James Turrell Reviewed by Norman Douglas
James Turrell at the Guggenheim June 21–September 25, 2013
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street) New York, NY 10128-0173
Review by Norman Douglas
All that any critic can do is to articulate the chain of referents that occupy the mind as a result of a particular experience. Some pretend that this is a variation on cause and effect, the object observed being the cause and the critical subject, its effect. Such a position follows a host of assumptions that writers like me no longer subscribe to. While one may behold an object, that object hardly causes one's response to it. What's in the eye of the beholder is the sum of lived experience, a known quantity we call subjectivity. At the same time, the subjectivity of the object equally derives from its conception. Further, its "experience" incorporates the subjectivity of its creator. In this way, subjectivity is shared experience: this text intersects with subjectivities that share this moment, this event. Think of mythic characters, whose personae are wrapped as much in their own experiences as in their forbearers' — Minerva, goddess of wisdom, is born from Jupiter's head, Aphrodite, goddess of beauty is mother of Eros, god of love. Subjectivity is effectively a contemporary way of revisiting the mythic, essential approach of natural philosophers — think Socrates and Bacon, daVinci and Bruno, Galileo — who practiced before the modern Arts and Sciences schism gave us the specialist. This conflux of time and space expresses itself through a symbol set following the hidden laws that pertain to the light shed thereon: informed observation transforms viewer and viewed. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out: "electric light is pure information."
When I first encountered the sky room at PS1 in Queens about twenty years ago, I had no idea who had created this singular piece of art. Hell. I wasn’t really sure that it was an artwork. To my eyes, it resembled a beautiful accident. Incomprehensibly, a room void of the roof that should have completed it — an "empty ceiling" looming overhead — transported me directly into the presence of an intangible entity. Previously the sky existed outside the range of ordinary experience, hovering high above the space of our daily activities, the place wherein we draw each breath, the air between heaven and earth. Now, the same sky reached all the way down to the unseen rooftop and continued straight through it. This opening offered all who entered this "sky room" a fleeting — and entirely robust — taste of the infinite.
Knowing nothing of the person who had pondered and successfully calculated the means of lowering this intractable and nominally inaccessible expanse to a locus so tangible, I — and several of my art-influenced peers — assigned him the same art-pedigree as Gordon Matta-Clark. Both men sectioned architectures in ways that brought to mind Henri Lefebvre's thesis that there are no borders in space. What borders exist are imposed by economics, which perpetuates the lie of scarcity through delimitation, by naming and the assignment of values. By reconfiguring our experience of architecture, removing its limit, infinity now felt as if within one's reach (though, in fact, and of course, it was not)... Imponderable impossibilities became possible without taking any real shape; the very rectangular airway actively defied its quadrilateral. Well, it was hard to know what to think: apparently, a simple hole not only underscored the porous quality of its subjectivity — rendered diffuse — literally shot through the roof.
Predisposed to view the contents of PS1 according to its architectural descriptor (museum), my mind hung fast to the army of superlatives traditionally reserved for the proven ranks of storied painters. In particular, Turner came to mind, unbidden as painter while remembered for his studies in light. For months thereafter — maybe years — I told others about the experience, this strange, quasi-miraculous, occasional installation guaranteed to blow some corner of your mind (induce vertigo, or cause you to reflect on the color of the sky or force you to reassess the infinite or the tangibility of light or the confinement of infinite space)... It took a while to remember the guy's name, the man responsible for an oddity as technically simple as an hour of demolition work that precedes renovation. Only here, the renovation stopped at the demolition, highlighted it, framed it; this renewal added nothing new, instead renewed the available perspective that remained after the physical subtraction of a ubiquitous infrastructure, unveiled the sky as the hyper-connected superstructure that somehow anchors each rooftop to the imponderable regions above. Once out of the city, the sky unites us, the light gives us shape, and the name of James Turrell fit into my selective memory.
Turrell never struck me as an artist. Beyond art and science is the aesthetic realm the Greeks understood as an awakening—not aesthetics as a matter of taste, but as an instant of total consciousness, a moment in which light and being trump time and space to expose the holistic sensation of life itself, an integrated interstice that links all, the way valences exchange across organic chemistry, a doorway through which we apperceive the unspeakable. Having discovered his name, the PS1-moment could be recounted with certain authority. Unwittingly, I fell into the trap I feel most recently laid for me inside the doors of the Guggenheim and its sanctified offering of the natural philosopher’s eerily truncated creation.
The contemporary media is full of Turrell’s story of late. The New York Times magazine endeavored to publish an exhaustive profile of Turrell as artist on the eve of this three-venue, cross-country exhibition ("How James Turrell Knocked the Art World Off Its Feet," by Wyl S. Hylton, The New York Times Magazine, June 13, 2013). Nearly ten years ago, a friend and I stopped at Marfa on our own cross-country jaunt, where we inquired about access to the famed Roden Crater (as well as DeMaria's lightning fields), but no invite was extended. Here in NY, I ventured to the Guggenheim to gaze at Turrell's centerpiece. A site-specific intervention that embellishes Frank Lloyd Wright's Rotunda with LED lights. What strikes me is the absence of any sense of chance. The effort seems contrived, a set-up, a well-executed hoax to obfuscate the depth and breadth of what concerns him. It puts me in mind of David Hammons' "Concerto in Black and Blue" at Ace Gallery, when another young aspiring artist wondered if Hammons could "fill the space." With thumb-activated LEDs as the only light source, spectators were free to make of the darkened, cavernous and multi-chambered gallery space and their lights what they would—chance encounters, trysts, misdemeanors all went on in the gallery for the show's run, all enacted by the visitors. "Turrell's the guy who gave me the Prix de Rome," Hammons told me recently (The Prix De Rome for Sculpture, 1991, awarded by the American Academy of Rome). "I was so nervous, I squeezed my hands together under the table so no one could see me shake." He need shake no more.
Infusing his title with the name of Aten, ancient Egyptian representation of the solar deity, Turrell's "Aten Reign" feels like a top-down experience of light that vigorously compels the visitor to assume a submissive position reminiscent of the atmosphere of cathedrals across Western Europe during the height of tourist season. The glut of tourists when I attended—early on a Wednesday—may have had something to do with this, their eagerness to plan the next attraction ever-apparent, even as they furtively or boldly took photos destined for facebook (defying the guards’ imprecations to the contrary). Not that the piece seems more compelling than a slow animation through the half-dozen colors in a prismatic spectrum, each subjected to the Photoshop gradient scale. Not that there is an absence of technical expertise and precision. On the contrary, the work is clearly exacting.
Unfortunately, my visit took place during the week that one of the side exhibits was closed due to technical difficulties. That closure may account for why the line for the other work stretched out into the hall and around the screened-in balcony. Somehow, the few moments I attempted to queue up in the rear filled me with more dread and apprehensiveness than anticipation of the meditation the museum brochures herald with self-laudatory pride. Whoever has an interest in art cannot begrudge the institutional contribution to culture, but the canonization of Turrell was a representation of something far afield from the subjective realm of "Meeting" (the name of the permanent PS1 piece, from 1986). It seems the quiet Quaker has thrown his lot in with the pomp and pageant of exotic and remote imperial culture. A pharaoh and his followers — or even his elite opposition — may comfortably reclaim the spectacular view atop the ziggurat, but the mythopoeia eludes us here, and we experience the line above all. The tourists are put in mind of last night's line for the theater, of beating tonight's line for dinner, trade ill-timed punch lines from old jokes.
Raised in a Quaker milieu, Turrell talks about how his grandmother’s insistence that he close his eyes to witness the light within never made sense to him. Instead, he focused on the light around and between us. One can clearly go on forever about light – both religion and quantum physics maintain that all is but light, remind us that light unifies us from horizon to horizon and beyond, the way stars that may no longer exist shine on us from a distant past. In the end, Turrell’s subject matter – the light – reaches beyond his lifetime and ours, and concerns the immortal stuff that binds us as it promises to set us free. A man like Turrell is not constrained by the success or failure of source material that few bother to investigate. With lost loves and seventy years behind him, this is not the output of an artist, but the province of those once called natural philosophers, “cryptographers studiously deciphering the works of nature... in a post-Newtonian universe.” (From the editor’s “Notes” on “Eureka” by Edgar Allan Poe, collected in The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, Harold Beaver, editor, Penguin Classics, 1976)
Thanks to Samantha Weiss Media & Public Relations Associate Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum