Being a big fan of James Turrell, I couldn't wait for his exhibition (his first in a New York museum since 1980!) at the Guggenheim to open on June 21st. I went uptown Saturday afternoon to check it out.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, simply titled James Turrell, is Aten Reign (2013), a site-specific work that occupies and transforms the entire rotunda of the famed Frank Lloyd Wright building. In one of the most substantial transformations of the museum's architecture, the artist has closed off the balconies of the museum with white fabric, and draped five gauzy sheets across the top levels leading up to the museum's skylight, illuminating the work with both natural light and hidden LED lights. The LEDs gradually change colors, transforming the piece from subtle hues of white, grey, and blue to intense shades of orange, pink, red, and violet, in an approximately 60 minute loop. As daylight shifts outside, so does the artwork, affected by the change in natural light coming from the skylight.
Visitors need to scope out and rush for available spots on specially-designed benches (with head-rests) along the walls of the ground floor. Once situated, they can sit back, look up, and take in the experience of "seeing yourself seeing," as Turrell calls it. Depending on the light/color, the mesmerizing piece alternates from seeming flat, to concave, to puffy—at times resembling a spaceship and at others looking like an abyss. I initially shuffled around, a la musical chairs, trying to find the optimal vantage-point. Once I found a spot I was happy with, I stayed put for about 90 minutes, gazing at the dream-like space up above.
Turrell, born in California in 1943, studied perceptual psychology at Pomona College. He has been working with light and space since the 1960s, and four of his earlier works are also on view in the Guggenheim's upper galleries. Ronin (1968), a carved out corner illuminated in white, exudes an otherworldly feel. Afrum I (White) (1967), also situated in a corner, consists of a white cube that appears (at certain angels) to be hanging or floating, but is actually planes of light projected onto the walls. Two other earlier works, Prado (White) (1967), a white rectangle projected onto a wall, and Iltar (1976) a black rectangle cut into a wall and illuminated by simple light bulbs on either side, were difficult to read. There was an approximately 15-minute queue to enter Iltar on the top floor. Many viewers simply saw a black rectangle on the wall and left confused.
James Turrell at the Guggenheim is being shown simultaneously with two other Turrell exhibits—one at LACMA and the other at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. These exhibits, along with the magnificent Aten Reign (as well as a recent commission for Louis Vuitton in Las Vegas), will have to hold us over until Turrell completes his magnum opus, Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in Arizona that he's been transforming into a naked-eye observatory and series of skyscapes since 1979. Learn more at Guggenheim.org and archpaper.com. Through September 25th.