Following a long illness, artist John Powell recently died at age 73 just days before an exhibition at the Howard Yezerski Gallery in SOWA.
“They are stunning,” Howard Yezerski, the gallery owner, commented about Powell’s works while taking a break from preparations for the opening earlier this month. “The pieces are in his minimalist style but quite engaging and unique. There are quick sketches in neon elements. I met him some 20 years ago when the gallery was on Newbury Street. We have several pieces that he created as lighting for our home.”
John was my student in a seminar on contemporary sculpture at Massachusetts College of Art. In 1986, he earned a Master of Fine Arts in 3D. He also earned a 1989 Master of Science in visual studies from MIT, where his practice developed with a focus on art, science, and technology.
John brought to experimental art a range of skills, using metal fabrication and technologies including electronics, computers, and holography. Otto Piene, director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at MIT, was initially a mentor and then a collaborator. John became instrumental in developing Piene’s works from concept to finished pieces.
Early on, John provided support for established artists before achieving recognition under the umbrella of Light Time in Space. In many of his public art projects, he made masterful use of lighting to create site-specific works.
In the late 1980s, we spent an interesting evening viewing John’s illumination of a bridge near South Station. The placement of large lighting elements powered by a generator articulated and created a rhythm; his work allowed us to experience the sublime in everyday life.
There was a robust physicality to the man and his hands-on proletarian approach to making high art using industrial materials and techniques. John was more of an art worker than an esthete. The stunning Yezerski installation focuses on the more accessible, collectable, interior design inventiveness of his approach. There was a range from macro, the public art site work, to micro sconces, fixtures, maquettes, and sketches with metal and neon. Aspects of light and shadow were the matrix of his creativity.
For the show that he did not get to see, Powell wrote a brief artist’s statement: “My work with light as material began with sculpture. In 1974 I spent a year in Holland as the assistant to the Dutch sculptor Thijs van Kimmenade. He worked primarily in steel. His objects were distortions of real objects, bookcases, chairs, and tables surreal in a very natural unobvious way. My own work, then and now, is built up of planes, steel planes reflecting planes of light. Shape and colors were major issues for me; van Kimmenade’s work was black. No color and no light came from or was shed upon his work.”
Our relationship was provocative, contentious, and informative. During that MASS Art seminar, Powell was a graduate student. It was apparent he and others knew more about the subject than I did. John in particular seemed to delight in never missing a chance to demonstrate that, and that edge persisted through years of mutual respect and complexities entailed when a critic is a friend of an artist.
Through Piene, and before him Gyorgy Kepes, Boston and Cambridge became the epicenter of a global network of experimental art, with John playing a major part in that. As a founding member of Group Zero, Piene was better known in Europe, though in 2019 there was a stunning retrospective, Fire and Light: Otto Piene in Groton, 1983-2014, at the Fitchburg Art Museum. Several of the major pieces on display were collaborations with Powell.
Cultural critic Astrid Hiemer recalls that “Powell worked on Piene’s Light Ballets. They go back to the 1960s and were technically quite simple: A drum, a motor, light bulbs, and perforated grids would throw changing light patterns in a darkened gallery on walls and ceilings, as the drums turned. Magical, even then! In 2013, Piene started to develop Light Robots with Powell, who developed them with assistance from an MIT lab. By 2014, shortly before Piene’s death, he had seen in the studio a first finished Light Robot as now a spinning and a mobile sculpture.”
The art, science, and technology of CAVS were never a part of the mainstream narrative of 20th-century art in Boston, though many of its fellows still live and work in the area, contributing to the rich tapestry of advanced art. Some of their individual careers and accomplishments have been celebrated, but that critical mass has fallen outside the purview of curators. An exception has been George Fifield and his Boston Cyberarts events; my colleague Mark Favermann, a former CAVS fellow, has also written extensively about experimental architecture, art, and technology. Among Boston’s critics that’s exceptional.
JOHN POWELL, NEON SHADOWS. HOWARD YEZERSKI GALLERY, 460 HARRISON AVE., A16, BOSTON. THROUGH 3.17.