. 

Well, it's right that people should bring their own experiences to the piece for what else can they bring? And that, in my opinion as the artist, is the visitor's business. That's why they're there. That's what they do. 

They are there to make it about them! It’s so natural, the need to see oneself in something or relating art to a personal narrative in order to latch.

It’s to make sense of what they are looking at, in their own terms. I mean, we all have a different relationship to every phenomenon. You may respond rather strongly to light, for instance, and have associations with it which are unforgettable. Someone else may be quite indifferent to the medium and think it's not of any interest at all to them, but those are not things that are under my control. 

Anthony McCallBetween You and I: Stills at two-minute intervals, 2006

What inspired you to start creating 'solid-light' installations? Can you offer some insight into the creative process?

Wow. Well…how much time you got?

I’ll accept an answer in haiku form.

I began as a young artist, as a performer. These took place in the outdoors, open air, in the country. And we took the form of grids of small fires, which were manipulated by my structure. When you make something out in the middle of nowhere, there's the immediate possibility of it disappearing, because it's only existing once. So I decided that I had to make a film of this piece. My first film was Landscape of Fire. I began to show that film, knowing that I really wasn't showing the work I was showing and film of the work, which is different. I began to think that it may be interesting, rather than to make a film of a performance, make a film that was a performance.  And it was that train of thought that led me toward what we now have as a solid light field. It was soon after that I had the idea for an abstract film which eventually I called Solid Light Work. And I did some testing and found that the idea would work. That was made in 73. 

I would love to learn more about your relationship with composer David Grubbs and what collaboration means to you as an artist. How did you two collaborate to create the sound element in Skylight? 

Okay, thank you. Collaboration is the obvious thing to do when you come up against something that you don't know. David Grubbs is a longtime friend who's a composer and musician. We've worked together on a number of occasions. He usually comes in– either I go to him with a problem in which he makes proposals sonically or I know what they need, but I don't know how to make it. Or in the case of skylight. It was clear to me that they needed a sound element and also that I was particularly interested in the form of a thunderstorm. David helped me source the sound, manipulate what we had and come to agree with what was exactly right. 

Installation view of Anthony McCall: New Solid Light Works and Early Drawings at Sean Kelly, Photo: Brica Wilcox, Courtesy: Sean Kelly

Your exhibition at Sean Kelly Gallery features older works upstairs in addition to newer works of yours. Does your old work inspire the new? For instance, how does the fluidity of light installations contrast with the stillness of the black and white photographs and sketches?

Well, yeah, as you say, there's a very wide range of drawings and graphic work upstairs. It also shows quite a wide range of methods or techniques. Some of those, some of those drawings, basically, three dimensional renderings of what something will look like when it's projected, others quite abstract and more like a mathematical or a musical score. Some tried to show the shape of work, which is quite difficult. And I use the technique with parallel lines, rather like I can engineer drawing actually. 

Others are just line drawings so they are footprints, which is the word I give to the line drawings that are projected onto a wall. I would say almost all of the drawings or graphic works in that room have ended up as an installation. There are a few, very few that are drawings in their own right. But even those are directly related to the installations downstairs. I don't know if you recall a square drawing, that's like a scribble. It is from cross hatching with a pencil. That's what I will call a drawing in its own right. But in fact, it's called a pencil duration. And it's a meditation about time. 

That's interesting because obviously they both come from you but at two very different times, not only in your life but in the world in general. But I love seeing the parallels and overlaps from artists' oeuvres. Then there's other times where I'm like, oh, where did this idea go? Or where did this come from? 

All of the works in the show are intimately related to ideas about temporality and duration. And so all of them are relevant to the others. And I'd say every one of them did lead to something or came from something I had already finished. 

Your practice in New York correct?

Yes, I live and work in New York. I have done so since 1973.

Some people are so passionate about this east coast west coast debate, some people frankly don’t care. But in terms of your work, how do you feel about Los Angeles as a home for this exhibition? And how do you feel like it specifically interacts or brings new meaning to your work? 

I mean, there's no question that Los Angeles’ identity is changing by the minute. And, you know, particularly in terms of the art world, there's a big expansion of galleries into Los Angeles. Which looks like it's gonna continue for some time. Personally, I was very excited to show in Los Angeles since I've never had before. It's not a city I know very well, but I would like to get to know it. There's always the possibility when you show in a new place, the possibility of a new audience. And that's an interesting thought.

Seeing your work, stepping into that dark room. It could be anywhere in the world, but when you leave the exhibition the contrast of the outside light really puts the city into a new perspective. I can’t wait to see how that experience may look in other locations around the world. 

Well, the brilliance of the light in Los Angeles is what struck me. In sharpness, it is very, very different from the light in New York or even  London per say. 

My final question is about working with technology, a medium that is constantly always growing and evolving. What are some potential future directions you see your work taking, and what new technologies or techniques are you excited to explore? 

Well, that's a big question, isn't it?

They're all big questions.

Good one. I mean, whatever we think is going to happen in the future in technology, are we going to be wrong. So I'm always open and receptive to whatever comes down the pipe, technically. And I'm also, at the same time, quite skeptical about it. So I keep my balance. I’ll play with anything, but I'm always skeptical of the very best next thing. Often, it's probably not the very next best thing, it will be something to the side of it. I just simply don't know what kind of technology will be around in five or 10 years. I've been through various changes in technology, quite profound ones. 

The medium of photography, for instance, has changed tremendously in my lifetime. Things seem to be changing like crazy and then they end up being kind of the same. So I'm quite prepared to go for a spin with these new technologies, but nothing will convince me to be over excited about them before they have proved themselves. I'm not anxious to be the first one to do something new. In the end, art doesn't really have very much to do with technology. Technology is just one aspect that you may have to bring together to make a work of art, it is certainly one of them. And if you over emphasize one aspect, over another, you’ll probably end up with art that’s not very good.

New Solid Light Works and Early Drawings is on view at Sean Kelly Gallery in Los Angeles through August 25th, 2023.

Installation view of Anthony McCall: New Solid Light Works and Early Drawings at Sean Kelly, Photo: Brica Wilcox, Courtesy: Sean Kelly
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Anthony McCall, Solid Light Works, Sean Kelly Gallery, Sofia Ziman, Flaunt Magazine