James Turrell Presents his ‘Aten Reign’ in a New Light: As a Print

“Light is this amazing elixir,” James Turrell explains. “We drink light through the skin as Vitamin D … so we are literally light eaters. It’s part of our diet.” It makes sense then that Turrell’s light spaces—immersive installations realized through combinations of natural, artificial, and colored light—are best understood through experience, and are not easily captured through photographs or words.

  • Pace Prints President Dick Solomon with James Turrell at the Pace Editions printshop in Manhattan. The source images for the prints were photographs of the installation of Aten Reign at the Guggenheim Museum. Because the piece was composed of constantly shifting light, the artist had to select among hundreds of visible states to reference color for the prints. Courtesy Pace Prints.

Such was the case last summer with the acclaimed Aten Reign, Turrell’s site-specific environment that took over the Guggenheim’s iconic Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, through a shifting cycle of colored light, projected onto a series elliptical white scrims (Roberta Smith of the New York Times dubbed it “close to oxymoronic: a meditative spectacle”). Now, a year later, Turrell has returned to this temporal work and presents it in new light, as a printed edition.

  • Woodblocks and progressive proofs of the prints at the Pace Editions printshop in Manhattan. These prints made use of the unusual combination of water-based Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock printing and oil-based metal relief printing to create dramatic contrasts in luminosity. Courtesy Pace Prints.

Turrell’s interest in light, he explains, “lies in the thingness of light itself,” rather than “light as we normally use it … to illuminate other things.” In translating Aten Reign to two-dimensional, printed form, Turrell was challenged to translate light itself, into paper, through color. Perhaps the greatest distinction between light and ink, Turrell explains, is the way color interacts in the discrete mediums: “When you pour ink … if you mix blue and yellow, you get a green; but if you mix blue light [and] yellow light, you get white.” He began developing the print through photographs of the original installation, and the psychological and emotional impact of the original. Comprised of three hand-carved Ukiyo-e woodcuts, the new print series, “Suite from Aten Reign,” is realized through Pace Editions Ink Workshop, master printer Yasu Shibata, and with the help of Justin Israels. In order to achieve due luminosity, each print is composed of a combination of oil-based and water-based inks, 14 colors, 12 woodblocks, and a metal plate. Additionally, an impressive oversized roller was used to ameliorate technical challenges and achieve crisp, precise imagery. 

  • Swatches of color in water-based inks. The final version of each print used 14 colors. Courtesy Pace Prints.

The new prints, as well as the process behind their creation is on view in Pace Prints’ new fall exhibition, “James Turrell: Prints and Process.” In addition to the three editions—each realized in gradations green, blue, and red, respectively—the show includes six proofs and six blocks utilized in their creation. The mystifying motif in each—a dark ground encapsulating a graduating series of ellipses—draws the eye into the center, then outwards, from bright white to deep saturated color, serving as a visual, reverberating reminder of the original.

— Casey Lesser

James Turrell: Prints and Process” is on view at Pace Prints, New York, Sept. 11–Oct. 18th, 2014.

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