The Dying Light
This is a story about failure.
It's about a particular kind of failure — an American kind. It's about the failure of art measured in dollars and the failure it constitutes if there's no place in the market for art that can't sit neatly on a gallery wall. It's about what happens when Lumonics, a Fort Lauderdale art collective nurtured from roots in the drug-soaked 1960s, tries to make a belated debut and about whether it fails if no one notices.
Lumonics makes ephemeral art. In their studio in Coral Springs, artists work with light. This December, they took their light art to Art Basel in Miami Beach, the most important art show in North America. And so, on the first Tuesday of that month, Art Basel's sneak-preview day, Lumonics mainstays Dorothy Tanner and Marc Billard were at Miami's Edge Zones gallery preparing for one of their only public appearances in the past 20 years. And true to form, they were wrestling with the light situation.
Two bright, hot bulbs shone down right onto Tanner and Billard. They felt like spotlights, so bright they seemed to steal color from everything around them.
"We can't take them down," Tanner said.
"I can put a piece of foam board up there and block them out," Billard suggested.
The lights were there to illuminate another artist's work, on the other side of a wall; but because the walls dividing the displays didn't go all the way to the ceiling, light poured into the space that the Lumonics crew wanted to keep dark and relaxed.
"It would be no problem to get up there and put up a piece of foam board that goes all the way to the ceiling," Billard said.
No, Tanner said. "It's Charo's place; it's not our place. We have to respect that."
Tanner and Billard looked tired and frustrated. They sat at a green desk that Billard made for their Art Basel booth. Tanner, a small, thin, 84-year-old with short hair and darting hands, was wearing a dress with support hose and uncomfortable shoes. Her feet hurt. She'd feel better when she got back to Coral Springs, she said. Billard, 58 and well over six feet tall, with a mustache and thin glasses, in black slacks and sandals, looked plucked from the pages of a hippie catalog. He sipped nonalcoholic beer he'd packed in a cooler. All of the art they exhibited had been made by Tanner and Billard and Tanner's husband, Mel, who died in 1993. For a week, they and the rest of the Lumonics crew — "The Lu Cru" — had been schlepping their heavy plastic light sculptures and wall pieces from Coral Springs down I-95 to Miami.
One looked like a Technicolor, plexiglass dollhouse. Another resembled a cream cocoon. Tablet was a wall-hanging black box full of abstract, glowing shapes. Their work includes colorful, plastic, illuminated sculptures as well as fountains, wall projections, and whole art spaces. It has a utopian bent. "The art is meant to be experienced," Tanner says. "We want it to cool you down — to chill you out — when you see it. We want people to feel calm and peaceful."
A woman in her early 20s with a bright-pink purse, whom Tanner and Billard did not know, plopped herself down in one of the chairs behind their desk in their booth and loudly conversed on a cell phone ("I'm at Basel"). The lights still shone over the wall so brightly that Billard feared the effect of the Lumonics sculptures would be lost. It was a rocky start for a new adventure, but it was also just one part of a journey that began decades before. The Lumonics group, known officially as Tanner Studios, had traveled in that time from Miami to San Diego to Bangor, Maine, and back to South Florida, dedicated all the while to their art and to communal vegan living.
Now, Tanner and Billard and Lu Cru members Barry Raphael and Barbara Ungar and Ritch Mosias were stressed and excited at the prospect of formally bringing their art before the public again, leaving the cool, dark cave of their studio to step into the light of the art world at its glitziest. A sister to Art Basel Switzerland, the annual Art Basel event in Miami Beach is the biggest contemporary-art show in the world, comprising work from more than 200 galleries in its official exhibitions plus at least 200 more galleries that show work in satellite spaces such as Edge Zones. Private jets brought collectors and dealers here from around the world, and the crowd was peppered with celebrities like author Tom Wolfe in his trademark white suit. More than 40,000 buyers and dealers had flocked to Art Basel the year before, and 2007 looked to be just as popular. Little red-dot stickers, the signs that works of art have been sold, had popped up everywhere, and 2007 looked to be just as popular.
Before this year's Art Basel got under way, New Times art critic Michael Mills told me that he thought of all the local artists in the show, Lumonics probably had the best chance of succeeding, of seizing the art world's attention. Lumonics had long rejected that kind of attention, Mills said, an attitude that collectors usually can't get enough of. Lumonics, with its use of light, sound, and space, makes work so unusual and experiential that it just might grip a few influential individuals, and from there, its renown could spread. Or it could play out differently: As the Lu Cru was aware, viewers might find their electric contraptions and abstract structures too offbeat, like something that had escaped from a sci-fi niche. "Some people have no idea what to think," Billard said with a laugh. "They just stand back, and it's like they can't take it in or can't process it or something."
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."
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.
"Everybody sees it differently. We've had doctors bring patients to see Lumonics because they thought it would have a healing effect," Raphael says. "There is something magical about the way people experience it."
By the end of 1969, the Lumonics Light and Sound Theatre opened in the Miami studio. Some people identified with the concept of Lumonics strongly. It became an urban commune of young, like-minded, free-spirited individuals.
"One by one, people just started hanging out and sticking around," Billard says. "We all have an understanding. We all have sort of similar philosophies about life, and for the most part, we all get along."
The number of people living together got as high as ten at one point. Mel became a guru to disenchanted young people who felt they needed a purpose. The group was somewhere between Andy Warhol's Factory and Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters.
"Mel just had an understanding of the world — a certain wisdom," Billard says. "People were always coming to him, asking him for advice and telling him their problems. And a lot of the time, he would just laugh. Not to offend anybody, but because he didn't think, in this grand picture, the problem was very significant. He saw things differently — like they say a child has an understanding of the world before he unlearns everything. It was like he had a line into that."
Billard joined the group in 1972 after drifting from job to job for years. When Mel saw his knack for making and fixing almost anything, Billard says, there was a harmonious connection.
Through the '70s, Lumonics, led by Mel, evolved with the rapidly changing technology. They incorporated lasers, quadraphonic sound, and synthesizers. An entire subculture of South Florida would go and drop acid at their shows. Lumonics was a better complement to LSD than a Jimi Hendrix solo.
By the end of the '70s, Mel and the gang had had enough of Miami. They were offered a grant to create a "future ecology demonstration" in San Diego, along with a series of videotapes teaching ecology. Mel told the San Diego Union: "People should change their environment, even their names, every ten or 15 years and they would stay younger. If you live in one habit, or habitat, all your life, it goes by fast and seems boring. Even the length of your life is affected. If life is interesting, you will live longer."
After a year, the group left Southern California, moving back across the country, this time to Bangor, Maine. "San Diego was nice for a little while," Billard says. "We did some new things and got some money, but it just wasn't right for us after that. Not long-term."
In Maine, they converted a gutted bank into another otherworldly technology-art space. After a year there, they moved to Boston. They became a commercial studio and designed sets for television news shows and art for a large grocery-store chain. After a short stint there, they found themselves headed back to Florida in 1985, this time to Fort Lauderdale.
"It was really an accident," Raphael says. "Mel and Dorothy just came back through here visiting as the group decided where to move to. We decided Fort Lauderdale was a good location because we're close enough to Miami or Palm Beach but far enough from the environment we left in the '70s."
They bought some inexpensive commercial property near the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport in Coral Springs and opened another Lumonics studio. They developed a small theater between their showroom and their industrial work space, where they created their sculptures and other art structures.
In 1987, they started a two-year exhibition at the Boca Raton Gallery, where the directors built a new wing for the light sculptures. Gallery owners told Mel and Dorothy they could build more, with newer, more expensive technology, but they'd need a commitment to exhibit at the gallery for at least ten years. That was unthinkable for the nomadic Lumonics folks.
"We had a good run there," Dorothy says. "We made some money. They made some money. Everyone was happy, and we went our separate ways." Except for a small, short show in Coral Springs, the Boca Raton show was the last public display for Lumonics outside their small studio.
They began putting on performances regularly, each a unique, live show of projected light art. Since it was in their studio, they had full control over everything — the lighting, the sound, even the scent in the theater, controlled with incense. Some shows went on deep into the night. No matter what other projects came and went, they always went back to the performances. Always back to the experiential, the kinetic. Although they no longer participated in the art community, their own events were all about the social interaction, "the group vibe," they called it. But it was always on their terms.
When Mel Tanner died in 1993 of an aneurism, at 68, the group lost its mentor, Dorothy lost her husband, and Lumonics lost its foundation. "Nobody was really sure what the next step was at that point," Billard says. "Some people figured maybe we'd go our own ways."
The group went from the hospital where Mel died to their Coral Springs house. "Eventually, it broke into a big party," Billard recounts. "A big celebration of Mel's life and Mel the person we cared about. From there, we decided to go on and continue what he started." They decided to keep living in Mel's dream.
They all have roles within the group. Barbara Ungar is the mother-like character, cooking and sewing for everyone. Billard is the handyman and carpenter. Raphael runs their website and MySpace page. Dorothy is the artist.
Billard began collaborating with Dorothy after Mel's death. She would conceptualize a piece and explain to Billard what she wanted. Sometimes, as Ungar is taking a vegan dish out of the oven, Dorothy will start imagining shapes in the tofu. Dorothy will explain her idea to Billard, often with a small sketch on a piece of scrap paper. From there, they go to the studio, where they have a factory with the kinds of industrial tools any high school shop teacher dreams of. Billard cuts, crafts, or otherwise creates Dorothy's vision in three dimensions. They go back and forth with concepts and approaches — "a translucent dole here," "can we get internal light there?"
Sometimes, a piece takes days. Sometimes, it takes years. What every piece takes, though, is money. The materials cost money — malleable shards of plexiglass aren't cheap. The tools cost money. The space costs money. "Hey, we need to eat," Dorothy says with cool charm. That certainly played a role in why they entered Art Basel in Miami.
But Dorothy also feels like it's time for their art to be seen. "We've done our own thing for a long time," she says.
But why now?
"It's time," she says. "It's just time now. It wasn't right before, and now it feels right."
After a slow preview at Art Basel, a disappointing opening on Thursday, and another slow night on Friday, Saturday afternoon was tense. It was raining. The Lumonics crew had invited friends and fans to the gallery, but by 6 p.m., there still weren't many visitors.
By the time the sun went down and the air outside cooled a little, foot traffic finally picked up. Every visitor carried a collection of plastic bags, one from every gallery he or she had been to throughout the day. The bags had cards and contact information for each artist at the shows. The Lumonics cards were white with a black and neon, abstract, interstellar image.
The crowd snaked around Lumonics.
"This has an '80s feel to it," a man said of Lumonics to his female companion.
"A lot of these things are actually from the '70s, I think," the woman said.
"Well, I guess they were ahead of their time," the man said.
When one woman asked Dorothy and Billard if they could light their sculpture that looks like a Technicolor dollhouse, they said they'd take it to their shop to see what was possible.
Dorothy Tanner and Marc Billard expanded their artistic visions after Mel Tanner died. They composed more of their own music and worked with more digital video. They produced a long-form music video, A Slow Boat to Ecstasy.
After that, Dorothy recorded a CD of "positive message poetry," Cosmic Rap. It was spoken word with new-age electronic music that Billard produced in the background. They followed with Spices of the World and Spices of the World #2.
They did commissioned work, mostly building fountains for homes and offices. The fountains were lighted with bright colors and often had water flowing over plastic discs. Each water sculpture sold for thousands of dollars. They also continued the performances.
Beginning in 2000, Lumonics got a whole new clientele. Just as an LSD fan base found a deeper appreciation of their psychedelic projections 30 years before, the Ecstasy-toting rave crowd found Lumonics. The dark, cool spaces, electronic music, and mesmerizing, glowing lights were a perfect match. Their studio became a hub for the trance scene.
"It was so great to see the kids wanting to dance with Dorothy," Barbara Ungar says. "It was just a great place to be."
If it was hard to categorize Lumonics before, it was impossible now. Between 2001 and 2004, Lumonics was given New Times' pick for Best Art Experience, Best Dance Club, and Best Art Gallery.
"But you can't do any one thing forever," Dorothy says.
The Fort Lauderdale Police Department's now-defunct rave task force got wind of kids using drugs at the studio, and there was a bust. They confiscated $8,000 worth of drugs and arrested five attendees. Lumonics was cited for building-code violations. Police decided Dorothy and crew might not have known exactly what the kids were on when they were dancing all night, waving neon glow sticks, or where they got the drugs — sometimes the Lumonics parking lot.
"As far as the drugs and the kids go," Dorothy says, "yeah, that was what it was. Those dance parties were some of the best times too. And more than anything, the kids were just really cool. A different generation, but they got what we are all about. And we got them."
The way they tell it, the country got more conservative around then, and South Florida was no different. And all good things must come to an end. It was a shame, they thought, but legally necessary, and they stopped the shows.
In 2005, they stuck a toe in the public water. They put on a short installation show in a small gallery, the Coral Springs Museum of Art. "We were pleased," Dorothy says. "We didn't know what to expect really, and it wasn't horrible by any means." The show did not receive much media coverage, however. As one critic put it, the big players in contemporary art aren't exactly racing out to Coral Springs, Florida. "That show wasn't anything like [Art Basel]," Billard says. "It was more kind of on our terms, doing our thing."
By Sunday at Art Basel, the traffic was gone again and the Edge Zones gallery was empty. A dragonfly flew in and buzzed a long, bright, neon orange painting with blue butterflies by an artist named Robert Miller. It hummed over a radiant-yellow canvas covered with dancing monster figures, each with curving genitalia, by a Peruvian artist, Jesus Rosas. Then it flew into the dark, cool space inhabited by Lumonics. It went to a sculpture called Rondo, a two-and-a-half-foot open sphere of interweaving, curling, lit ribbons of blue, red, and translucent plastic. For the first time, the dragonfly rested, on the black stand supporting Rondo. It stayed for a moment in front of the sculpture, which looks like a human heart, with tubes going in and out in a circular harmony. Then it flew away.
When Art Basel began, Dorothy and Billard had talked about what they might do if the Miami art scene wasn't for them. They discussed packing up the art, the tools, and the Lu Cru and hitting the road again, like the good old days. Maybe move to a city like San Francisco or Vancouver.
Charo Oquet, the Edge Zones curator, said that no matter how Lumonics did at Art Basel, she'd like to have them back for another show soon. She also said she was thinking of producing a coffee-table book of their work.
"Sales were down all over Art Basel this year," Billard said afterward. "There were only so many people, they could only go so many places, and there were so many galleries. A few artists sold a lot, but not many."
At Lumonics, where so many hopes were kindled, where so much art was pioneering, a few people inquired about prices, but there were no explicit offers and definitely no red "sold" dots.
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