James Turrell receives not one, not two, but three museum shows this summer, from coast to coast.
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At the moment, three museums across the country are presenting exhibitions of the work of James Turrell, the pioneering artist who has made light, space and the earth itself his media. On the West Coast, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will have “James Turrell: A Retrospective” on view all summer (it opened May 26 and runs through April of next year). In the middle, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston opened “James Turrell: The Light Inside” on June 9 (through September 22) and on the East Coast, the Guggenheim Museum is holding the first solo show of the artist’s work in New York since 1980, titled simply “James Turrell.” Between them, these ambitious exhibitions will give more people than ever before—and in particular those who can’t make the pilgrimage all the way out to Roden Crater in northern Arizona—the artist’s massive earthwork-in-progress that serves as a sort of combination astronomical observatory and sensory-deprivation tank—a chance to experience Turrell’s mind-bending effects.
The Guggenheim’s show is the most distinctive, in the sense that the museum has allowed Turrell to essentially convert its signature Frank Lloyd Wright-designed spiral main space into one of his signature light installations. In this piece, titled Aten Reign (in reference to the ancient Egyptian monotheistic sun god) daylight enters through the museum’s skylight and enters a huge optical-electronic device suspended from the ceiling, where LEDs color the light and surround it with five elliptical rings of artificial light that echo the pattern of the rotunda’s ramps. The space—which the artist calls “an architecture of space created with light”—will become a pulsing mass of light, hopefully inducing contemplation rather than disorientation in those who view it.
But for Turrell, contemplation and disorientation are not mutually exclusive. His art deliberately cultivates the “Ganzfeld effect,” a term in psychology that refers to the fact that exposure to pure, unmodulated fields of color, without visible borders or horizons, can cause disorientation, vision changes and even hallucinations. Unlike his fellow light artist Dan Flavin, who claimed that his own work was simply a construction of lights that contained “no hidden psychology, no overwhelming spirituality,” Turrell has always aspired to the sublime. His intention is to induce some kind of transcendence in the viewer. “I’ve always wanted to make a light that looks like the light you see in your dream,” he has said. “In a lucid dream, there is a greater sense of color and lucidity than with the eyes open.” His ambition for the Roden Crater—the concept for which harks all the way back to Plato’s Cave—is that “the landscape of our thoughts is united with the infinite.”
The Guggenheim show also features some of Turrell’s earlier works, some from the museum’s collection and some on loan. One of the earliest is Afrum I (White), from 1967. Low-tech and small-scale compared the later works, it projects a beam of light into a corner of a room in such a way that it appears to become a floating, glowing cube. Another work from the same year, Prado (White), beckons the viewer to pass through a seemingly dematerialized wall. Supplementing these installations are etchings and aquatints that practice some of the same vision-manipulating techniques on paper.
The Houston show is built around Turrell’s installation The Light Inside, which was commissioned specially for the museum in 1999 and occupies a tunnel that connects two gallery buildings. All of the works in this show are from the permanent collection of MFAH, which has long enjoyed a special relationship with the artist. Tycho (1967), projection work, is a luminescent nod to Barnett Newman’s “zip” paintings, while Aurora B (2010–11) explores shifting color harmonies. End Around (2006) is a Ganzfeld-effect piece that crates a light field that appears completely unbounded.
At LACMA, there will also be a variety of works spanning Turrell’s various phases, including recent ones that use holographic technology. A special participatory experience is available to the daring viewer who is willing to lie on a sliding bed and be inserted into a metal chamber rather like a bathysphere. This work, called Light Reignfall (from the “Perceptual Cell” series), requires a 12-minute stay inside to absorb the saturated light projections, which are operated by an on-site technician.
One of the most interesting parts of the LACMA show is the set of models, plans, still photographs and film documenting the Roden Crater project. In the Crater, Turrell’s search for transcendence led him to makes the cosmic light of the stars themselves his medium. While it has been called “Earth art,” Turrell insists, “I am not an Earth artist, I’m totally involved in the sky.” The operational principle of his Crater is that when light enters an enclosed space through a small aperture, the eye can perceive it with greater sharpness. Inside the structure, sunk deep into an extinct volcano, the viewer is meant to feel as if he or she had ascended into the celestial sphere.
Turrell’s art grew out of Minimalism, which prevailed during the mid-1960s, when he started working. By making light the medium rather than simply of means of perceiving other media, it could be argued that the artist was making the ultimate Minimal statement. But in fact, he was aiming for something more metaphysical than simply paring art down to its essentials. Turrell, who had studied psychology and mathematics at Pomona College, was using his “objectless” art to test the limits of perception and thereby to suggest, indirectly, what might lie beyond it. “Light is not so much something that reveals as it is itself the revelation,” he has said. Walking through any one of this summer’s three shows, a revelation could be around the corner at any moment.