Bodies of Light: James Turrell at the Guggenheim

James Turrell at the GuggenheimJune 21–September 25, 2013

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street) New York, NY 10128-0173


Much has been written about the way James Turrell’s Guggenheim show “transforms” Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. What hasn’t been remarked is that the sort of construction necessitated by Turrell’s work translates Wright’s original design into a labyrinth, with pockets of darkness and light to marvel over. To me, this is exceedingly beautiful. At the same time, given the potential of the materials Turrell puts to use—predominantly light, both natural and artificial—one feels more than a little nonplussed that his Guggenheim installations fixate on being art, and never approach the concreteness of an environing situation. The case is not so much that Turrell’s palette is unexceptional (it is), but that the question of his palette can even become an issue. Out of the diverse and variegated forms of emotional involvement that light dictates—moods, dispositions towards action of every kind—Turrell could easily have constructed something far more otherworldly and immersive. He could have anticipated a world. Instead, one enters the museum only to encounter modulated shifts in color—from warm tones to cool—surrounded by the mundane fact of people lying about the floor, gazing upward at the origin of the spectacle.

I’m referring, of course, to the much-publicized Aten Reign (2013)—the site-specific work for which so much of the Guggenheim’s design had to be altered. This tiered, sky-like installation, which gracefully uses natural light for its own aspectual ends, has a contemplative beauty about it. Its concentric hues centralize and expand, like a watery mandala, the form of which seemed at least partially reminiscent of Kandinsky’s Farbstudie Quadrate of 1913. This installation—to my mind, one of the best in the show—marks the limit of what Turrell is able to achieve in light of the Guggenheim’s architectural precedent. Aten Reign mimics transcendence, stylizing space in the manner of an allegory. One has to look up towards Aten Reign, similar to the way church spires are designed to carry believers’ eyes towards a transcendent God. However hokey, there’s a temple-like mystique to this work—a touristy transcendence that affects a purely contemplative frame of mind. The relational quality Aten Reign produces is that described above: clusters of monads enraptured by the brilliance, alone with Eternity.

Not quite spanning his entire career, three of the installations exhibiting at the Guggenheim date from the sixties—a time when Minimalism was closest to what Turrell was doing. This, perhaps, explains the dominant use of white in these early works, two of which—Afrum I (White) (1967) and Prado (1967)—are basically cubic constructions of light, like holographic monochromes. Coming into his own as an artist during a period when it seemed that objectified art would fall to “concept art” dematerialization, Turrell experimented with light and architectural space in what I interpret as a highly original compromise with the reigning tendency of the time to emphasize interactivity over aesthetic formalism. The two works just referenced ultimately resemble “objects” that might be framed if only they were physical; and yet, in their trompe l'oeil illusiveness, they duly dissolve the dichotomy between viewer and art-object.

Turrell ultimately found himself at home realizing art as a purely contemplative experience. His work doesn’t renounce the “physicality” of space, but rather insists on permeable, non-objective environments that center around delimited fields of light. The unfortunate part of Turrell’s compromise with the “dematerialization of the object” (a phrase not in vogue then) involves his incessant use of abstract forms as centers of focus. The installations on exhibit at the Guggenheim—light though they be—hover somewhere between painting and sculpture, and depend far too heavily for their effect on Gestaltist wizardry. Afrum I (White) especially suffers from this; and the quality of space it necessitates for its appearance is little more than a darkened gallery. The wall installation Ronin, however, which was realized at roughly the same period (1968), is a triumph of light and design. Using white LED lights to create what seems to be the tactile surface of a wall, Turrell mingles architectural space with the psychological conditions of perception in a way that largely anticipates his more recent Aten Reign.

And yet, it’s significant that Turrell needed to construct a wall in order to create the illusion of one. For all the ways in which his work shades into the most advanced aspects of design, Turrell is exclusively concerned with how objects in space appear, how they can construct perceptions. He has no interest in the ways space influences movement, dictates motivation, or prefigures human behavior. There were certainly moments when I felt like I was inhabiting that mysterious character of space delineated by de Chirico, or physically environed by the infinite brightness suggested by a De Stijl painting. But Turrell’s installations ultimately shrank back from wholesale dematerialization. The construction of a situation would diffuse Turrell’s work into nothingness; he needs the crux of art. His work expertly puts to use sensations of position, and even approaches that spatial logic specific to human encounters—but he can accomplish this only in so far as people see, not as they behave. What's left is Transcendentalist mimicry, suggestive of an intangible, luminous presence. This has been a cliché in American thought for some time, and Turrell has taken the bait.

~Jeff Grunthaner