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Aten Reign

James Turrell’s Illuminated Vision, Guggenheim NYC, June 21–September 25, 2013 —

James Turrell is arguably the most sublime manipulator of light and space the contemporary art world has ever known. This is an important and impressive summer for the 70-year-old artist, as retrospectives open simultaneously in L.A., Houston and New York City. His massive installation at the Guggenheim entitled Aten Reign (2013), promises to be the east coast’s summer blockbuster. It is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in New York since the Whitney career retropective in 1980. An artist born into a Quaker family in Pasadena, California in the 1940s, Turrell belongs to a generation of west coast artists who were fascinated with light, and who experimented with everything from how it effects our perception, to how it can be uniquely translated through imagery and materiality into art.

Turrell shares a similar sensibility and aesthetic, if not the same material concerns, with California Minimalists like Larry Bell and Light and Space painters like Robert Irwin. Smithson-like in his complete disregard for art as something permanent and static, Turrell says, “I am known as a light artist, but rather than be someone who depicted light, or painted light in some way, I wanted the work to be light.” Drawing heavily from his early experiences in Quaker meeting houses, Turrell’s sense of light is often incorporated into landscape or architecture. Turrell insists that the human eye was made for the murky conditions of dusk and dawn which is why of his work requires our eyes to adjust to its dimness. While he often deals with spacial perception, Turrell’s interest in color has been another constant in his long career, and this year’s Guggenheim installation is no exception. When asked at the press conference if he had a favorite color Turrell laughed with childish bewilderment saying, “I like them all.” His palette often brings to mind the warm yellows, reds and cool blues of Southwestern skies.

Turrell’s unassuming lifestyle, living like so many west coast artists in the expansive deserts of the Southwest, presumably as much for the quality of light as the distance it yields from fast-paced urban culture, gives him the aura of being an art world outsider. Turrell, however, has been on the periphery of the art world and its collectors for a long time, showing smaller works like his Hologram series at moneyed galleries like Pace. Without the unprecedented sincerity that Turrell brings to his artwork, his light “paintings” and “skyspaces” could fall flat, like gimmicky exercises in colorful crowd-pleasers. Aten Reign, Turrell’s transformative skyspace that renders the Guggenheim interior unrecognizable, is a shade away from feeling like an empty trick of illumination and space. Turrell often walks a fine line between sublime meaning and showy emptiness, and viewing his artwork can be an all or nothing experience: you either respond to his work and are engulfed, or you just can’t see it as more than it is.

Turrell’s installation for the Guggenheim has forced the museum to undergo the most dumbfounding transformation the space has ever seen. Turrell joked at the press preview that he wasn’t sure if Frank Lloyd Wright would have entirely approved of his installation. Then again, most artists have never approved of Wright’s museum. Aten Reign, a series of suspended oval armatures and sheer scrims that span the entire cavity of the building, is so overwhelming, meditative, beautiful and suited to the space that you actually forget you’re in the Guggenheim, where it’s almost architecturally impossible to do so. Sitting in the lobby, leaning against slightly reclining benches while listening to the quiet dribble of fountains, viewers gaze upward toward Wright’s now obscured cupola and into the sky above. The tiered walkways, ramps and railings of the museum have been all but obscured, and the whole space slowly shifts in color like a mood ring as LED lights blend with daylight. Turrell’s great love of color is revealed in the shear range of hues that slowly pass before our eyes, and the installation turns from bright white to ivory to a dusty pink that morphs into a vivid red. Slowly turning cool, Aten Reign becomes purple, royal blue and green before it slips slowly toward yellow. Staring upward the colors of the installation shift slowly, like a sunrise or sunset. It’s hard to remember which shade came before the last, and we sense the slow passage of time as we sit memorized.

Turrell describes his material, light, like a musical instrument, saying, “you need the instrument first and then you try to make it perform.” In other words, he starts with a site-specific space and works to make his light perform within it. Turrell’s installations feel simple—the material list for Aten Reign consists only of daylight and LED lights—and yet they elicit the feelings we associate with works of tremendous human effort. Aten Reign reminded me of visiting the Pantheon on a sweaty Roman afternoon shortly after my 21st birthday, and of sitting in that small domed temple seeped in history and invention beneath its beautiful oculus. That Turrell’s work feels divine and churchlike might say more about what the combination of light and architecture means to western culture than it does about the artist himself, but the almost divine beauty of our landscape is certainly embedded into his installations. As viewers we get the sense that Turrell is honoring not God with his work, but something equally as uncertain, looming, and impressive: nature. Who hasn’t felt dwarfed by the Rockies, embarrassingly weak before the Pacific Ocean or shamefully moral in the Mojave Desert?

There are other works of Turrell’s in the exhibition, but after spending time with Aten Reign the smaller works on subsequent floors feel like an afterthought. Retrospectives don’t serve the work of James Turrell terribly well, as all you need is one great piece and anything after feels like visual overload. It’s sometimes more powerful to sit before one and take the time to contemplate the effort of its construction and how inspiring the result is. Turrell’s abstract and illuminated artworks ask us questions about landscape and time, and they make us nostalgic for the unseen and sometimes unknown things we miss. Most of all his work blurs the supposedly fixed and immovable line between art and architecture, art and landscape and art and light. Gazing up at the ceiling of the Guggenheim into the imagined sky above, feeling both trapped and liberated, it’s quite clear that James Turrell will be remembered by future generations as one of the sublime creators of the 21th century.


  1. Was there a few weeks ago. How true, that the central piece saturates the soul and the eye. What a wonderful experience to lie on the floor there and be awash in the light, especially with all the other people there. It was a communal experience unlike anything I’ve participated in — in years.

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