‘It was quite obviously breathing’: the day Anthony McCall realised his light sculptures were alive

<span>Light fantastic … Face to Face, from 2013, by McCall, whose work is showing at Tate Modern.</span><span>Photograph: Stefania Beretta/Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers, and Sean Kelly, New York/Los Angeles. Photo by Jason Wyche, New York</span>
Light fantastic … Face to Face, from 2013, by McCall, whose work is showing at Tate Modern.Photograph: Stefania Beretta/Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers, and Sean Kelly, New York/Los Angeles. Photo by Jason Wyche, New York

At the beginning of 1973, Anthony McCall, sculptor of light, was 26 and had made waves with his first piece, Landscape for Fire. This was a film of a performance in which white-clad spectres light fires across a huge landscape, experimenting with McCall’s belief that a performance isn’t a performance unless it’s documented in some way. “If it takes place in the middle of nowhere,” he says, “you need to record it.”

Half a century later, I meet him at Tate Modern in London, which is about to launch a major exhibition of his immersive, 3D moving shapes. McCall is softly spoken, even tentative; there is nothing excitable in his manner. Yet there is something almost supernatural in the way he manages to conjure the exhilaration, radicalism and explosive creativity of that bygone era.

His work needed smoke and dust, but the gallery was too clean. So he smoked three cigarettes – and got thrown out

McCall studied graphic design and photography at Ravensbourne College, on the outskirts of London, but became “steeped in other ways of using cinema. It was called experimental film, it was called expanded cinema, structural film, new American cinema”. This all fed into Line Describing a Cone, his first “solid light” work, where the rays projected on to a screen seem to create a tangible object in the darkness.

At that time, he was in love with the performance artist Carolee Schneemann: “She had her own form of happenings called kinetic theatre, already up and running.” They’d met in London, but she wanted to return to the US, so they moved to New York together. There were so many things McCall admired about the American art scene – the performance artists, loosely collected under the umbrella fluxus; the experimental film-making of Andy Warhol; Yoko Ono’s drop of water, which you were invited to watch until it evaporated. “There was an intensity about the world in New York at that time which was unmistakable.”

It must have seemed like a golden time. “It does to a lot of people who weren’t there,” he says, laughing. “But I can confirm that it was. All everyone seemed to want to do was talk about art – in a completely unpretentious, daily kind of way.” There was a frantic exchange of passion, skills, ideas: “I didn’t know how to make animation. I found a friend of a friend, we went to a bar, and an hour later, I had a plan. I felt those acts of openness and generosity were unique to New York.”

He and Schneemann were like the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo of the city. Any artist blowing in there would gather around them. “But they would have been Carolee’s friends, really,” he says. It was an intensely productive time for McCall: he arrived with Line Describing a Cone and made “three short clean films exploring different aspects of the idea. Then I made Long Film for Four Projectors.”

This was a five-and-a half-hour piece conjuring up four walls of intersecting light, which visitors experienced from within. “Not that the audience had to be there for five and a half hours! The whole point was that people would come and go in their own time. There could be a couple of dozen people in there, not only looking at the film, but looking at each other looking at the film. That seemed quite intriguing.”

The series culminated in Long Film for Ambient Light, with no film and no equipment, all highly conceptual, and this time lasting 24 hours. “It was a good way to paint yourself into a corner,” says McCall. “The windows were covered with white paper, limiting them to being light sources during the day and reflective surface during the night. Finally, there was a two-page statement on the wall, ‘Notes on Duration.’”

After turning 30, he began to realise he needed to make a living. “The kind of work that I made,” he says, “galleries didn’t really show.” While he may not have been making a living, McCall had a significant international reputation, and was invited to show Line Describing a Cone at the Konsthall Lund, a leading Swedish gallery.

He got a shock when he arrived. “I discovered, to my horror, that it was completely invisible. All I had was a line going round on the screen.” The appearance of solidity, which was the whole point, was absent. “It was meant to be a volumetric object! In a blinding flash of brilliance, I realised why: all along, I’d been working with a medium I hadn’t understood – which was dust. The films were made and shown in old lofts in New York, buildings that had previously been used for light engineering or millinery or sweatshops. If you get 10 people in there, there’s enough dust in the air to catch the light. Plus, probably a quarter of the people would be smoking continuously. The combination of the dust and smoke created a medium which made this series possible, but which I’d been unaware of.”

He ran to a tobacconist and came back smoking three cigarettes at once. But he was no match for Scandinavian hygiene and was thrown out by a guard. He tried everything to create “some particulates in the air”, from dry ice to frankincense, but nothing worked. This cast him into a wilderness he’d inhabit for the next 20 years.

From the late 70s to the 90s, McCall went back to what he’d trained in, graphic design, and began running a studio. It was quite successful: they designed metal sculptor Richard Serra’s books. “I only felt thwarted,” he says, “when occasionally some art historian would be at the door wanting to talk about the solid light work. After finishing those interviews, I would feel as though I had betrayed everything and was wasting my time.” It got so bad that he couldn’t bear to lay out another book. “Some time in the 90s,” he recalls, “I had the desire to make works again.”

He went back to the short cone films. “One of them was called Cone of Variable Volume. It was very simple, just an exploratory film in which I tested the idea of a circle that would change its volume, by expansion and contraction. It was at four different speeds, from frenetic to so slow you could barely see it moving. To my surprise, I realised that it was doing something I had never noticed before. It was quite obviously breathing.”

He could never have seen that when he first made the work. “We were much too purist.” To discover that, all along, these works had been describing bodily functions came as a thunderbolt. He thought he’d been dealing in concepts, but he’d created the appearance of an organism. “I made a lot of films after that, all following this idea of the corporeal, with titles like Between You and I, Meeting You Halfway, Skirt, You and I Horizontal.”

These are mainly conical light sculptures, often leaning towards each other in eerie suggestions of human connectedness. As for what they meant, he says: “I’ve never believed the artist should be the person to ask that. Works of art don’t come with a tag that says ‘meaning’. That’s the work of the audience.” It’s never quite that simple, though. “These new ideas don’t flow evenly,” he says. “You don’t turn on a tap and get a few ounces of new ideas.”

Since his 2004 show at the Pompidou in Paris, McCall has been creating epic light sculptures, culminating in four major shows this year. As well as the Tate, there is Guggenheim Bilbao, Sprüth Magers in London, and the Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Lisbon in autumn.

“It’s certainly been welcome,” he says, “but it’s a big surprise. You’re not thinking, as you whistle at your bench, ‘I’m pioneering.’ You’re just making something. You have no idea if it’ll be any good.”

• Anthony McCall: Solid Light is at Tate Modern, London, from 27 June to 27 April