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Charles Ross in his Solar Spectrum at the Dwan Light Sanctuary,

United World College, Montezuma, NM, 2023

PHOTO: Jeremy Frechette

Using sunlight and starlight as the source for his art, Charles Ross creates large-scale prisms to project solar spectrum into architectural spaces; focuses sunlight into powerful beams to create solar burn works; draws the quantum behavior of light with dynamite; and works with a variety of other media including photography and video.

For the last 52 years Ross has been building the geometry of the stars into his earthwork, Star Axis, now nearing completion in New Mexico.

Ross discovered his passion for making art while studying mathematics at UC Berkeley. There he received his BA in Mathematics (1960) and an MA in Art in 1962. In 1961 his first solo sculpture exhibit was at Dilexi Gallery in San Francisco. In the 1960s he taught sculpture at UC Berkeley, Cornell University, School of Visual Arts, and Lehman College, New York.

In 1963 he received a year-long fellowship to make art in New York. While there he made welded steel sculptures, and also worked with the Judson Dancers, including Yvonne Rainner and Deborah Hay, to create A Collective Event, performed at Judson Church, November 19 and 20th, 1963.

Returning to San Francisco, Ross collaborated with dancer Anna Halprin to create Parades and Changes, (1964-66), which was performed in California, Stockholm, Helsinki, and was one of the first cultural events to tour behind the iron curtain in Warsaw, Poland.

In 1965 while living in a warehouse studio in San Francisco, Ross dreamed the technical details for building large-scale transparent prisms. He abruptly and completely abandoned his earlier work with lattice columns and colored plexi stacks and began making large prisms. A few years later Michael Heizer wrote Ross’s “obituary” describing this dramatic aesthetic transformation.

Ross moved back to New York and helped form the first artist co-op building at 80 Wooster Street. Organized by George Maciunas in 1967, it was the co-op that launched SoHo.

Ross exhibited at the Dwan Gallery between1967 and1971, where both the minimal and land art movements originated. Other artists with Dwan included Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Walter DeMaria, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, and Sol Lewitt who introduced Ross to Virginia Dwan. Ross’s first sculptures exhibited with Dwan were transparent skewed and truncated cubes—minimal objects that bend and refract both light and perception.

In 1969 Ross shifted the emphasis of his artwork from that of the minimal prism object, to the prism as an instrument through which light revealed itself so that the orchestration of spectrum light became the artwork. This began his life long interest in projecting large bands of solar spectrum into living spaces.

For the 1971 Dwan Gallery exhibit, Sunlight Dispersion, he created a prism sculpture with a spotlight to project spectrums on the walls and ceiling. Along with this he exhibited film clips of solar spectrum as it moved across the walls and floors of his studio. The film, Sunlight Dispersion, co-edited with Peter Campus, is in the collection of the Centre Pompidou.

The 1971 Dwan exhibit led to a collaboration with architect Moshe Safdie on Porat Yeshivat Joseph Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. Though this project was never built the artwork Ross designed for the Synagogue morphed into an artwork for the Harvard Business School Chapel where Ross again collaborated with Safdie in 1992.

Ross and Safdie won two awards in 1993 for successful collaborative work between artist and architect: The Boston Society of Architects Award for Art and Architecture Collaborations, and the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art, and Architecture Design Award.

Ross continues to create site-specific solar spectrum installations made up of arrays of giant prisms specifically tuned to the sun. The solar spectrums cascade down walls and across floors and ceilings, continuously changing by the hour and with the seasons as they are propelled through the space by the turning of the Earth. Each artwork is specific to the architecture and its location on the planet.

The ultimate goal is to create a nexus of solar spectrum artworks around the globe so that as the spectrum sets in one location, it is always rising in another.

Ross’s permanent solar spectrum installations include: The National Museum of the American Indian, for which he was awarded the Washington Building Congress Award in 2005;Conversations with the Sun (2004), Meiji University, Tokyo; Spectrum 12 (1999), Saitama University, Japan, created in collaboration with architect Riken Yamamoto; The US Federal Courthouse, Tampa, Florida (1998); and Lines of Light, Rays of Color, Plaza of the Americas, Dallas, TX (1985).

In 1996 Ross collaborated with Virginia Dwan and architect Laban Winger to create The Dwan Light Sanctuary. Envisioned and inspired by Virginia Dwan, the sanctuary is a place for quiet contemplation. It’s located at the United World College, Montezuma, NM. Here the solar spectrum is activated by sunlight shining through 24 large-scale prisms, with different spectrum events for each season.

In 1971 Ross asked himself: ”how do I make an artwork that is the opposite of the solar spectrum?” Rather than dispersing sunlight through a prism he decided to focus it into a single point of raw power to create a solar burn. Each day for one year he burned the path of the sun through a large lens into a wooden plank. The burns were exhibited side-by-side filling all the walls of the John Weber Gallery in an exhibition titled Sunlight Convergence/Solar Burn (1971-72). Ross continued to exhibit with John Weber until 1986.

In 1972 Ross travelled to Nova Scotia with Virginia Dwan and poet Steve Katz to film the total eclipse of the sun. The 8 minute long 16mm film titled Arisaig, July 10, 1972 is in the collection of the Hayden Planetarium.

In 1992 the French Ministry of Culture commissioned Ross to create The Year of Solar Burns for permanent installation in the Chateau d’Oiron. This 15th century chateau, located in the Loire Valley, is now a contemporary art museum. Each of the 366 planks captured one day of sunlight, a portrait of sunlight drawn by the sun itself. In 1971 Ross discovered that the solar burns traced a double spiral when laid end-to-end. At the chateau the spiral is photo-etched in bronze and inlaid into the floor as part of the installation. A primal solar form, this spiral was later used to study the Anasazi Sun Dagger Calendar at Chaco Canyon.

While NEA Artist in Residence at the University of Utah in 1973-74, Ross, with a crew of students, created seven Star Map Paintings, the largest of which is 9 feet high by 27 feet wide. There he also worked on his book, Sunlight Convergence/Solar Burn, which chronicles a year of solar burns and reveals the nature of the double spiral. Published by the University of Utah Press in 1976, the book received the American Institute of Graphic Arts Award.

Three of the Star Map Paintings were exhibited in Lo Spazio at the 1986 Venice Biennale. Each incorporates 428 photographs of the stars arranged to cover the entire celestial sphere from pole to pole.

Ross began painting using dynamite Primacord to explode dry pigment onto aluminum plates in 1982. The idea was a gift from Star Axis where the seven-story high blasting work and masonry was taking so long that he began searching for a counterbalance. One evening he said out loud “surely there’s something I can do here that’s faster than this”. The next morning he awoke with the idea: “paint with dynamite… that’ll be quick”.

Ross continues working with dynamite and powdered pigment to create geometric drawings that reflect the behavior of light at the quantum and cosmological levels—using the force of the blast to draw the behavior of energy.

For the past 20 years Ross has been creating several series of new solar burn artworks. One series—137 Solar Burns, each in the time it takes sunlight to reach earth, 8 minutes and 19 seconds—captures light’s time distance between the earth and sun.

Ross’s earthwork, Star Axis, is located in the New Mexico desert. It is both architectonic sculpture and naked eye observatory. The approach to building Star Axis involves gathering a variety of star alignments in different time scales and building them into sculptural form. Walking through its chambers you can see how star space relates to human scale and how the space of the stars reaches down into the earth. Ross conceived of Star Axis in 1971 and began building it in 1976 after a 4-year search through the southwest to find the perfect site—a mesa where one stands at the boundary between earth and sky. He’s now finishing Star Axis with a crew of local stonemasons. It’s made with granite, sandstone, bronze, stainless steel, and earth. When completed, Star Axis will be eleven stories high and a fifth of a mile across.

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