The story behind 'Multiverse,' the National Gallery's pulsing lights - The Washington Post

A journey through the underground concourse which connects the East and West buildings of the National Gallery of Art rewards visitors with a truly amazing visual light display, one which reminds me of what it must be like to fall into a black hole. It occurred to me that this fascinating, ever-changing pattern of lights is an unappreciated visual masterpiece in its own right. Can you tell us more about this display?

Answer Man will save you the trouble of counting the individual LED lights that make up “Multiverse,” the work of art created by Leo Villareal and installed in the National Gallery in 2008. There are 41,000. Arabic Chandelier Light

The story behind 'Multiverse,' the National Gallery's pulsing lights - The Washington Post

The sheer volume of lights in Villareal’s design “initially caused some apprehension,” the artist told Answer Man. “Then I did some mock-ups and I explained, ‘I'm using light in a very different way, something soft and elegant.’”

“Multiverse” was meant to be on view for only a year. But as the National Gallery’s Molly Donovan said in a 2016 conversation with the artist, “You can’t have an end date on Leo’s work. It has to be permanent, because once you live with it, you can’t live without it.”

Donovan was an associate curator in the gallery’s Department of Modern Art when she saw one of Villareal’s works at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery and thought he’d be perfect for enlivening the subterranean passage.

Born in Albuquerque in 1967, Villareal was raised on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, a place that rewards close study of the way light plays across the sky and landscape.

“It sounds a bit cliched, but the opticality of being out there is pretty extraordinary,” he said.

He went to college on the East Coast — Yale, then the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU — where he got into technology. Computers offered new avenues for artists, but Villareal found the machines could be untethered from the world.

“I don’t want to do virtual reality,” Villareal said. “I want to do things out in the world, for people. The public aspect is very important: having people complete the artwork.”

Villareal had his artistic epiphany at Burning Man. He often got lost in the dark desert trying to find his campsite and so created a homing beacon by patching 16 strobe lights to a computer he programmed. The glowing shaft represented the first embodiment of the three elements that inform his art: software, space and light.

The National Gallery concourse tunnel was part of I.M. Pei’s East Building design. When the museum opened in 1978, it already had the moving walkway, curving wall and distinctive silver slats. But the space struck Villareal as unresolved.

Villareal started developing his own custom software 20 years ago, employing it in various works. The commands that trigger “Multiverse’s” pulsing, rippling lights aren’t based on images or texts. They’re random sequences.

“I’m engaging a lot of chance in the process,” he said. “I don't know what the result will be. It's almost as if I’m creating an instrument, then playing it. When I see something compelling, I capture those elements. Those become building blocks for more complex sequences.”

Said Villareal: “I spent many, many nights there at the National Gallery, working and tuning. What’s really important to me is site specificity. I wanted to work with the space and get a feel for it, be able to adjust the mood and the brightness.”

The result couldn’t have been achieved when Pei designed the building. The lighting technology and computer technology weren’t there yet.

Villareal has other works in Washington, including a luminous wall in the lobby of 1801 K St. NW, and “Volume (Renwick),” a chandelier above the Renwick Gallery’s grand staircase. He’s added light to nine bridges over the Thames in London and to the Bay Bridge linking San Francisco and Oakland.

“Multiverse” is thought to be the most photographed work of art at the National Gallery.

It was installed “right at the time social media started to be a big thing,” Villareal said. “It's been interesting to see people documenting their experience with the piece and have this window into how people are experiencing it.”

Though the piece isn’t a sunrise or a sunset — it’s not natural; it’s LEDs, cables and zeros and ones — it can evoke similar feelings, what Villareal calls “moments of wonder and awe in us as humans.”

The story behind 'Multiverse,' the National Gallery's pulsing lights - The Washington Post

Acrylic Pendant Light Wonder about something in the Washington area? Send your question to