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Art Review: James Turrell at the Guggenheim

July 25, 2013

2013-07-23 14.14.44Dozens of people lounge dazed on the ground of the Guggenheim, gazing up at massive concentric circles of LED lights that pulse from violet to blue to red on the rotunda’s ceiling. They’re not stoned, they’re just enraptured by the man-made skyscape, James Turrell’s “Aten Reign.” It entrances and overpowers the sense of space with color, imbuing not only the room but also everything in it with the ever shifting palate. He’s made this site specific installation specifically to transform Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous rotunda structure into something out of this world.

This is Turrell’s first show in New York since 1980. He first made a name for himself in the art world in the late 1960’s, but spends most of his time out of the public eye. He lives part time in Arizona and part time on the Eastern Shore here in Maryland and focuses all of his time on making light and space based artworks. His show up now at the Guggenheim (through September 25) features selected works from the 70s and 80s, as well as the 2013 work “Aten Reign.”

2013-07-23 14.14.40With “Ronin,” Turrell has constructed what appears to be an empty room with an unusually bright vertical strip of wall in a corner. As the viewer approaches, she sees that it’s not a solid wall at all, but a beam of white light. He’s made what’s intangible seem tangible. The effect is diminished somewhat by a pompous guard  loudly explaining exactly what is going on with the piece. It seems the whole point of Turrell’s work is for the viewer to make false assumptions about what she is seeing, and then have those notions shattered by looking more carefully. When someone is telling you about the fake wall and the projector hidden behind it, it becomes less of a perceptually transformational experience and more of a cheap optical illusion. As the wall-text outside one of the galleries says “My art deals with light itself. It’s not the bearer of the revelation–it is the revelation.”

In the next rooms, he shows “Prado (white)” and “Afrum I (white).” “Prado” is a blindingly white rectangle projected onto the wall. A little girl makes shadow puppets in it and I almost burn my retinas when I get too close. “Afrum I (white)” is the same rectangle projected onto a corner to make a cube in the next room. His works dissemble and tell the truth at the same time. The falseness of the objects seen are only so if you think with too concrete a mind. Turrell shows a rectangle can be solid and flat or it can unfold into space depending upon location, but it’s really just particles of light.

2013-07-23 14.08.35The walk up the  museum’s iconic spiral path usually has some works in the niches and a view down into the atrium, but this time it’s walled off and empty. The screens installed to hide the structure behind “Aten Reign” make the walkway into a giant collector’s seashell. The walk feels preparatory and cleansing for the final piece of the show, “Iltar,” one of Turrel’s Space Division Constructions, works that have separate rooms: one for the visitors and one for the “sensing space.” The sensing spaces accumulate light energy from another area, either a skylight or the ambient or reflected light of an adjacent room.  There was a long line and when I finally got through the waiting room and was allowed admission into “Iltar,” I was a bit disappointed. The room is dark, lit by two dim lamps on either side of the main attraction. What appears to be a flat gray rectangle between the light sources is actually a window into another room. I got this from yet another guard who was explaining exactly what we were supposed to be seeing and feeling. I waited for five minutes, trying to clear my mind and let my eyes adjust to the semi darkness, but I was distracted by the woman asking a thousand questions and we were all soon hustled out.

I didn’t feel the vision altering experience Turrell intended, nor did I enter into a meditative state. Maybe this was because I wasn’t allowed to be alone with unlimited time to gaze. As Wil Hylton, a Baltimore-based reporter, wrote in a recent piece on Turrel for the New York Times Magazine, it can take as long as 30 minutes to get the full visual effect of Turrell’s works. But the blockbuster nature of the show–the fact that it was on the cover of the Times Magazine–ensured that such an experience was not possible, as the guard hurried us out the door.

But that left me with another chance to absorb, and be absorbed by, “Aten Reign.”

[Photos: Rebecca Scott Lord]


  • Phinti

    I saw the installations yesterday. And read your review this morning. My experience would have been completely “disappointing” if I had done it the other way around. Why ruin the experience for everyone who reads your review (just as the experience was ruined for you)?

  • mtairymark

    Aten Reign bears a very close resemblance to the old Looney Toons logo. Search Google images. Did this influence Turrell?