In Praise of Shadows

Artfully balancing them is just one of the tricky tasks faced by designers of museum lighting

For decades I allowed myself to be dismissed as a "photophobe" — always the one to pull the shade, put in a 40-watt bulb, disconnect glaring fluorescent tubes overhead. I had to apologize continually for my cave-like office: "After growing up in sunny Colorado I deserve a break from brightness." Then came an epiphany. John Zelenik, head of exhibition design and production at the Smithsonian's Sackler and Freer galleries, and Richard Skinner, head of lighting design there, began collaborating. And, I came upon a little book, In Praise of Shadows, by Japanese novelist Jun'ichiro Tanizaki. A lightbulb clicked--in this case, off: I'm not a photophobe. I'm a "shadowphile."

Tanizaki, born in 1886, laments the "senseless and extravagant use" of electric lights, and their "blinding blaze." Excessive lighting, he observes, has robbed us of the beauty of spacious patterns of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows, the "soft fragile beauty of . . . feeble light." In architecture, theater, cuisine, even feminine beauty, he proclaims, we have lost the "delicate glow of fading rays."

For years I have indulged my shadowphilia at John and Richard's exhibitions; they are a soothing respite from standard office lighting (specced so everybody can read the finest print in the deepest corner), which flattens both color and depth perception. John is known for pushing gallery wall colors away from the usual taupes and grays and toward richer hues that bring out the highlights of the art and add liveliness to the gallery spaces. Again and again, Richard has shown himself to be a lighting-design genie.

I well remember entering the final room of "Noble Path," a 1989-1990 Sackler show that traced the spread of Buddhism through Asia. There in exhibit cases were small bronze Tibetan statues, including a wild, multiarmed, multiheaded demon figure casting eerie shadows as if magically illuminated from directly below. I looked carefully all around the floor of the case for a light source, but it was completely black and opaque. I looked again at the shadows — the light had to be coming from under that floor. "John told me he wanted to do something different here," Richard explained. "He wanted that last room to have a mysterious feeling. I decided to try a new film material from the 3M Company, acrylic sheets with microscopic louvers embedded in them. They let light pass through the film but block the view of its source. The up-lighting effect wasn't just a gimmicky theatrical trick, though. These centuries-old figures were usually illuminated by a yak-butter lamp positioned at their base, so similar shadows would occur."

Richard often has to make his fixtures disappear. To focus beams on the centerpiece painting in the Freer's dimly lit Peacock Room, he hid ten tips of fiber-optic cable in two of the ornate, crystal-pendant ceiling lamps; the cables stretch 25 feet across the inside of the ceiling to a bright halide light source.

As we talk, I realize that Richard is one of these nontype types. "I was mechanical as a child, always taking motors and stuff apart. Then in junior high I got very interested in art." He has a diploma in fine arts and has also studied electrical and mechanical engineering. His job at the Smithsonian and trips to places like Beijing, Delhi and Madras as a consultant have led to even broader interests. In addition to being a member of the Illuminating Engineering Society of America, he is a yoga instructor and a serious student of Indian music, learning to play the sitar.

He laughs when I ask him if he's read In Praise of Shadows. "Yes, sure. I laugh because I spend so much of my time trying to control shadows — particularly ones that obscure or distract attention from art objects. I'm always thinking about creating a balance with light and shadow-reducing what we designers call the visual noise of an installation. I try to arrange shadows symmetrically, in a pleasing composition that complements the artwork."

Richard tells me that with the development of track lighting around 30 years ago and the evolution of low-voltage and other efficient bulbs and, more recently, fiber optics, lighting designers have a rich palette to work from. Initially all the can-shaped track fixtures look the same to me, just turned at various angles. Then Richard begins pointing to a different screen here, a little shield and a heavier diffuser there. "The big differences are inside. There are dozens of low-voltage bulbs to choose from, with subtle variations in color, and depending on how narrowly you want the beam focused, and how bright you want the surface being illuminated to appear."

John Zelenik is now at the National Museum of American Art. He and NMAA's chief lighting designer, Scott Rosenfeld, show me Louise Nevelson's 1982 Sky Cathedral, a large, wall-mounted sculptural work in which wooden objects of myriad shapes create a hovering, high-relief warren of re-cesses and jutting edges. Ideal for shadows, yet the entire work is painted flat black. Scott explains how he aimed blue lights from a low angle into the shadow areas. Standard incan-descent lamps, which ap-pear amber in contrast to the blue filters, shine down from a steeper angle to light the upward-facing edges. As a result, the shadows look deeper and the highlighted edges pop out. John notes that a similar approach to enhancing the appearance of volume is used in stage lighting. "There, blue and amber, complementary colors, are used on opposite sides of the stage. What we're doing here is much less dramatic, but it does help bring out the form of the work."

John then tells me about choosing wall colors. "The goal, of course, is to have the main energy coming from inside the artwork. But first, I want visitors to enjoy the space as a whole. Artful lighting can make all the difference. The more patient the lighting designer, the better the result." Richard later explains that lighting designers do have to work carefully, but also very quickly. "

"We're usually the last ones in during those pressured few hours right before the show opens."

Scott then takes me to see Larry Fuente's 1988 Game Fish, at NMAA's Renwick Gallery. It is a mounted sailfish trophy decorated with a few thousand pop culture tchotchkes, many related to games, including statuettes of Gumby, Superman, Cap'n Crunch, Popeye and just about everybody else you can think of.

"I wanted to make certain that visitors could pick out each and every object, so I used low-voltage bulbs that produce small, precise beams. I aimed these spots from a low angle. Another bank of spots was aimed at a steep angle above to cast highlights and shadows. The final touch was a single spot from the side of the work to pick out the false teeth in the fish's mouth.

"As always, however, I had to keep the rest of the room in mind. I see the exhibition as a sort of three-dimensional drawing, where the careful balance of light and shadow produces a dynamic landscape." Is Scott a fellow shadowphile? I went back and carefully inspected the floor, exhibit case sides, base edges, label areas, corners, door frames. All shadows carefully placed. Not a single "noisy" one.

Finally, I see David Hockney's 1995-96 painting Snails Space. Under his direction, it has been dramatically illumined by a nine-minute computerized sequence of highly sophisticated, color-changing fixtures created by Vari-Lite, a Dallas-based stage-lighting company, which of course sees a bright future for such daring experiments in museums. OK by me, as long as they don't get so flashy that they clash with the serenity of shadows. But even if they do, Richard says not to worry. "For a person like you, aging is a blessing. Starting around age 40, everything looks progressively dimmer."

Bruce Hathaway is the editor of Around the Mall & Beyond.

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