Artist Finch brings obsession with light to SFMOMA installation in Los Altos

Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Spencer Finch describes his “Back to Kansas” installation as more of a scientific experiment than a painting.

Artist Spencer Finch divulged details of a project in the works at an empty storefront at 242 State St. a few weeks ago, his creative energy filling the dark room with insight into how his obsession with light will weave itself into his commissioned piece for “Project Los Altos: SFMOMA in Silicon Valley.”

While undergoing renovation, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art organized traveling SFMOMA On the Go displays all over the Bay Area, including Los Altos. With support from the city of Los Altos and Passerelle Investment Co., the multisite exhibition is scheduled to open Saturday and run through March 2.

Finch’s creation is slated for unveiling along with the work of five other artists commissioned by the museum at various Los Altos venues.

‘Back to Kansas’

At first glance, a large wall containing 70 symmetrical squares, each of a different color, may look like an abstract painting, but Finch described his installation as more of a scientific experiment than a painting.

“The idea was to do something in Los Altos where everything is about speed and being able to control images – in this case, the image controls you,” said the artist of his vision for a diachronic creation. “People will sit and watch as the colors disappear. Short wavelength colors disappear sooner, long wavelength later.”

Inspired by how “The Wizard of Oz” bursts from black and white into full Technicolor as Dorothy enters Oz, Finch said he wants his installation to emulate the transformation. Deriving each block of color from scenes found in “The Wizard of Oz” and designing his piece to fit the aspect ratio of a film screen, Finch’s work is appropriately titled “Back to Kansas.”

The canvas of squares is intended for viewing without the use of artificial color, as natural light floods in from the southwest via a floor-to-ceiling facade of transparent glass that illuminates the work. Benches in front of “Back to Kansas” allow visitors to observe the installation for extended times, with the periods before and during sunset the most dynamic. Placards available on arrival invite guests to record when they see the colors fade to gray as the natural light disappears.

“Everyone will see differently,” Finch said, noting how one’s gender and even what one ate for lunch could influence how he or she perceives the colors of his creation.

Although Finch would be surprised if a line of visitors queues up on the sidewalks of State Street to view his installation, he said he would be just as satisfied if his “Back to Kansas” resonates with a few viewers.

“I’m hoping that there are some people who really find it as interesting as I do,” he said, adding that he’s particularly optimistic that the science and technology innovators in Los Altos might understand his vision. “I think if there are two people watching it for half an hour, that’s much more important than 100 people looking at it for two minutes. I hope people are willing to give it a chance.”

For a list of contributing artists and more information on “Project Los Altos,” visit

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