The Dying Light

A neo-hippie art collective slams into the 21st Century

Much of the work they brought to the show had been in their collection for years. Prices ranged from a few thousand dollars to more than $10,000. Some pieces, wall units made by Mel, were more than 30 years old. It would be hard to let some of it go, Dorothy said, "but it'd obviously be nice to sell some pieces. We have some big goals. We want the art to be seen, to be shared and experienced. That's why we create it. Maybe a few big individual buyers who'll display the pieces somewhere. That's the best-case scenario. Enough money to do more things."

Raphael, 60, was less guarded. A gentle, soft-spoken man, he's Lumonics' informal publicist and agent. He'd like the group to meet a financier who understands its free-spirited nature and wouldn't mind funding more projects, he said. "We've all thought about how big and great this could be. We all want this for Dorothy. And for Mel."

Charo Oquet, the Dominican-born curator of Edge Zones, said Lumonics is revolutionary. "The way they use light and color, the vision they have for what art can be — it's so different from anybody else in America. And they've been doing it longer than anybody. They were doing this before laser shows were popular. And they were doing it in Miami."

Tanner puts the final touches on Blue Man in the back of her studio in Coral Springs.
c. stiles
Tanner puts the final touches on Blue Man in the back of her studio in Coral Springs.
The Lumonics studio is full of work that goes back to the 1970s, like this untitled sculpture of Mel Tanner's.
c. stiles
The Lumonics studio is full of work that goes back to the 1970s, like this untitled sculpture of Mel Tanner's.

Lumonics has a purity, Oquet said. "Most of the art today is so gone over. It's so smoothed over, it's no longer nutritious. It's like refined sugar. It won't hurt anybody, but there's so much of that stuff that people can forget what real sugar tastes like. It's our job to put the brown sugar out there, even if some people — the ones who've never seen brown sugar before — don't know what to think about it.

"People think Basel made Miami Beach. But the art like Lumonics made Basel. Treasures, finds, these hidden artists like Dorothy. Without artists like her, there wouldn't be a Basel."

The inspiration for Lumonics came almost 40 years ago in the same East Miami neighborhood of Wynwood, about a mile from Edge Zones, after a life-changing hit of LSD.

In July 1969, in the same week that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Dorothy and Mel Tanner were sitting in a blue Volkswagen Beetle they'd brought back with them from Rotterdam. Mel, then 44, was an intense man, lean and strong. They were parked at a diner, Scotty's. Rain poured down, creating phosphorescent shapes across the dark lot. Planes from the nearby airport flew over, rattling windows. As the acid kicked in, Mel looked across that lot and saw himself in the distance. For a moment, he became two autonomous versions of himself, one in the car, the other out in the rain looking back. Both Mels had independent thoughts and feelings. From then on, Mel understood.

"It was just a transcendent experience," Dorothy says. "It awakened something, and he saw things differently. He understood the world in a deeper way, and he told us about it. He saw a new direction for the art, different ideas with lights and sound and spaces."

By then, Mel was already a successful artist. After serving as an infantryman in World War II, he attended the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where he studied painting under Max Beckmann, a famed German painter and sculptor. Beckmann was associated with New Objectivity, a spinoff of expressionism. He worked in bright colors. Several of his pieces were included in Hitler's "Degenerate Art" exhibition.

A Brooklyn native, Mel was already displaying his work in galleries when he met fellow art student Dorothy in 1951. By the mid-'60s, they had a gallery of their own, Granite Gallery, on East 57th Street in Manhattan. The art community was turning on to the drug culture. At the gallery, they worked with artists like Louise Nevelson and Red Grooms. Mel and Dorothy were at every major art event in New York, clinking glasses and trading banal industry conversation with art society's elite. The couple worked on their own projects, using acrylics and translucent materials that allowed light to pass through.

Soon, they grew tired of the nonstop New York scene. They found it impossible to be productive artists with the hassles of running a gallery. In 1965, they left New York for Europe. At various times, they wanted to open art schools in Spain and Italy, but for one reason or another (usually financial), the plans always fell through.

Then in 1968, they returned to the United States, settling in Miami because, as Dorothy puts it, "it just felt right." They established Grove Studio in a cheap building in a neighborhood where the potted plants got stolen. They began focusing on lighted acrylic shapes, marketing a line of small sculptures through Bloomingdale's in New York.

The next year brought the parking-lot trip the Lu Cru still recounts as sort of a creation story. They began melding technology and experience with art. They incorporated surround sound (years before it was used in disaster films like Towering Inferno). Mel wanted to create environments that stimulated human senses and affected emotions. Something that combined the sound, the multi­media projections, and the light sculptures. A harmony of body, spirit, and place. "The goal is to get you high without drugs," Dorothy says. Mel had a name for this art that combined light and science: Lumonics.

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