In Conversation with Guggenheim Curators Carmen Giménez and Nat Trotman on the Recently Opened James Turrell Exhibition

This week, the spotlight falls on preeminent master of light and space, James Turrell, whose new major project Aten Reign casts a shifting light on the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum. This show, Turrell’s first New York museum exhibition since 1980, references his signature “Skyspaces”—in particular, his magnum opus the Roden Crater Project (1979–), which transforms a dormant volcano in northern Arizona into an observatory of light, sky, and space. Artsy’s Christine Kuan spoke with Guggenheim curators Carmen Giménez and Nat Trotman about the exhibition, light as an artistic subject, and why people love contemporary art. This exhibition was organized in conjunction with LACMA and MFA Houston, with three concurrent Turrell exhibitions taking place this summer.

Christine Kuan: What makes the exhibition at the Guggenheim different from what’s taking place in Los Angeles and Houston?

Carmen Giménez and Nat Trotman: Whereas LACMA and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston are using their more traditional galleries to mount surveys, the Guggenheim exhibition is dominated by a major new site-specific installation that Turrell has developed specially for the museum. This piece, Aten Reign (2013), responds to the vast, curving, and sunlit space of the Guggenheim’s rotunda, offering the public a unique and extraordinary setting in which to experience his explorations of light as material and perception as an artistic medium. All three exhibitions offer unique opportunities to experience James Turrell’s work firsthand.

CK: Why is light such a powerful subject?

CG and NT: Light has been a concern for artists for as long as art has existed. Historically, painters in particular have struggled with the depiction of light, while architects have developed spaces that respond to and take advantage of actual luminance. Both [of] these traditions are inspirations for Turrell, but he engages light not as a means of revealing but as the revelation itself. When he projects pure light into empty rooms in early works like Afrum I (White) or Prado (White) (both 1967), which are on view in one of the Guggenheim’s side galleries, visitors can sense that light has a material presence in the space, like walking into a painting.

CK: What’s the biggest challenge working with light as a medium?

CG and NT: Turrell often speaks about the fact that although light is a powerful substance that surrounds us almost continuously, it is also very delicate. The success of his works rests on the tiniest of details—the merest ripple in the wall can dramatically disrupt the perceptual effects of a piece. Luckily, the Guggenheim team includes a truly outstanding construction and fabrication crew that has worked hand-in-hand with Turrell’s studio to realize perfectly seamless settings for each piece in the show, including their crowning achievement in Aten Reign.

CK: People flock to modern and contemporary art exhibitions, but often Old Master galleries remain empty. Why do you think people love Turrell’s work?

CG and NT: One of the things that makes Turrell’s work so powerful is the way that it addresses each and every viewer individually, through the function of his or her perceptual faculties and a striking immediacy of experience. Even the largest installation feels personal, which contributes to the contemplative atmosphere that accompanies them. Of course, Old Master paintings can do this too, but perhaps some people find them more difficult to access, given their historical distance from contemporary modes of looking. In fact, Turrell talks about wanting to rekindle the sense of wonder that viewers might have felt upon seeing, say, a Vermeer painting at the moment it was first exhibited. We are hopeful that the Guggenheim’s exhibition will invoke some fraction of the power of such an encounter.

Carmen Giménez is the Stephen and Nan Swid Curator of Twentieth-Century Art and Nat Trotman is the Associate Curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Portrait of Carmen Giménez by David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York; Portrait of Nat Trotman by Kris McKay © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

“James Turrell” is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 21–September 25, 2013.

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