Light Entertainment: James Turrell Gives the Gugg a Mellow Makeover

An installation view of James Turrell's "Aten Reign," at the Guggenheim from June 21- September 25, 2013.
(© James Turrell/ Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)

Watch video of Turrell's comments and glowing Guggenheim HERE. 

“Thank you for coming here on such a beautiful day, it’s terrific outside and we probably all oughta be there,” quipped James Turrell in a moment of on-stage banter at the press conference for his eponymous exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. What seemed to be a throwaway remark is actually telling. If Turrell had his druthers, everyone would just go outside and experience the light — the primary medium and subject of his art since he cut apertures into an abandoned hotel in 1966.


Happening concurrently with shows at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Guggenheim exhibition forms a sweeping trifecta of surveys devoted to the pioneer of California light and space. “It’s not so much that I want to hog all the museum space,” Turrell said of his sudden omnipresence, “the work that I have done [requires] space, because of how I like to look at light.”

Turrell gets plenty of space in the Guggenheim show. The uncluttered exhibition — organized by the museum’s Twentieth Century Curator Carmen Giménez and associate curator Nat Trotman — comprises a series of etchings, four early light works from the '60's, and the ballyhood site-specific extravaganza, “Aten Reign.” Occupying an undecidable position between mass-spectacle and quiet meditation, “Aten Reign” blockades the Guggenheim’s spiraling ramps with a hidden scaffold of semitransparent scrims and computerized light fixtures, draping the atrium in alternating veils of misty colored light. Over the course of an hour, the rotunda takes on an evolving cycle of colors. Pearly white light gives way to misty lavender, which deepens into an electric purple. The museum’s famous concentric curves become diffused towards the ceiling, as daylight streams down from the building’s oculus.

At the press conference, Richard Armstrong thanked the artist for “transforming the rotunda into a luminous and immersive skyspace.” In fact, the “Aten Reign” is neither immersive, nor it is strictly speaking a skyspace (For Turrell’s famous architectural interventions that make the sky appear flush with the building’s architecture, see “1986: Meeting” at PS1). Viewers cannot ascend into the vacillating polychrome firmament; they can only ogle at it from below. The hanging scrims enclose the Guggenheim’s open, corkscrew-shaped arcades, making the walk up to the upperfloor galleries a rather joyless task.

It’s a soft, tranquilizing pleasure to lie down in the Rotunda and watch the display of undulating colors (this his how "Aten Reign" should best be viewed: on your back — and for at least 20 minutes), but visitors expecting a hallucinatory, mind-blowing experience might be mildly disappointed. Turrell’s blissed-out, quasi-spectacular riff on Frank Loyd Wright’s iconic architecture has none of the radical spatial disorientation of Doug Wheeler’s “Infinity Environment,” nor does it touch the narcotic voluptuous of Pipilotti Rist’s “Pour Your Body Out.” Though low-fi and modest in scale, Turrell’s 1968 LED light installation, “Ronan” (on view in the Guggenheim’s high gallery) is more phenomenologically powerful and unsettling. Viewed up close, a shaft of radiant white light makes what is actually a shallow crevice in the wall look like a dizzying infinitude.

At 70, the white-bearded Turrell seems like a cross between a cowboy and Obi wan Kenobi. The former Quaker, who has famously spent over 30 years retrofitting an extinct volcano into a naked-eye observatory — speaks lucidly about the “thingness of light” and “light as a revelation itself.” Discussions of Turrell’s work often collapse into the critically untouchable vagaries of religious metaphor and Jedi magic. The man seems to have both God and science on his side. The Guggenheim wall text calls Turrell’s chilled-out pleasure dome a “temple of spirit” — as in a gothic cathedral; one feels gently coerced into a sublime, monotheistic experience. Stripped of its spiritual trappings, Turrell’s slow-burning phantasmagoria of light and color is good, clean site-specific fun. It's pleasures are similiar other low-stakes feel-good summer pastimes like visting an aquarium or an observatory. On the other hand, why not take Turrell at his word and go outside on a beautiful day? 

"James Turrell" is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Musuem, 1071 5th Ave, June 21–September 25, 2013