Visitors to the Guggenheim Museum this summer look a lot like Sistine Chapel tourists. They are all gazing heavenward. In Vatican City, they are exalting in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam fresco. In New York, crowds are rubbernecking at James Turrell’s light installations, especially the artist’s Aten Reign, 2013 which fills Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda with successive rings of subtly shifting color. At both sites reverence, meditation and a profound viewing experience result.
Turrell (American, 1943) was born in Los Angeles, is based in Flagstaff, Arizona and has a home in New York City. He presently has simultaneous exhibitions at the Guggenheim, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Turrell was a leading representative of California’s Light and Space movement of the 1960s which focused — through light, color and scale — on perception as the fundamental matter in art. Other artists affiliated with Light and Space included Larry Bell (American, b. 1939), Robert Irwin (American, b. 1928), and John McCracken (American, 1934 – 2011). Bell, for example, made geometric structures of light in coated glass. Irwin’s work used a simple scrim through which light altered a physical space. And McCracken’s spare “planks” of plywood covered with fiberglass and resin were monochromatic forms challenging our space.
If those artists chose to work with light in a three-dimensional manner by creating sculptural objects, Turrell’s masterwork at the Guggenheim is a lesson in how light becomes a transforming sculptural medium because it fills and holds an architectural space. Turrell once told the British newspaper The Independent: “Light is a powerful substance. We have a primal connection to it. But for something so powerful, situations for its felt presence are fragile. I form it as much as that material allows. I like to work with it so that you feel it physically, so you feel the presence of light inhabiting a space.”
Turrell’s ability to create “form” from insubstantiality is what causes viewers to contemplate Aten Reign for long periods. The piece takes as its medium an ephemeral source and makes it enduring. The mastery in this work is that color – deftly shifting circuits of whites and greys to blues, purples, pinks and red to orange and peach, to moss green and emerald – mystically becomes object. Through a non-referential language, Turrell has created a hallowed experience. The work is without irony or political motivation. It doesn’t flaunt a contemporary trend or traffic in an accumulation of found objects. The artist recently told Interview magazine: “It’s about perception. For me, it’s using light as a material to influence or affect the medium of perception. I feel that I want to use light as this wonderful and magic elixir that we drink as Vitamin D through the skin—and I mean, we are literally light-eaters—to then affect the way that we see.”
Is Aten Reign a sculpture? Does light’s ability to consume a three-dimensional space permit its categorization? Somehow art historical classifications fade when viewing Aten Reign, just as Turrell’s colors dissolve into one another. Turrell has challenged the very way we see.
James Turrell is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York through September 25, 2013.
James Turrell, Aten Reign, 2013
Daylight and LED light, dimensions variable
© James Turrell. Installation view: James Turrell, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 21–September 25, 2013. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York