Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through May 9

Illuminations: Sculpting With Light

at the Smart Museum of Art, through April 4

Like other 17th-century painters from Caravaggio to Vermeer to Georges de la Tour, Rembrandt was a poet of light. Indeed, most of the more than 200 works in the Art Institute’s masterpiece-filled show–which in-cludes 153 prints as well as paintings, drawings, oil sketches, and original copper etching plates–can be seen as delicate duets between Rembrandt’s wonderfully fleshy sense of the physical world and his use of light to suggest imma-teriality or transcendence. Rembrandt’s treatment of light is just as strong in his black-and-white prints as in his paintings–though the public prefers painting. Or so exhibition curator Clifford S. Ackley was told when he first planned a show of prints plus one painting. But as this superb exhibit proves, no artistic medium is inherently superior to any other.

Art historians have pointed out the ways that Rembrandt rejected the idealized human forms of the Renaissance; his figures are full of instructive “flaws.” In one of the essays in the excellent catalog, Ackley explores the ways in which the subjects’ poses and gestures reveal their psychological states and thereby contribute to the images’ meanings. But despite the wonderful casualness of Rembrandt’s line–which seems to capture both the essential and the transitory–what most amazed me were the varieties of almost unreal luminescence and darkness.

In the prints, “light” is of course blank paper given nuance by Rembrandt’s masterful use of line. Not surprisingly, he sometimes creates a glow around Christ’s head, as in the 1634 print Christ at Emmaus, defined by the absence of a refined, complex network of marks. But as often happens in these prints, the textures that disappear into light somehow continue in the mind’s eye, infusing the white with remembered patterns. The ordinariness of the scene’s other details–the curves of a tablecloth, the texture of a dog’s fur–only heighten the power of Jesus’s halo.

Yet insofar as Rembrandt identifies light with spirituality, he sees spirituality in all things. In The Shell (1650), one of many teardrop markings on the shell’s surface, separated by an inky black, reflects light from an unseen source. Though the other marks aren’t reflecting the source directly, they could–and the whole shell seems alive with possibility. Rembrandt also chooses to place the broadest part of the shell toward us, which gives it a monumental, preternaturally powerful presence.

Rembrandt’s light in The Landscape With the Three Trees (1643) is symphonic in its range and effects, from grand cloud forms to slanting lines (rain perhaps); though the sky varies in its values, it’s nearly white behind the trees, which sets them off dramatically. But even when the sky is simply blank white paper, as in Landscape With a Cottage and Haybarn (1641), it’s just as impressive: the magnificent design below the sky frames it. Here Rembrandt’s lyrical lines give beauty to ordinary structures–poles supporting a thatched roof aren’t completely straight, another roof seems askew. And the void of the sky makes the buildings look vulnerable, reminding us of their exposure to the elements and hence the ravages of time–a subject Rembrandt often treated in his portraits of the old.

Rembrandt’s inventive use of darkness is just as variable in its meanings. In An Elderly Woman (Rembrandt’s Mother, Seated at a Table) (circa 1631), the figure’s dark, highly textured garment–a dense thicket of lines with only a few white areas–feels like a weighty trap for light. The darkness in The Flight Into Egypt (A Night Piece) (1651) is straightforwardly threatening to the figures, while in Saint Jerome (In a Dark Chamber) (1642) it suggests the inwardness of thought: this scholar, hand on his brow, has no need for even the faint light cast on the book before him.

Light also is used to produce various effects in the paintings. A foreground easel dominates The Artist in His Studio (circa 1628), its back to us. The artist faces the canvas, which we can’t see, but the space between him and the canvas is filled with light. Rembrandt scholar Ernst van de Wetering suggests that the image shows an artist conceiving his painting, but Rembrandt also contrasts the light of inspiration with the gritty materiality of intricately detailed floor-

boards at the bottom of the picture. And in the sublime Self-Portrait (1659), the brush strokes seem to create light, as if Rembrandt were able to calculate the luminosity of the tiniest marks. Here the artist’s face is most mysterious of all, the lines indicating age while light somehow takes us deep within, far beneath the flesh.

The Smart Museum’s “Illuminations” exhibit consists of five works by 20th-century artists using artificial light. Three of the five date from the 60s, when artists began to use “light as sculpture rather than in sculpture,” as the exhibit brochure puts it. In this uneven show, two of the pieces are duds, two are really good, and one is a masterpiece.

The failures use light in reductive, trivializing ways. Charles Biederman’s #9, New York, 1940 (1940) is an interesting geometrical sculpture with three fluorescent lights hidden within it. The problem is that the diffuse reflected light is subservient to the geometry, too different from it to be anything more than a decorative addition. Stephen Hendee’s Dead Collider (2004) is worse, a room-size installation of translucent panels with lights behind them intended to commemorate the unbuilt superconducting

supercollider. It reminded me of the obnoxiously pretty light installation at O’Hare–at least that one has music. Some techno-Muzak fusion would be appropriate for Dead Collider, which is altogether too pleasant and conceptually vacant. A visit to the real collider at Fermilab is infinitely more stimulating.

Robert Irwin and Dan Flavin are both justly famous light artists. Flavin’s untitled piece from 1964 consists of his trademark colored fluorescents: a long pink tube is mounted next to a short blue one on the wall, casting a weird mix of light throughout the room and destroying the notion that artists create objects. Irwin more overtly dematerializes an object–a plastic disk mounted away from the wall–in his untitled work from 1969: the disk is lit from the front to create four shadows, while the entire work floats mysteriously in space.

A modernist might say that Irwin and Flavin go beyond Rembrandt’s use of light by disconnecting it from farmhouses, old ladies, and Jesus–all that baggage that distracts from pure art. I’m not so sure, though arguably the lessons of modernism help us envision Rembrandt’s works aside from their content, as complex light effects exploring immateriality.

But the masterpiece of “Illuminations”–James Turrell’s first light installation, the disarmingly simple Afrum-Proto (1966)–sets up paradoxes that have no analogue in Rembrandt. A quartz halogen projector casts a white shape onto the corner formed by two walls, spreading onto both. The projected light usually appears as a hexagon, though the actual projected shape is a pentagon–the extra side is supplied by the corner. From most positions one side is smaller than the other. If the viewer stands in a spot very near the right wall, the shape becomes a rectangle, while from another position it creates the illusion of a cube.

These transformations render the light both completely immaterial and strangely alive. Afrum-Proto is like a changeable creature–a metaphor for shifts in human consciousness. It also transforms a familiar rectilinear room into a mystery: the simple beam pointed at a corner thoroughly derationalizes the space, throwing all our knowledge into question.