San Jose Museum of Art to Present First Museum Survey Devoted to Work of Leo Villareal beginning August 21

Release date 
Thursday, July 1, 2010

Accompanying publication will feature essays by Sara Hart, JoAnne Northrup, Michael Rush, Mark Van Proyen; foreword by Susan Krane; and introduction by Steven B. Johnson

SAN JOSE, California (July 2010)—The San Jose Museum of Art will present the first-ever museum survey of the work of the prominent sculptor Leo Villareal, a pioneer in the use of LEDs and computer-driven imagery. Leo Villareal, on view at SJMA from August 21, 2010, through January 9, 2011, will feature approximately 20 sculptures and expansive installations by Villareal on loan from public and private collections, as well as video documentation of his architectural, site-specific works.  The exhibition traces the artist’s work over the past decade, from his earliest experimental sequencing of strobe lights to his recent hypnotic patterning of thousands of pinpoint LEDs. Organized by the San Jose Museum of Art, the exhibition will be accompanied by the first book devoted to the artist’s work, co-published by Hatje Cantz Verlag. The exhibition will later travel to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, NV, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Overland Park, KS, and the Telfair Museum of Art’s Jepson Center in Savannah, GA.

“Villareal so clearly understands the fundamental way that our visual experience and habits of perception have been influenced by technology, now so deeply integrated into contemporary life.” said Susan Krane, Oshman executive director of the San Jose Museum of Art. “He not only gives viewers the sensory thrill of his ever-changing displays of light: he also creates a participatory social space that is fascinatingly both relaxed and spectacular. The San Jose Museum of Art is honored to introduce his art to Silicon Valley audiences and to continue the museum’s commitment to exploring the intersection of art and innovation.”  

The exhibition and publication are timely as Villareal’s reputation in the art world and his popularity both reach new heights.  In addition to his recent, high-profile public commission at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., such institutions as The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the newly reopened Tampa Museum of Art have recently acquired Villareal’s work for their permanent collections.

“Villareal’s work is unique in that he bridges the subculture of technology and the broader international contemporary art world,” said JoAnne Northrup, the Drew and Katie Gibson Chief Curator at SJMA, who organized the exhibition and authored the main essay in the accompanying catalogue. “Why shouldn’t 21st-century artists use 21st-century technologies as creative tools? Although he relies on computers, his work is not about technology. Computers are necessary to drive the light sequences that compose his work, but he deliberately uses code that is simple and pared down. He focuses instead on the sequences, inspired by the mathematical formulae that form the basis of patterns found in nature.”

The works on view in Leo Villareal range in scale from the 36 in. x 30 in. x 7 in. sculpture Red Life (1999) to the 10 x 15-foot installation Diamond Sea (2007).  Several works will be experienced in immersive installations. For example, Firmament (2001) consists of a 16-foot diameter, ceiling-mounted strobe light sculpture, sequenced by a microcontroller; visitors will recline on a specially designed couch to experience the hypnotic animated patterns above.

“It is beauty that we experience with Villareal’s work, at times haunting and mysterious, at other times voluptuous and grand,” writes noted critic and scholar Michael Rush in his essay. “He offers a seriousness that may be digitally derived but is in no way virtual.”

Other works on view will include Strobe Matrix (1997); Open Air (2001), Double Hexad (2002, ed. 1/3), Metatron (2002), Hexad (2002); Lightscape (2002), Sunburst (2002), Chasing Rainbows (2004), Colum 6 (2005), Hive (2007), Solaris (2005), Multiform (2007), Big Bang (2008), Flag (2008), Star (2008), Primordial (2009), Amanecer (2010), Trihex (2010), and Wheels within Wheels (2010).

The exhibition seeks to place Villareal’s body of work within the continuum of modern and contemporary art, from minimalism to the present. At the same time, it explores Villareal’s new vision for an art that responds and relates to the innovations of the 21st-century by using computer code and new technology as a medium for abstraction.

“The essence of the piece is the code; colored light is the manifestation,” Villareal has said.


Born in Albuquerque, NM, in 1967, Leo Villareal was raised in El Paso, TX, and in northern Mexico. He began his studies in stage design and art at Yale University, New Haven, CT, and later pursued graduate studies at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, NY. From 1994 to 1997, Villareal worked on cutting-edge virtual reality projects at Paul Allen’s Interval Research Corporation in Palo Alto, California. In 1994, Villareal first attended the counterculture festival Burning Man, which inspired him to begin creating immersive experiences on a larger scale. In 1997, he programmed a 16-light strobe structure that he brought to Burning Man. Originally conceived as a nighttime wayfinding device using pulsing light, the simple light piece was well received and became the precursor to his work in the light medium.  His recent major commissions include Sky (Tampa) (2010) at the Tampa Museum of Art, FL, Stars (2009) at the Galería Javier López in Madrid, and Multiverse (2008) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  His work is in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, KS, the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum in Kagawa, Japan, as well as other public and private collections.

Leo Villareal is sponsored by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation, and Bank of America.

City of San Jose Public Art Program co-sponsored the installation of Villareal’s LED light sculpture Flag on the exterior façade of the Museum facing San Fernando. Villareal’s Flag is part of the San Fernando Corridor project.


The catalogue to be co-published with Hatje Cantz Verlag (Ostfildern, Germany) is the first book-length publication devoted to Villareal. It includes an introduction by Steven B. Johnson, best-selling author of such books as Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter (2005) and Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (2002), as well as a foreword by Susan Krane, SJMA’s Oshman executive director. In the main essay, Northrup draws on extensive interviews with the artist and provides connections among painting, conceptual art, and light art. The catalogue also includes essays by noted critic and scholar Michael Rush, author of New Media in Art (1999) and Video Art (2003); Mark Van Proyen, corresponding editor for Art in America, professor at the San Francisco Art Institute and an expert on counterculture; and architectural journalist Sara Hart.  Due out August 21, 2010, the 192-page hardcover catalogue ($60) will feature extensive photographic documentation of Villarreal’s’ work from the mid-1990s to the present.



The San Jose Museum of Art is a vibrant and popular community resource that brings a variety of acclaimed exhibitions, programs, and innovative educational opportunities to the diverse residents of Silicon Valley. SJMA’s permanent collection of more than 2,000 twentieth- and twenty-first-century works of art includes paintings, sculpture, installation, new media, photography, drawings, prints, and artist books. SJMA continues to grow the collection through purchase and gift. SJMA is the largest provider of youth arts education in Santa Clara County and serves more than 37,000 students annually through curriculum-based arts programs and integrated technology.

The San Jose Museum of Art is located at 110 South Market Street in downtown San Jose, California. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for students and senior citizens, and free to members and children under 6. For more information, call 408-271-2787 or visit

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Programs at the San Jose Museum of Art are generously supported by operating support from the City of San José, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Koret Foundation; and by a Cultural Affairs grant from the City of San José.