Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | June 21 – September 25, 2013
There is an innate humanness embedded in the way we respond to light. Like a plant leaning toward the open window, we too are drawn to the physical and emotional warmth gleaned from a luminous glow. To manufacture this experience within a museum environment might seem futile, inauthentic, but with the work of James Turrell, finely calibrated adjustments in temporal speed allow for the opening of narrow institutional parameters. In the Guggenheim atrium, the site-specific “Aten Reign” (2013)—cast as one of the artist’s skyspaces, constructed environments in which the viewer’s space literally “meets” the space of the sky—transforms the museum’s cavernous rotunda into an episodic replica of celestial vaulting, a perceptual phenomenon most often experienced out of doors, where all one sees is the domed atmosphere of the sky above. The “Roden Crater Project” (1979–), Turrell’s largest and most ambitious skyspace, and as of yet his unfinished life’s work, is the only site where this effect occurs naturally. Yet that sense of awe-inspiring reality formation is present throughout the Guggenheim’s retrospective, where a modest number of Turrell’s landmark explorations into space and light are currently on view.
Turrell has been at work since 2009 on designs for the exhibition, curated by Carmen Giménez and Nat Trotman of the Guggenheim. His focus has been most intent on plans for “Aten Reign,” the institution’s most elaborate in situ commission to date. Utilizing the rotunda ceiling’s oculus as the focal point of the work, Turrell highlights and pays homage to the building’s architectural innovation, revealing the importance of natural light to the overall success of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design. Extending from the multilevel galleries’ curved walkway ramps are five concentric rings of supported transparent scrim, through which a combination of artificial and natural light bathes viewers in a rhythmic spectrum of syncopated color—from violet to fuchsia, goldenrod to deep orange, and sea foam green to stark white. In step with this kaleidoscopic development of hue is our mood, changing as gradually as its tinted brethren: ecstatic bliss slowly giving way to solemnity, listlessness to contentment. Buddhist stupas and Native American cliff dwellings—encountered by the artist as an ardent pilot and longtime resident of the Arizona desert—and the spiritual space these constructions embody in the physical and imaginative minds of their creators, have functioned as touchstones for many of Turrell’s grander projects. “Aten Reign” is no different. Eyes closed or open, the experience is inescapable, the ambient light piercing our self-awareness just as powerfully as it penetrates our eyelids.
Turrell is eloquently frank about the work he makes. “Firstly, I am dealing with no object. Perception is the object. Secondly, I am dealing with no image, because I want to avoid associative, symbolic thought. Thirdly, I am dealing with no focus or particular place to look. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking.” Statements such as these are crucial to understanding the artist’s oeuvre, which stands alone in its defiance of object-oriented materialism and market appetite. To experience a Turrell is not to witness “the other” spiritually or formally (although his skyspaces and optically charged light installations contain elements of both). Rather, it is about being—both with and within the work. Seeing as beauty was canonized as the enemy decades ago, and some might be quick to dismiss such sensory explorations as too easy, but the intellectual rigor required to stick with a Turrell is significantly more demanding than the visual consumption of objects. Here there is no “bang for your buck,” no investment to be made other than in the fleeting encounter with space. Turrell’s vision functions somewhere between the semantic barriers that define “art” and “life.” In this he aligns himself with the 18th century Romantics—who sought the experience of the Sublime, its all-encompassing awe, in nature as in the work of art—albeit with an empiricist’s knowledge of light and the scale of human subjectivity.
Trained in mathematics and perceptual psychology at Pomona College before embarking on his graduate studies in painting at University of California, Irvine, Turrell has long harbored an interest in the field of perceptual experience. In the 1960s, he became a major player in what has become known as the Southern California Light and Space movement. Loosely comprising artists Robert Irwin (whose work is concurrently on view at the Whitney Museum), Douglas Wheeler, and Maria Nordman, the likeminded cohort never functioned as a formal “group,” per se, but recent exhibitions such as State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970 (on view at the Bronx Museum) and the sprawling Pacific Standard Time initiatives, specifically the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s 2011 Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, have spurred a renewed interest in such West Coast-bred arts movements.
Turrell’s “Iltar” (1976), part of the Guggenheim’s permanent collection for decades but never before available for viewing, can largely be attributed to Turrell’s brief working partnership with Irwin. In 1969 the two teamed up with physiological psychologist Edward Wortz under the auspices of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Art and Technology” program. There the artists and Wortz experimented with sensory deprivation in soundproofed chambers, as well as with ganzfelds—techniques, according to the medical dictionary, developed in the field of parapsychology to research mental imagery and anomalous cognition using controlled sensory input: a homogenous visual field with no area of stimulation—as a means of probing the limits of visual perception. Turrell ultimately removed himself from the project but its explorations made an indelible mark on the work he would create in the following decade.
“Iltar” is a prime illustration of such research. The piece is one of the artist’s earlier Space Division Constructions, manufactured environments often featuring a bifurcated room. Subsumed in almost total darkness, viewers peer into what Turrell calls a “sensing space,” barely visible through a large rectangular opening cut into the far partition wall of the otherwise enclosed gallery. From the line where the docent stands, devoid of any external stimulus save for the tungsten lights that illuminate the adjacent walls, it is nearly impossible to tell if we are looking at a painted or actual opening. Without giving the work away, the slippage between what one actually perceives and what the mind registers as real is mind bending.
“Afrum I (White)” (1967), another of Turrell’s early geometric light projections, similarly plays with these deceptive rubrics of vision. At first register, a cubed planar shape implies a simplistic relationship to the surrounding gallery—the mere projection of a blank slide, cast onto the corner crease of two adjoining walls. But as one allows his or hers eyes to “go soft,” the form assumes a three-dimensional aura, levitating, as it were, in the stillness of the dimly lit space.
Such experience plays a key role in the conceptual impetus behind Turrell’s work: “We form our own reality,” Turrell states in a New Yorker interview from 2003, “that’s something people are not too aware of.” The skypace projects, light projections, and built environments like “Iltar” are dedicated to the elucidation of this basic human precept, where the context of vision becomes paramount for experiential inquiry.
The most rewarding works on display, however, might be the series of subdued prints that Turrell made with publishing icon Peter Blum. Titled “First Light”(1989–90), this suite of aquatint etchings documents the artist’s formal, two-dimensional investigations into the juxtaposition of light and dark, the velvety tones facing off against one another in glowing contrast. Framed by thin teal-blue halos of light, the result of rectangular holograms projected onto the works’s edges, the prints assume a quiet otherworldliness rarely achieved in paper production; Picasso’s psychologically charged etchings of the Minotaur and Rembrandt van Rijn’s devotional portrayals of the crucifixion spring to mind.
“For me it was important that people come to value light as we value gold, silver, paintings, objects.” Turrell says. If this valuation were ever a question, it is no longer.
James Turrell is organized in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.