“My art deals with light itself,” says 70-year-old artist James Turrell. “It’s not the bearer of the revelation—it is the revelation.”
While frequently lumped together with minimalist artists Robert Irwin and Dan Flavin in the art-history canon, Turrell has not had a major museum show in New York since 1980, and the artist is back with a bang mounting not one, but three simultaneous shows at the Guggenheim in New York, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
Turrell’s work can best be described as “slow art.” His art is so subtle, so carefully tuned to the surrounding environment, that we begin to mistrust our sensory perception as we’re enveloped in space, sky, light, shadow, and color. In the best of Turrell’s pieces, we experience light and space as though it were the first time, and are often unsure what exactly it is we are seeing. In essence, these works are meditations of sorts. It is no accident that Turrell has designed two Quaker meetinghouses in Houston and in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. Turrell’s spaces are the perfect place for Quaker friends to gather and sit in silence.
Turrell comes from Quaker stock in Pasadena, California. “It was like the conservative Mennonites,” he told Wil S. Hilton in the New York Times Magazine. “I come from a family that does not believe in art to this day. They think art is vanity….My mother did not have a toaster oven and would toast bread in the oven, which I thought was stupid….They didn’t do cars and electricity, that kind of stuff.”
There is a quiet stillness in Turrell’s work that invites contemplation, and it seems fitting that an artist from a strict Quaker background would create work that transports the viewer outside the self.
“My work is about space and the light that inhabits it,” says Turrell. “It is about how you confront that space and plumb it. It is about your seeing.”
As Hilton explains, Turrell’s work requires “a degree of surrender”:
There is a certain comfort in knowing what is real and where things are; to have that comfort stripped away can be rapturous, or distressing. It can even be dangerous. During a Turrell show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1980, several visitors to a piece called City of Arhirit became unsteady in the bright blue haze and tried to brace themselves against a wall made of light. Some of them fell down. A few got hurt.
There were lawsuits and, as Hilton reports, Turrell spent $30,000 to defend himself.
Turrell was one of the first visual artists to receive a MacArthur “genius” grant. His work is not always easy to access, which is one of the reasons that the three shows currently on view in New York, Houston, and Los Angeles are so significant. He has created massive pyramids in eastern Australia and on the Yucatán Peninsula and there is a 18,000-square-foot museum devoted exclusively to his work at the Colomé Winery and Estate in the mountains of Argentina.
But Turrell’s magnum opus is the Roden Crater Project, an extinct volcano that the artist has been transforming into an intricate and massive installation work and naked eye observatory since 1979. The ambitious project has never been open to the public, and Turrell’s Ahab-like obsession with the crater has taken on a mythology all its own. (The Guggenheim will gladly sell you a James Turrell tote bag that reads, “Sooner or Later, Roden Crater.”)
I’m a big fan of Turrell’s work, and I’ve been anticipating the artist’s New York show at the Guggenheim all year—ever since I learned that Turrell would be transforming Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed rotunda into a light installation. If the long lines and crowds are any measure, the Turrell exhibit is the art-blockbuster of the summer.
The centerpiece of the Guggenheim show is Aten Reign, named for Aten, the deified sun disk in ancient Egyptian mythology. The 79-foot tower of light has been compared to an upside wedding cake or a stack of lampshades.
But while Aten Reign has been the darling of the New York press and received positive reviews from the likes of Roberta Smith and Peter Schjeldahl, the installation was ultimately a disappointment.
This is not to say that the exhibit isn’t worth seeing, for Aten Reign is both ambitious and original. I sat in the rotunda for an entire hour watching the rings of colors slowly shift. Comprised of vivid pinks, blues, and greens, Aten Reign is at its most arresting when it fades into smoky orange and gray. It is impossible to sense how close the cone of light is to the rotunda floor; at times the light seems to recede, and at other times, come toward the viewer.
It is also fascinating to watch the white lobby walls on the edges of the rotunda seemingly shift color as Aten Reign‘s hue changes. A circular reclining bench makes viewing the installation a more comfortable experience, and yet, it is nearly impossible to have any intimate encounter with the piece because of the roar of the crowds and the constant jostling of elbows.
Another distraction is the guards, who are constantly scolding visitors for taking photographs and sitting or lying on the floor. We all applauded this gentleman’s panache when he laid down in the center of the atrium floor and stared up at the shifting cone of light. Some visitors booed when the guard made him move. (The guards are only doing their job, of course, but these dramas are a continual distraction and far from the quiet, intimate experience seen in publicity photos). A sense of solitude and quietness are an integral part of Turrell’s best works, and it’s these qualities that are sorely lacking with Aten Reign.
“The work promotes a state of meditative contemplation in a communal viewing space,” says the Guggenheim’s press release, “rekindling the museum’s founding identity as a ‘temple of spirit,’ in the words of Hilla Rebay, the Guggenheim’s first director and a pioneer in the promotion of nonobjective art.” It is a commendable notion, but Aten Reign is ultimately more theme-park spectacle than temple. Even in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one of the busiest churches in Manhattan, the crowds lower their voices and retain some sense of respect. But there is no hushed awe here.
I did, however, have a wonderful conversation with a stranger sitting next to me on the atrium bench—an architecture lover, who travels the world to see the buildings of our greatest living architects. We discussed the strengths and weaknesses of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Ghery, while collectively swooning over Zaha Hadid and Tadao Ando. We both agreed to put Turrell’s smaller architectural works on our “must-see” list. Although Aten Reign failed to offer a solitary meditative experience, it did allow for an intimacy of sorts between two strangers—a rarity in a bustling, popular, New York museum show.
Another disappointment is the lack of call-and-response between Turrell’s work and Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed design. Turrell’s installation imposes on Wright’s architectural gem, instead of responding collaboratively to it. Here is the wall text describing Aten Reign:
One of the most dramatic transformations of the museum ever conceived, the installation recasts Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic architecture—its openness to nature, its graceful curves, its magnificent sense of space and light—as a volume of shifting natural and artificial luminance. For the first time, the building’s overlooks are enclosed and visitors experience the rotunda only from the floor; from this vantage the space appears not as an open void but as a massive expanse of dynamic light and color. Through this radical gesture, Turrell has rekindled the Guggenheim’s identity as a “temple of spirit”…
While the interlocking cones lined with LED fixtures echo the ovals in Wright’s rotunda, Aten Reign is not utilizing the graceful lines of Wright’s building, as much as it is masking them. While Turrell is harnessing the light coming in through the skylight, this is the only trace remaining of the impressive rotunda. In essence, Turrell has opted to obscure Wright’s building, instead of responding to it.
And Turrell has taken this obfuscation even further by blocking off the rotunda’s spiraling ramps so there is no view of the atrium from above. (See Lee Rosenbaum’s photo right). While the museum may tout this as a special event (“for the first time, the building’s overlooks are enclosed and visitors experience from the floor”), I suspect this decision was more utilitarian in nature. Enclosing the ramps not only keeps visitors from seeing the metal-ringed construction of Aten Reign, but it gives Turrell maximum control over the light and space in the rotunda.
I pity any visitor who experiences the Guggenheim for the first time while it is in such neutered form, for they will have no sense of Wright’s building. If you are a regular visitor to the museum, Turrell’s transformation will provide some sense of novelty, but if it is your first visit to the Guggenheim, don’t be surprised if you come away feeling slightly perplexed.
Luckily, there are other gems in the Guggenheim show that remind us why Turrell is considered a master of light and space.
My favorite piece in the exhibit is Ronin (1968), a lighted rectangular cavity in the corner of an upper gallery. The longer I studied the piece, the more unmoored I felt. I simply couldn’t tell what I was seeing. Ronin continually shifts, sometimes looking like a window lit by daylight and at other times like an artificially lit corridor. The effect was so compelling and mysterious, it took every ounce of self-control I had to resist touching the work.
Another highlight of the show is First Light, a portfolio of 20 etchings that Turrell created in 1989 and 1990. Inspired by the engravings of Rembrandt van Rijn and Francisco de Goya, Turrell explores the qualities of light through aquatint in this unique series. The medium’s high contrast and modulated tones brilliantly suggest the glow of light seen in Turrell’s installations. I had never heard of these prints before, and found them to be a welcome surprise.
If you do visit the Guggenheim, don’t make the mistake of rushing through these less conspicuous Turrell works, which are nestled in galleries throughout the museum. As you climb the shrouded ramps, you will find the crowds thinning and the noise level diminishing. These quieter pieces have mysteries of their own to reveal to the attentive viewer, and also have the benefit of being set in more intimate spaces.
The artwork of James Turrell requires patience in every sense of the word, but perseverance is rewarded. So clear a couple of hours in your schedule to see the Guggenheim exhibit before it closes on September 25th. Who knows how long it will be before there is another major Turrell show in New York City? And heaven knows how long it will be before we can finally get a glimpse inside the Roden Crater, the artist’s long-anticipated masterwork.
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