At MOA, plugging in, tuning out, turning up story of 94-year-old Dorothy Tanner

A collection of Mel Tanner's hand-painted slides. Photos by Ray Mark Rinaldi

“I’m a long story,” Dorothy Tanner says of herself. And she tells it, in bits and pieces, not parsing the good from the bad, not bothering to connect the chronological dots because, as she explains, figuring out when things happened matters less then the fact that they happened, sometime or other, and it all adds up to who she is.

“That’s the perk of being 94,” she says. Seeing the big picture of your life. Accepting it all and not judging. “Ego is always the driver, the guy in the seat, but I’m no longer beholden to him, or her, or it — or whatever it is.”

It wasn’t easy getting to this place. Tanner is an artist, a music lover, a party girl, a doer. And now her vision is failing and hearing can be difficult. She can’t move as quickly or produce as much. That used to make her angry.

But her art saved the day, and in that way she’s lucky. Tanner works, essentially, in light, making sculptures out of arranged acrylic pieces that illuminate in glowing reds, blues, greens, pinks. If she were painter, she’d be finished, unable to make a clear line. But light cuts through her undependable senses. She can see it and still feel the energy field it gives off and manipulate its qualities. It keeps her working and engaged.

Dorothy Tanner in her North Denver studio. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

Successful, too, as the pulsing pieces in her current show at the Museum of Outdoor Art soundly argue. The exhibit, titled “Lumonics Then and Now,” is a retrospective of light-based sculpture by Tanner and her late husband, Mel, who died in 1993. The objects go back to the 1960s and it’s all captivating, including the creations Dorothy has made in the last few years.

MOA showcases them indulgently, turning off the lights, blocking the windows and transforming its rooms into sort of psychedelic funhouse. The place throbs like a nightclub or a casino where the things that radiate and flash command your full attention.

There are scores of individual works that the couple produced, mostly separately, during the 43 years they shared a studio. Mel’s wall-mounted boxes dominate the main space and each of them presents its own visual puzzle. Encased in black, they push off the wall, maybe a foot, with multiple shades of light emanating to the surface through various colors and shapes of arranged Plexiglas.

The works are, for the most part, geometrical and symmetrical, though they play tricks on the eyes. They appear, from a distance to be all surface, like the commercial signs in front of a business. But close inspection reveals layers of multiple light and plastic within the box, all coming together into an illuminating whole.

1988’s “Doorway,” by Mel Tanner.

Mel’s influences were varied and enigmatic. Some pieces, like “Blinker” from 1977, appear inspired by planets and space travel; 1988’s “Doorway,” is encircled by emanating rays, like a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe; the show’s earliest offering, “X” from 1969, is a simple, vertical arrangement of two concentric circles and two crossed lines that hark back to pure, 20th century minimalism.

He was also, it appears, a fan of robots and several of the pieces take on a whimsical, sci-fi feel. A few blink or flash, giving the creatures something of a heart beat.

The couple shared a life and an attraction to glowing acrylic, but they worked on their own and Dorothy’s pieces have a distinct personality. They are unboxed and free-flowing. Her work goes from soft and wispy, like 1992’s flower-like “Floating,” to borderline representational, like with the humanoid “Serendipitous,” from 2015.

Dorothy has also created a series of animated works, set to music, and one serves as the centerpiece of the museum’s back room. It’s a trippy combination of dots and circles that transform from green to red to yellow while an ethereal soundtrack of sparse notes and Dorothy’s spoken word voice-over supply a mesmerizing audio backdrop.

A more recent work by Dorothy Tanner.

Interspersed in MOA’s jagged rooms, it’s impossible to judge the artists separately, or even to see the works as individual pieces. The objects vary in quality and appeal, but “Lumonics” the show connects them into a whole. It is meant as a showcase of multiple efforts, but comes off more as a single piece — an installation, of sorts — that unites all of their pieces in the service of this particular display.

It tells the Tanner’s combined story the same way Dorothy offers her own bio these days, without careful regard to timeline or theme. It’s less of a documentary, as retrospectives tend to be, and more of a sensory journey into the thinking of two creative minds.

That seems appropriate since the Tanners themselves led something of a jumbled life. The couple met in 1948 at the Brooklyn Museum. Both were art school grads, he a former Army soldier; she an accomplished wood carver who, as a young girl, flirted with both classical music and communism. For a while, they had a successful gallery in Midtown Manhattan, in the pre-SoHo days when it was the center of the contemporary scene in New York. But they wanted to make art, not sell it and hit the road, landing in South Florida, where they set up a studio.

There they discovered Plexiglas, a modern and inexpensive material that few artists embraced. They cut, sanded, scraped, painted and molded it into their creations. They lit it up, made it move, made it their own and deemed their art form  “lumonics.”

They also developed a team that included fabricator Marc Billard, along with associates Barbara Ungar and Barry Raphael.

The trio has been with the Tanner studio non-stop since 1972, and came to Colorado with Dorothy when she relocated here eight years ago, setting up a space in North Denver.

The Tanners made works that hang on the wall or sit on tables.

Billard’s close collaboration with Tanner has enabled her to continue making and showing work. He took months preparing the pieces in the MOA exhibit, refurbishing decades-old, plastic objects and updating their wiring and bulbs.

These days, the Tanner team spends its time organizing shows and keeping up the studio, which doubles as a busy event space.

Dorothy has her ailments, but she remains an independent operator, with some help from ginger tea spiked with cayenne, a steady stream of tobacco and a bit of marijuana, which she says, helps her both medicinally and creatively.

Like most artists, there is nothing like retirement in her future. Her “long story” continues with her making her treasured plastic things that spew light and thrill observers. There’s no separating her from the art. It sustains her.

“I find that I am most balanced when I’m working,” she said.

Lumonics Then & Now: A Retrospective of Light-Based Sculpture by Dorothy & Mel Tanner” continues through March 24 at the Museum of Outdoor Arts, 1000 Englewood Parkway, Englewood. Free. Info at 303-806-0444  or moaonline.org.

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