Plugged In: Art and Electric Light

Electric light emerged as an artistic medium in the mid-20th century, as artists engaged with new technology, mass media and industrial materials. The exhibition Plugged In: Art and Electric Light illuminates these themes through 11 works produced between 1964 and 1980, all drawn from the Museum’s collections. This focused group includes Andy Warhol’s controversial White Painting (1964), its nude female torso subversively activated by ultraviolet light; Dan Flavin’s stark fluorescent installations made from commercial materials; and Allen Ruppersberg’s Location Piece (1968), an “environmental sculpture” that envelops the viewer in unnerving ambient light.

These inherently interdisciplinary objects were forged through artistic and scientific innovation. Artists collaborated with clockmakers, neon and glass benders and electrical engineers from Pasadena’s own Jet Propulsion Laboratory to explore the aesthetic, conceptual and affective possibilities of electric light. Decades later, these experiments confront conservators and curators with technical puzzles sparking questions about the challenges of preserving these objects for future generations.

Plugged In runs concurrently with the Getty-led initiative PST Art: Art & Science Collide, opening in September 2024. In the spirit of this landmark regional event, which explores the intersections of art and science, both past and present, the Norton Simon Museum’s exhibition considers art’s power to unlock the imaginative potential of essential and ubiquitous electric light.