Anthony McCall
A Journey through Solid Light

Light, both a fundamental aspect of the universe and a source of wonder, is a phenomenon that shapes our perception of the world. Scientifically, it can be defined as radiation within a defined electromagnetic spectrum, visible to the human eye. However, its significance extends far beyond mere visibility. Light illuminates our surroundings, allowing us to see colours, shapes and textures, influencing our mood and wellbeing. Whether it’s the warm glow of sunlight on your face or the radiance of a neon sign, our senses are stimulated, and we are reminded of its profound impact on our lives.

Several celebrated artists have made significant contributions to the field of light art, continuously reshaping our understanding of space and form through their innovative use of illumination. Amongst them is the heavyweight James Turrell (b. 1943), who stands as a pioneering figure for immersive installations that manipulate light to create transcendental moments. His mastery lies in the ability to harness both natural and artificial light to transform architectural environments into ethereal realms, blurring the boundaries between art and insight. Similarly, Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967) fascinates audiences by incorporating light, water and nature to evoke profound sensory experiences. His work encourages reflection and introspection, challenging you to reconsider your relationship with the environment.

Jenny Holzer (b. 1950), meanwhile, is known primarily for text-based installations, utilising light as a medium to convey powerful messages provoking social commentary. Through LEDs, she transforms public spaces into sites of contemplation and conversation, inviting viewers to engage critically with issues of power, politics and identity. Meanwhile, Diana Thater (b. 1962) probes the intersection of light and technology through immersive video installations. She creates dynamic worlds that challenge the understanding of space and time by manipulating light and colour.

There is an A to Z of artists working with light. This list is extensive, and audiences are always asking for more. Tate Modern has heard the call, and this summer Solid Light by British-born, US-based artist Anthony McCall (b. 1946) opens in London. As an early pioneer of experimental cinema and installation art, McCall seamlessly merges film, sculpture and drawing to create immersive experiences that captivate the senses. The exhibition offers a remarkable encounter with four of McCall’s solid light works, reminding us how, for decades, he has continuously pushed the hinterland of creativity and innovation.

McCall’s artistic journey began in the early 1970s amidst London’s vibrant independent film scene. Key works from the artist’s early performances, including the seminal Landscape for Fire (1972), which depicts a carefully choreographed sequence performed outdoors: uniformed participants from the art collective Exit light fires in a geometric grid formation against a soundtrack of foghorns, wind and burning. Contrasting the unpredictability of nature with mathematical order, the work speaks to McCall’s conceptual interest in shape and movement. Similarly, Room with Altered Window (1973) showcases interventions in architecture, laying the foundations for the ground-breaking explorations to come.

Upon relocating to New York in 1973, McCall embarked on a quest to redefine the boundaries between sculpture and film. Inspired by the ethereal shafts of light emitted by film projectors, he conceived the infamous Line Describing a Cone (1973), the first of his iconic solid light works. This mesmerising piece, invites viewers to witness the gradual formation of a cone of light, challenging traditional notions of cinema. Across 30 minutes, the outline of a circle is slowly “drawn” on the wall, casting a cone of light from the projector through the space. Although deceptively simple, this work considers the nature of film itself: focusing on the shape of light, not just the traces it casts. Included in the exhibition are sketches and photographs of McCall’s original plans for this work.

In the late 1970s, McCall temporarily withdrew from the art world, only to re-emerge at the turn of the millennium with a renewed sense of purpose. Embracing new technologies, such as haze machines and digital projectors, McCall pushed his craft to new heights. Doubling Back (2003) and Face to Face (2013) demonstrate the artist’s mastery of solid light, transforming cinematic space into a playground of infinite possibilities. These works, featured prominently at Tate, represent McCall’s experimentation with form.

In an ArtForum interview he stated: “I find that I am now asked a particular question that used not to come up: ‘Are you making sculpture or are you making films?’ The way that this question is phrased puzzled me for some time, for it seemed to me that my installations have to be viewed as both to be fully appreciated. I have personally found it useful to group art into three sets of practices: the sculptural, the pictorial and the cinematic. The sculptural, post–expanded field, is very broad, of course, but loosely covers all work that explicitly engages three-dimensional space. The pictorial covers painting and all work related to the making of images, including photography. The cinematic, a relative newcomer, covers all time-based or movement-based work, including performance, sound, film and video.”

The exhibition’s culmination is Split-Second Mirror (2018). It is McCall’s most visually complex work to date. Utilising a mirror to disrupt a plane of light, this piece embodies McCall’s relentless pursuit of invention, offering the viewer a glimpse into the future of cinematic sculpture. In Anthony McCall’s world of solid light, boundaries dissolve and imagination takes flight. Tate Modern’s show promises to be a journey of discovery and an invitation to contemplate the intersection of art and technology, forging a deeper connection with the transformative power of light. This is one to add to your summer must-do list.

Anthony McCall: Solid Light is at Tate Modern, 27 June – 27 April 2025

Words: Anna Müller

1. Anthony McCall, Solid Light Films and Other Works, 1971 – 2014). Installation view Eye Film Museum, Amsterdam 2014. Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers, and Sean Kelly New York. Photo by Hans Wilschut.
2. Anthony McCall, installation view of Face to Face, Sean Kelly, New York, 2013. Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers, and Sean Kelly New York. Photo by Jason Wyche, New York.
3. Anthony McCall, installation view of Face to Face, Sean Kelly, New York, 2013. Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers, and Sean Kelly New York. Photo by Jason Wyche, New York.
4. Anthony McCall, installation view of Face to Face, Sean Kelly, New York, 2013. Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers, and Sean Kelly New York. Photo by Jason Wyche, New York.
5. Visitors look at Face to Face, 2013 by Anthony McCall at The Hepworth Wakefield, 2018. Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers, and Sean Kelly New York. Photo by Darren O’Brien / Guzelian.