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The Artist Who Manufactured Dawn

Spencer Finch Bridges Science And Subjectivity

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page N01


Workers at Bloomberg LP, the financial-media giant, are settling into their new headquarters, a few doors over from Bloomingdale's. Officially complete as of last week, the offices are so fancy they even have a spiral escalator. In the basement, a vast expanse of curving wall, lavishly tiled in lemon-yellow glass, is there simply to hide the bathrooms.

But the building's most impressive feature is probably the long, straight wall that faces those yellow tiles. It is almost too bright to take in: a bank of 165 thin fluorescent tubes, installed horizontally from about hip height to shoulder level, stretches 100 feet. Once their eyes adapt to the glare, Bloombergers will see that each four-foot tube is wrapped in a skin of pastel plastic: The first 18 inches or so of each tube are the palest blue, then there's about the same stretch of limpid green, then diminishing spans of violet, pink, orange and yellow.

Finch's piece is titled
Finch's piece is titled
Spencer Finch's installation, left, and its reflection in the basement of the renovated building in New York City where the anchor tenant is Bloomberg LP, the financial media company. Finch's piece is titled "Sunrise (Over the Atlantic Ocean, September 6, 2004)". (Blake Gopnik - The Washington Post)

The wall label beside the installation should explain what's going on. This is a work of art by someone called Spencer Finch, and its title is "Sunrise (Over the Atlantic Ocean, September 6, 2004)."

But that explanation won't make the art's effect less strange.

When viewers look straight at the wall, they get an eyeful of glowing color, like a blaring light sculpture by Dan Flavin. Looking down at themselves, however, or over at the face of a co-worker, they'll realize the garish wall in fact emits a soft light that's subtly white. Skin is lit by a soothing glow that seems more natural than wired.

That white light wafting over basement-dwellers is the radiance of dawn, barely tinged by the green of the salt sea and the blue-gray of the lightening sky, along maybe with hints of violet and pink cloud lit by a yellow rising sun. The artist simply sought out a Long Island sky precisely at sunrise, took a color-meter reading of that lightest shade of pale, then used fluorescent tubes and colored filters to transplant it to a hallway in New York. It's one of several major works that New York's Public Art Fund was commissioned by Bloomberg to install in its new offices, as part of the company's commitment to cutting-edge contemporary art.

"Is it possible to make something powerful in itself, but that also points back to the world?" That's the question Finch keeps coming back to when he talks with a visitor to his Brooklyn studio. Can a work of art be both abstract and representational? Sensual as well as conceptual?

If all art strikes a balance between visual effect and thought, Spencer Finch is standing in the middle of the seesaw, one foot balanced on each side, praying not to fall.

Finch is a slight 42-year-old, with a feathery crop of short blond hair that's thinning on top. His eyes are a pale, watery blue, and they tend to look away as he explains himself, rather shyly, to a stranger. He's dressed in worn khakis and Adidas (but not the trendy ones that scenesters wear). An old white T-shirt reveals surprisingly well-muscled arms: They hint at time spent at the gym, and are the only sign of an artist's narcissism in a man who might otherwise be almost any kind of junior academic.

His mother, now retired, was once a teacher; his father still does research in chemistry. Until a very recent, rather modest uptick in art sales, Finch mostly fed himself by editing social studies textbooks. He says he's keeping a foot in that door as backup, in case his budding art career never fully blooms.

The last few years have brought some hints of recognition. Finch was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. He's also been picked up as a collaborator by acclaimed choreographer William Forsythe. On April 21 in Frankfurt, fluorescent pieces by Finch will grace the stage when Forsythe launches his new German company. The collaboration got coverage in April's Artforum, the most prestigious publication in contemporary art -- but so did lots of other stuff. For now, Finch is still smack in the middle of a pack that's been known to eat artists like him alive.

Finch's studio is suitably modest, and shares its owner's scholastic air: There's a fair amount of mess, but it's not notably arty. Work tables have as many scribbled notes and plans on them as clearly artistic works in progress. One wall features a trial version of some of the Bloomberg tubes -- which could as easily point to some kind of pending patent as to the birth of major art.

In front of those lights, blue helium balloons float in midair. It looks as if Finch has prepared a party for his visitor, but it turns out to be a test for another recent piece, first shown at an art fair in Miami in December. Finch's New York gallery, called Postmasters, had rented a "booth" that was in fact a shipping container plunked down on the beach. Finch's piece consisted of a cloud of 150 blue balloons that he set floating over it, carefully worked up to match the color of the noon sky above Coney Island. (Finch controlled his color's saturation by inflating all his balloons to precisely 9 inches across; he got the tint just right by blowing up a dark-purple balloon inside each bright-blue one.) It was as though a piece of sky from old New York had sailed south and moored in Florida.

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