Helen Pashgian is a pioneer of Southern California’s Light and Space movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which revolved around the sun and its shifting quality of light. Her abstract sculptures in cast polyester resin include columns, discs, and spheres in delicate coloration, suspended or encased within coated glass forms. Her semi-translucent surfaces contain illumination, which changes as a viewer moves around her forms.
She was one of the few women in this male-dominated group of artists, who included James Turrell, Larry Bell, Peter Alexander, Robert Irwin, and DeWain Valentine. After World War II, these Light and Space artists experimented with materials used in the aerospace industry, such as fiberglass, urethane, polyester resin, glass, and plastics. Urethane was not quite as dangerous to work with as the polyester resin although it did contain cyanide. So Pashgian still had to be masked with respirators and goggles. She developed exacting protocols for her pours, 50 steps in painstaking order. The results were breathtaking.
Although Pashgian has shown her work steadily in solo and group shows since that time, she never achieved the same widespread recognition as her male contemporaries since women were overlooked in the art world at that time.
Pashgian studied art history at Pomona College where she met James Turrell. She received her M.A. from Boston University and was headed for a career in academia or museum work. While pursuing a Ph.D. at Harvard, Pashgian accidentally transitioned into art making.
When she was a child, she was always fascinated by the play of light in water and the ambiguity of different shapes and forms. Years later teaching high school she stumbled on transparent ceramic glazes and was fascinated with how they picked up light. She experimented unsuccessfully with oil paints and decided it was time to return home to Southern California.
Pashgian did not remember the moment that she found the clear resins that made possible her transition to three-dimensional works in the early 1960s. Doing the work, hands-on and by herself, unlike many other artists, has always been at the center of her practice. She didn’t have much interaction with Turrell or other male artists because many of them were based in Venice, California while she lived and worked in Pasadena. For her, the relative isolation she had as one of the few women – along with Mary Corse and Maria Nordman – in such a physical art form was not of much consequence.
In 2014, Pashgian had her first large scale sculptural installation at a major museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Helen Pashgian: Light Invisible.” Her work in this exhibition was a notable departure from her previous work of smaller, three-dimensional pieces that incubated starker color and were meant to hang on a wall. Here her work consisted of a dozen 8-foot-tall cylindrical semi-translucent acrylic columns – hollow forms, standing in a row – which had illuminated varied shapes inside them. A viewer needed to stroll slowly around the perimeter and through the columns, treating all 12 cylindrical sculptures as one. Its overall impact was organic, fluid, and endless.
Pashgian’s work has been exhibited in numerous California colleges, universities, and museums. She was part of the group show “Pacific Standard Time: 1950-1970” at the Getty Museum and at the Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2013, she received the “Distinguished Women in the Arts Award” from MOCA. Her work is in the permanent collections of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Palm Springs Art Museum, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Portland Art Museum, and Norton Simon Museum.