James Turrell

8:31 | Published on June 21, 2013 | 124,899 Views

James Turrell's first exhibition in a New York museum since 1980 focuses on the artist's groundbreaking explorations of perception, light, color, and space, with a special focus on the role of site specificity in his practice. At its core is Aten Reign (2013), a major new project that recasts the Guggenheim rotunda as an enormous volume filled with shifting artificial and natural light. One of the most dramatic transformations of the museum ever conceived, the installation reimagines Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic architecture—its openness to nature, graceful curves, and magnificent sense of space—as one of Turrell's Skyspaces, referencing in particular his magnum opus the Roden Crater Project (1979– ).

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James Turrell, Artist: Well, I’m known as a light artist. But rather than be someone who depicted light, or painted light in some way, I wanted to have the work be light.

Nat Trotman, Associate Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim is his first in a New York museum since 1980, when he had a midcareer retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition is one of three concurrent exhibitions that are taking place across the country in summer 2013. The Guggenheim’s exhibition includes a major site-specific piece and focuses on the role of site specificity in Turrell’s practice.

Carmen Giménez, Stephen and Nan Swid Curator of Twentieth-Century Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: I think the moment Tom Krens asked me to do James Turrell, I immediately said yes because I thought of the Guggenheim as a volcano and I thought that’s the perfect place where I could transform the whole inside of the Guggenheim. Turrell was not an artist for the ramp; he was definitely an artist for the void. I was very clear that it has to be a piece that you see from the rotunda, where he was going to mix daylight with with electric light, and we won’t know exactly what he will do until the end. I think Turrell has really worked with light in a completely very personal, special way, you know.

Turrell: I want the strength of the power and the primal relationship we have to light to be the strongest. And you know, I’ve always thought that the history of art is littered with references, depictions, and the use of light. The more emotional forms of light, like Goya, and Velázquez, and Caravaggio, these are amazing qualities really talking a lot about light, where light is maybe not the subject, but its presence is very powerful in all these works.

Trotman: James Turrell is one of the foremost artists associated with what is known as the Light and Space movement, which began in Southern California in the mid-1960s.

Turrell: I really felt to be using light as a material [is] to work or affect the medium of perception. For me, it’s trying to orient toward what the perception really is, rather than the object of perception, to actually, sort of, remove that. I have an art that has no image. It has no object. And even very little a place of focus, or one place to look. So, without image, without object, without specific focus, what do you have left? Well, a lot of it is this idea of seeing yourself see, understanding how we perceive.

Trotman: For his installation in the Guggenheim’s rotunda, Turrell has essentially created a very elaborate structure that visitors will enter into from below and newly experience the light and air that fills the void of the museum. The piece is built as a series of cones that proceed through the space, starting about 25 feet above the floor of the museum and proceeding almost to the top of the space. Between the viewer and the daylight, there are five concentric rings of LED fixtures that shine upwards, filling five separate conical chambers with slowly changing light. Like many of Turrell’s works, the piece is intended to create a contemplative or meditative atmosphere.

He was raised as a Quaker and many of his pieces relate to Quaker meetings where people gather in silent prayer and meditate together until the spirit moves them to speak. So there’s a mood of sort of quiet contemplation that comes through many of Turrell’s pieces.

Giménez: Turrell asks you to really make an effort. You cannot just get there and you get it. No, it’s important to look at the piece and put your head back and to get immersed in that light. You have to give the time to really feel the light.

Turrell: You are immersed in this. It’s a little bit like stepping into the painting, but not everybody will sit ten minutes in a darkened room before they can begin to see. And so, in a way, that’s sort of self- selecting. I don’t mind that.

Trotman: In addition to the artificial light of the LED fixtures in the Guggenheim, Turrell is perhaps more interested in natural light. Many of his works are engaged with an interaction with nature. This is probably most fully embodied with the work he’s been doing since the late ’70s outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. Turrell acquired an extinct volcano called Roden Crater, and began to transform it into his magnum opus, which is a series of light spaces and natural observatory spaces spread throughout the volcanic crater.

Turrell: There isn’t any light that is artificial. I mean, it may be light that we created, but you have to burn something to make light. And that was very interesting to me, this idea that we make light. I began to do things like the Skyspace series, or Skylight series, where I used sunlight. And there you have an abundance of light to work with, but it’s moving, always moving. And so, then that got me involved with things like the crater, where they are the pieces that are set in motion by this changing source, light source. So, that’s how I expanded out into the outside brutal light of sun.

Trotman: In addition to the site-specific piece for the rotunda, we felt it was important to give our audiences some sense of where Turrell had come from and what his other works were like. The Guggenheim owns eleven of his works through our Panza Collection, and two of the four historical light installations that we are exhibiting are from the museum’s Panza Collection.

Giménez: It’s important for the public to see the first pieces and to see how he has been evolving with light from early on, from 1967. We have Afrum, which is his first corner piece, and it was interesting to add another piece in the following room, which is Prado. And then we will show a series of prints, First Light. Very beautiful prints James Turrell did with Peter Blum in Switzerland, and they are of extremely high quality. I love prints myself, and they remind me the quality the prints of Rembrandt or Goya, very fantastic aquatints. And then in the High Gallery we will show a very interesting piece, Ronin, and then in Tower 5, we will show Iltar, which is a piece which is in the collection and has never been shown.

Trotman: Turrell calls his art nonvicarious art because it can only truly be experienced firsthand. So all of the descriptions and photographs that you may see of it are somehow less than the real experience of the work.

Turrell: People often are taken aback by contemporary art. They feel it’s kind of in their face in some way, and they are not so willing to submit to it, and enter the realm created by the artist. So, for me, that’s a very important step, is to make something that people want to submit to, but there’s some reward for having done that.