In many ways, an artwork is as much about an experience it as it is about physical and stylistic attributes. Such is certainly the case with Aten Reign (2013), the sublime centerpiece of the Guggenheim’s exhibition on contemporary artist James Turrell. Aten Reign is equally concerned with creating an experience as it is with exploring light, color and form.
In fact, visitors to the Guggenheim this summer are in for a museum experience far from the traditional. Famous for its Frank Lloyd Wright building, the Guggenheim is revered for the spectacle embedded in its light-filled rotunda—crowned by an ocular skylight—which allows visitors the unique opportunity to watch other museum-goers spiral their way upwards through the museum. This summer, however, James Turrell’s installation, Aten Reign, changes this experience of the rotunda entirely, offering a very different spectacle of light and people watching.
The Guggenheim’s is one of three concurrent exhibitions this summer (the others are taking place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) to commemorate the work of James Turrell, a leading member of the loosely-defined Light and Space movement which originated in Los Angeles in the mid-late-1960s. The artist’s lifelong investigation into human perception, light, color and space is at the heart of the Guggenheim’s exhibition—the first on Turrell in New York since 1980. The artist’s interest in creating site-specific works is a focus for the show. This aspect is most conspicuously apparent in the ambitious installation of Aten Reign. Fitted to the museum’s rotunda, the work is the largest temporary installation ever undertaken by either Turrell or the Guggenheim.
In addition to Aten Reign, the exhibition includes a few earlier pieces by the artist taken from the museum’s own collection—to provide an overview of Turrell’s artistic trajectory. While the small number of works renders the museum oddly empty, those on view effectively capture the essence of Turrell’s output.
Two of Turrell’s early works from the 1960s are exemplary for their candid exploration of perception, light and form. Afrum 1 (White) (1967) at first appears to viewers as a floating, three-dimensional cube of light affixed to the corner of the gallery. Yet, after a closer look, visitors discover that it is an optical illusion—the work is not a solid object at all, but rather mere planes of light projected onto the walls. Prado (White) (1967) also consists of a simple rectangular projection of white light against the gallery wall. Still, the work is perceived as something more—a dissolution of the wall, an opening into a mysterious light-filled space beyond.
Like Aten Reign, these works are difficult to comprehend through photographs alone. In fact, Turrell considers his work “nonvicarious”—that is, to view them second handedly is hardly to view them at all. As this exhibition makes clear, Turrell’s works are meant to inspire a process of expectation, perception, discovery and reflection that demands they be experienced firsthand. To this end, Turrell’s intentions are at no point more obvious than with Aten Reign. The installation, which obscures the rotunda’s iconic skylight and spiraling walkways, turns the space into what Roberta Smith of the New York Times calls the “oxymoronic” experience of “a meditative spectacle.” Constructed of five tiers of white scrims and LED light fixtures, Aten Reign is a space-filled conical structure that appears as a set of colorful, concentric ellipses. In this way, the work uses artificial light to materialize the light and air of this very specific space.
Over the course of 60 minutes, the lights cycle through the color spectrum. The hues morph from one color to another so evenly that it is difficult, at first, to perceive the changes as they happen. The colors themselves, on the other hand, are perceived vividly as they fill the space of rotunda, casting a tangible hue over everything and everyone in it. At times, Aten Reign emits intense reds, oranges, pinks and violets. At other points the work offers more ethereal pale grays, greens and yellows, which in their subtlety produce a more profound experience.
Part of the spectacle of Aten Reign derives from the reactions of other museum visitors. Some loudly “ooh” and “ahh” in between snaps of their camera shutters. Others take a seat and lean back in the reclining benches (constructed for the installation), and engage in quiet contemplation. Many find their place on the museum floor, lying face up to the ceiling (with heads propped up by backpacks and sweaters) in an effort to really soak it all in. In this way, the spectacle of the work inspires a spectacle of human reaction. Viewers are instinctively moved to carry out Turrell’s intentions—that is, to take the time to see, and to reflect on how one sees and perceives.
For some viewers, the work seems to offer a transcendental experience. Although, this seems fitting in the context of a work concerned with the introspective nature of light. In fact, the name of the work, evocative of an Egyptian sun god, offers a clue that spirituality may be an intended dimension of the work.
Born in Los Angeles in 1943, Turrell’s Quaker upbringing is credited as the source of a spiritual thread throughout his art. In the 1960s, the artist attended Pomona College, where he studied psychology and mathematics, and later attended Claremont Graduate School, where he studied art. To a large extent, Turrell’s art may be understood as a product of its time. When the artist first began to experiment with light in his early 20s, his contemporaries were similarly moving away from the traditional physical art object (painting, drawing and sculpture) in favor of other art forms (video or performance art, for example).
Aten Reign, a skyscape made primarily with artificial light, stands in contrast to the scores of natural light skyscapes—small spaces with sky-lit openings—that Turrell has created over his lifetime. Aten Reign does, however, call attention to another art project—ongoing—for which Turrell is known. Since discovering the Roden Crater in 1974, Turrell has been transforming this extinct volcano near Flagstaff, Arizona into his magnus opus—a massive observatory containing subterranean chambers and several of his skyscapes.
In a video interview the Guggenheim conducted with Turrell for the exhibition, the artist points to the “primal relationship” that humans have with light as a driving force in his art, including his project at the Roden Crater. He explains that, in creating “an art that has no image…no object” and often no “place of focus,” the art becomes more about “seeing yourself seeing, understanding how we perceive.” A reward awaits those who take up Turrell on this challenge to see. To experience his work fully, he says, is “a little like stepping into the painting.”
“James Turrell” is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art, 1071 Fifth Avenue, at 89th Street, from June 21,
2013–September 25, 2013.