Remembering Lines of Light

Two years ago, the UN General Assembly declared 2015 as the International Year of Light. This “global initiative” is to highlight the “importance of light and optical technologies” in the lives of the world’s citizens. Which technologies?  Consider the laser. I’ll bet there’s one within 30 feet of you – in a CD player, a computer mouse, a checkout scanner. Maybe you’re using one to amuse your cat.

Invented – perhaps more than once – in the late 1950s, a decade later lasers were still a novelty. Many people, at least those who were not physicists, probably saw one for the first time when James Bond was almost bifurcated by a laser beam in Goldfinger (1964).

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“No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”

An advertisement in an industry journal a few years before Ian Fleming’s novel became a blockbuster film asked the question: “Where does the laser go from here?” One of the places it went was the artist’s studio and the art gallery.

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1962 advertisement

The laser’s light – pure, bright, and steady – captivated a small group of artists who began to explore its aesthetic potential. This wasn’t easy to do. In the mid-1960s, lasers were delicate pieces of equipment, often requiring one or even several experts to make them work properly. They were also expensive – a small commercial unit could cost as much as $700 (about $5500 in today’s money).

Given the cost and complexity, getting access to and then being able to work with a laser was not always easy for artists. Carl Frederik Reuterswärd, a Swedish artist, recalled learning about the laser just a few years after it was invented. But it wasn’t until 1965, when fellow Swede Billy Klüver, an engineer and co-founder of the seminal group Experiments in Art and Technology, brought him to Bell Labs to show him one in action. The artist recalled, “My mental perceptions changed. Here was the tool that broke with all traditions…It looked like the halo of Leonardo da Vinci, but straightened to infinity.”

Even more debatable than which scientist invented the laser – the story is complicated and, unless one has a commercial stake, it’s not a particularly interesting historical question – is which artist first used lasers for art’s sake. During the short-lived but remarkably fecund Art & Technology Movement of the mid-to-late 1960s, many such experiments were done. Some were done by physicists – like Caltech’s Elsa Garmire – who wanted to expand their careers in new directions. Other efforts were made by artists wanting to explore a new medium.

While many people experimented with the aesthetic possibilities of lasers, far fewer persisted with it as their preferred medium. One possible reason might be the ways in which lasers were incorporated into light shows and rock concerts – high art of a very different nature. Remember Laserium?

One artist who started experimenting early with lasers and maintained this focus for many years to follow was Rockne Krebs. Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1938, Krebs got a B.A. in sculpture from the University of Kansas in 1961. After a stint in the Navy, Krebs settled in Washington, DC and started his art career in earnest. Photos of him early in his career show him with his hair still cut in near-Navy fashion.

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Krebs, 1968 (Photo: ©Joe Cameron)

By the end of the 1960s, Krebs looked less like a Navy officer and more like a slightly heftier Robert Redford. As carefully planned and executed as his art works were, the ruggedly handsome Krebs – ubiquitous cigarette in hand – cut a path in his personal life somewhat less straight than a laser beam.

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Krebs, in his studio, 1977, with his daughter Heather (Photo: © Ray Lustig, 1977 for The Washington Star)

Krebs started making his early works from more traditional materials – a show in January 1967 at the Jefferson Place Gallery in Washington, DC featured pieces of Plexiglas, aluminum and steel that the Washington Post called “starkly courageous.”

By spring of 1967, though, Krebs had begun to shift to the ephemeral medium of laser light. At first he experimented at home with a laser he had “panhandled.” Then, at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Paul Haldemann, a technician from the University of Maryland’s electrical engineering department, assisted Krebs in combining red laser beams with artificial fog and mirrors. As he later said, Krebs was prompted by “the possibility of reversing the proposition by which we normally view sculpture.” The result was best explained by the show’s name – Sculpture Minus Object.

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Krebs in Sculpture Minus Object (1968). (© Estate of Rockne Krebs/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

Along with Sam Gilliam, his longtime friend with whom he shared a studio, Krebs secured a growing reputation for his works which used lasers and other light sources in innovative if dematerialized ways.

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Krebs, with his friend and fellow DC artist Sam Gilliam, 1984 (Photo: Carol Harrison)

This was enhanced considerably when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) selected Krebs as part of its controversial Art and Technology Program. Conceived in 1966 by LACMA curator Maurice Tuchman, the idea of A&T was to pair artists with various companies, primarily based in southern California. Working in collaboration with company engineers and supported by modest stipends from the corporate pay chest, artists would create pieces for an eventual show at LACMA.

Most of the participating artists were big names in the New York avant-garde art world – Warhol, Oldenburg, Serra, Rauschenberg. Krebs, barely 30 years old and from Washington, DC (hardly seen at the vanguard of the 1960s art scene) was a relative outsider. Nonetheless, in March 1969, prodded by “gonzo curator” Walter Hopps, a recent transplant from Los Angeles to DC, Krebs wrote LACMA to express interest in the A&T effort. He proposed making two works of art, one to be set up outdoors and shown at night and another to be installed indoors.

One of the companies Tuchman had approached about being partners in the A&T Program was Hewlett-Packard, a long-established Bay Area firm. Krebs flew out to California and met with Hewlett-Packard engineers and managers. Krebs was especially interested in H-P because, after “several years of ideation and attempts to visualize pieces that were beyond my resources,” H-P could offer both technical skills and the money for him to pursue more ambitious works.

Krebs began to collaborate with Larry Hubby, a physicist at H-P, who helped him resolve issues with the power output of lasers, light scattering, and how to focus the laser light. (Authorial aside: If any readers have contact information for Mr. Hubby, please write me!) Hewlett-Packard featured the artist-engineer collaboration in its magazine, highlighting technical input the company was providing. Here, we can still see shades of the famous “two cultures” divide. According to the H-P writer, Krebs, although “attired…in the informal style conventional to artists” still managed to impress H-P employees as “serious, talented, and pleasant to work with.” One of the engineers’ main contributions was developing a complex beam-switching sequence as Krebs wanted to use green and blue light from an argon laser as well as red light from a helium-neon laser.

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Krebs, 1969, working with engineers Bruce Ruff (left) and Larry Hubby (right) at Hewlett-Packard (from A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971)

Meanwhile, LACMA’s Tuchman negotiated with Jack Masey the United States Information Agency to put a selection of works by artists involved with the A&T Program in the official pavilion the U.S. would have at the Osaka ’70 Expo. Krebs was one of eight American artists invited to bring their collaborative art work to Japan where it would be displayed alongside sports memorabilia, and moon rocks brought back by Apollo 12 astronauts.

In January 1970, Krebs flew to Osaka for a 6-week stay. Working mostly alone at night, he installed the delicate and complex electro-optical system that would generate his light sculpture.

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Krebs in Osaka, 1970, installing his artwork. (from A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971)

It included three argon beams that would flash off and on, changing color at times throughout a seven minute cycle. In addition, red laser light formed a “static beam network” providing a sculptural armature.

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1969 drawing by Krebs showing layout of his Osaka piece (© Estate of Rockne Krebs/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

The technical help that H-P engineers provided was critical to success of the piece. As Krebs told The Washington Post, “They’d build the things I dreamed.” His artistic vision was to “weaken the psychological persistence with which laser beams are perceived as apparently real matter. He wanted to do this by having the beams appear and disappear in different configurations to “convey both the transiency and relativeness” of the piece the Los Angeles Times called “Infinity Reflection System”.

Still photos can’t convey the visual effect of seeing Krebs’ piece in person. Remember that for many visitors to Expo ’70, this was the first time they had ever seen a laser in person. Unlike Krebs’ earlier static works, his Osaka creation changed over time. One reviewer wrote that the viewer “is confronted with a red wall of light above the floor which forms a nonphysical curtain through which he passes.”

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Still image of Krebs’ Osaka piece ( © Estate of Rockne Krebs/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

As one entered the “periphery of the large mirrors used in this experiment, the walls appear to open as the mirrors reflect a laser beam structure that can be seen in real space.”1 The effect was to generate structures and walls of light which changed color – “green…and then without warning, nose or movement…the brightest sort of blue” –  and winked into existence and then away. Krebs designed the piece so that pace would gradually increase, creating a “kind of silent visual crescendo.”

Critics’ reaction to the high-tech art on display in Osaka – it was a big theme that year with the Pepsi Pavilion built by Experiments in Art and Technology standing out as the most ambitious attempt to marry art and engineering – was mixed. Krebs’ work received a positive response. Perhaps not surprisingly, a critic from Krebs’ hometown was especially positive, calling him the “most important innovative sculptor” that Washington DC had ever produced.

The Osaka Expo and, a year later, LACMA’s Art and Technology (which featured another ambitious laser installation) brought Krebs national attention and prestigious commissions. Before his death in 2011, Krebs designed and built more than 30 large-scale public art works which all involved light, optical effects, and, often, lasers. In addition, he exhibited in dozens of solo and group shows.

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Krebs’ Day Passage; made for 1971 LACMA show ( © Estate of Rockne Krebs/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

Krebs’ public works were generally without overt political messages. However, in 1988, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, responding to political pressure, canceled an exhibition of artworks by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who had recently died of AIDS.  Krebs – implementing an idea curator Andrea Pollan proposed – sent a light-based “fuck you” to censors and prudes by projecting haunting images of Mapplethorpe and his works on the building’s façade.

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From 9 October 1989 issue of Newsweek (photo by Frank P. Herrera)

Although millions of people saw Krebs’ work during his lifetime, the realizations of his artistic vision were  necessarily ephemeral. When the electricity is turned off and the laser light disappears, what – besides an impressive volume of sketches, drawings, and diagrams – is left? Memories and impressions.

  1. Harry J. Seldis, “The Art of Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1970 []

Art at the Speed of Light

After physicists first demonstrated the optical laser in May 1960, scientists and engineers started thinking of what they could do with it. So did artists. By 1970, these communities, often collaborating with one another, transformed lasers into a novel artistic medium.

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The first optical (red) laser, tested May 1960.

For a short period, Elsa M. Garmire was part of the artist-engineer interactions that peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Raised by her chemical engineer father and her homemaker/violin teacher mother, by the age of 12 Garmire wanted to be a scientist. After doing an undergrad degree at Radcliffe, she started graduate school in MIT’s physics program. Her specialty was optics and lasers and she was advised by Charles Townes, MIT’s new provost who had shared the 1964 Nobel for his laser and maser research.

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Garmire and Townes, c. 1965

In 1966, Garmire moved to California for a postdoctoral position at Caltech. Caring for two young children, increasingly unhappy with her marriage, and stymied by the school’s treatment of women faculty, Garmire began to consider other options.

Intrigued by the use of technology “in a non-logical, artistic way” she contacted Billy Klüver in the summer of 1968. An engineer at Bell Labs, Klüver was the driving force behind Experiments in Art and Technology, the most prominent of the American organizations started in the 1960s to catalyze artist-engineer collaborations. Impressed with Garmire’s enthusiasm and background – Klüver did laser research too – he brought her into the E.A.T. fold.

An active member of E.A.T.’s branch in Los Angeles, Garmire organized, for example, a “Cybernetic Moon Landing Celebration” in July 1969 at Caltech. This included a “laser wall” Garmire helped build – a low-power argon laser beam spread into multiple lines of color that people could walk through.

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“Laser Wall” at Caltech, July 1969

Garmire captured her thoughts on the relationship between art and technology in a short piece published in a newsletter the local E.A.T. chapter put out. “Technological art,” she wrote, “is the first step toward eliminating this divinity of technological wonders…The technological artist approaches and utilizes the incomprehensible for his own ends in ways often irrelevant to the original ‘purpose’ of the device.”1

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Garmire in her lab, c. 1970.

Garmire, working in her Caltech lab, became increasingly interested in exploring the aesthetic possibilities of lasers. Initially, Garmire created “lasergrams” – still photographs made by shining laser beams through various diffraction media. Here’s one example from 1969. It’s similar in appearance to the active, changing Lumia pieces made by the Danish-born artist Thomas Wilfred.

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One of Garmire’s laser art images, 1969.

Another Garmire creation from the same period is less diffuse and more geometric in shape:

Another of Garmire's laser art pieces.

Another of Garmire’s laser art pieces.

Caltech’s public relations department generated attention for her artwork in 1971.  Unfortunately, a powerful earthquake on the day of Garmire’s opening at a local gallery overshadowed the publicity and also damaged some of her pieces.

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Garmire on local Pasadena TV.

Garmire also explored a variation on photographing manipulated laser images via live shows using a HeNe laser and rotating diffraction wheels and then filming the changing shapes and colors.

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Garmire and Ivan Dryer in her Caltech lab, 1970. This sowed the seeds for what eventually became Laserium.

The idea of doing live laser shows was already in the air in the late 1960s. For example, Lowell Cross, a multi-media artist, performed the first “public multi-color laser light show” in May 1969 at Mills College. Cross later collaborated with Berkeley physicist Carson D. Jeffries and composer David Tudor to create a laser light show for the interior of the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka. This used a laser deflection system which manipulated the four colors from a krypton laser. Highly sensitive mirrors in the system could vibrate up to rates of 500 times per second and were activated from the sound system in the Pavilion’s mirror dome.

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Cross’ laser piece for Pavilion, 1970.

Cross’ work was only one example of attempts by professional artists to adapt the laser for aesthetic purposes. Another notable effort was by Rockne Krebs, an American artist who made laser-based sculptures for several years starting in the late 1960s.

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Krebs with his piece Sculpture Minus Object, 1968

Over time, Krebs expanded his focus from small-scale efforts using lasers in rooms and galleries to ambitious outdoor installations that incorporated building and landscapes into the work. Harking back – unconsciously, most likely – to Garmire’s experiments, his piece The Green Hypotenuse (1983) used a 7 mile-long laser beam that stretched from the observatory on Mt. Wilson down to Caltech.

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The Green Hypotenuse, 1983

A key difference between Garmire’s “lasergrams” and installations made by artists like Krebs is the latter’s ephemeral nature. When the laser was turned off, the art disappeared. All that’s left are the sketches that went into its planning – “drawings for sculpture you can walk through” according to the title for one Krebs’ exhibit.

Physicist Garmire’s experiments in blending art and technology were only slightly less ephemeral. In 1973, she co-taught a course on art and technology to undergrads at Caltech before leaving on a lengthy sabbatical trip with her family. By 1975, she was a single parent trying to return to a career in science. She did this with a vengeance. She held faculty positions at USC and then Dartmouth, eventually becoming dean of engineering there. Along the way, she made a point to promote the professional activities of women in science and engineering fields.

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Garmire and her former advisor, Charles Townes, 2007

Professional accolades accrued –  election to the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was also made a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the American Physical Society, and the Optical Society of America (she served as OSA’s president in 1993). A new husband, her two kids, and her scientific career – these, instead of art, became the lights of her life.


  1. Elsa Garmire, “Art and Technology: Ruminations of an Engineer,” E.A.T. L.A. #1, January 1970, p. 5. []