The Art of Light at the Museum of Arts and Design

17th September 2020 to 24th April 2021

Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, New York City

'Brian Clarke: The Art of Light' is about emotional intensity, about the ability of material and light to explore what it is to be human. Two broad themes are brought out in the two galleries, both of which relate to the extraordinary times we are in. The gallery of works in lead are to do with mortality, with memory, grief and loss. The associated suite of Night Orchid paintings adds a physicality to the room, a sensuousness that embodies the cycle of life, death, and rebirth that is fundamental to nature. The gallery of glass screens collectively generates a euphoria and sense of hope. While each screen has a specific subject matter, the transillumination—the flow of colored light—has a spiritual sense of optimism. Taken as a whole, the exhibition is about life and loss, about the closeness of joy and grief in these strangest of times.” – exhibition curator Professor Paul Greenhalgh.

This travelling exhibition, which was displayed across two floors of the Museum, spans decades and mediums, and includes some of Clarke's major contributions to contemporary art: his freestanding stained glass screens – advancing the technical and poetic potential of the form – and his art-historically significant 'leadworks', monumental inversions and reversals of the basic principles of stained glass, with sheet lead and lead solder becoming the primary elements, and stained glass introduced as collage or jettisoned entirely. Also on display were selections from his series Night Orchids, together with sketchbooks covering five decades of output, and a biographical vitrine displaying items from Clarke's childhood through to the present day. The event was accompanied by a public programme of events including talks with art critic Robert Storr and architect Sir Norman Foster, photographer Ralph Gibson and architecture critic Paul Goldberger. With this showcase of ‘the most considerable artistic and technical breakthrough’ in its thousand-year history, stained glass will never be the same again. First shown at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in 2018, in future The Art of Light is scheduled to go on display at Zaha Hadid's Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul, and after at The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

"A range of styles and improbable themes that challenge the preconceptions of anyone who supposes modern glass work to be nothing more than a pretty decoration. In the 'Seville' series, sun-drenched oranges are so luscious against a deep blue that you could eat them. The tumbling shapes of 'Flowers for Zaha' or 'Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out', with oak leaves in yellows and oranges tipping into reds, glow with intensity. But while Clarke talks about some of his work as “abstracted Arcadian landscapes in celebration of an as yet undefined optimism”, he also tackles less promising subjects.

In his 'The Office for the Dead' series he turns the art on its head by not always using glass. Instead, skulls are picked out in scribbles of molten lead in a sort of macabre graffiti on sheets of forbidding matt-black lead. When he does introduce a splash of glass, it serves to accentuate the darkness. “Don’t Forget the Lamb”, a moving tribute to his ailing mother, includes the work that gives the series its title: an uncompromising expanse of lead, with a skeleton, an uneven patch of colour depicting fleur-de-lys, and a note from his mother, like a Post-it on a fridge door: 'Don’t forget the lamb'." – The luminous stained glass of Brian Clarke, 2018 review of The Art of Light in the Financial Times.

Brian Clarke is widely recognized as the most significant artist working in stained glass in the contemporary world. Clarke is also recognized as an important painter, and his painterly sensibility underpins the whole of his output. This exhibition is the first leg of an international tour. It explores the culture of stained glass, and repositions it as a medium of vital importance in the twenty-first century.” – Director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts Paul Greenhalgh.

Clarke says “This exhibition demonstrates stained glass has an authority and potential to deal with every human condition. Many of the greatest artists of the modern period have been intensely involved with stained glass — Matisse, Van Doesburg, Albers, Cocteau, De Kooning, Le Corbusier, Richter. I believe the medium has the potential to have the same kind of uplifting impact on our urban fabric as it had on the architecture of the 15th century. I want to surpass the Middle Ages, not equal them.