James Turrell: “Light knows when we’re looking.”

“I think that we’re made for twilight,” James Turrell mused from the dimly-lit basement of the Guggenheim, where above, the five levels of the museum have been transformed by Aten Reign, his magical, multi-floor installation of light. In honor of his new retrospective, which fills the museum with a color-changing mixture of daylight and LED, Turrell spoke to a crowd already giddy and delirious from the day-glo interiors—after leaning against the angled walls and gazing up to the virtual-sunset setting in the rotunda, you would be too.

Sure, artists have conquered light in the past; Turner, Constable, Vermeer, Rothko, and Reinhardt mastered the depiction of light, but as the preeminent artist of light as object, Turrell reminds us of a tangible light: one you can touch, and one he particularly prefers to find at twilight. “We were made for the light in the cave or perhaps the light of twilight, and so that’s the light I enjoy most working in, and that’s where you see color in its most richest form. Because what happens is when you reduce light, the pupil opens, and when the pupil opens, feeling comes out of the eye as touch. And only really when we then touch light and feel it that way is when I think we’re closest to it.”

A walk up the curving ramps of the Guggenheim leads to works from throughout Turrell’s career, including historical works from the ’60s and beyond like a glowing white cube projected in a corner and his early lightbox-like etching portfolio—a true survey of his mastery of the medium. “Light is not like clay,” he says. “You don’t form it with the hands; you can’t carve it away like wood or chip it away like stone; you can assemble it to a welding—it’s almost like making the instrument first, as you see here this is quite an instrument—and I am determined to play it, to have it perform.” And it does, across every inch of the museum’s labyrinth architecture. But which color—under a rotunda shifting from violet to orange sherbert, sky blue to gray—does Turrell like best? “It’s a bit like asking someone what’s their favorite musical note,” he says. “You need them all, and it takes them all to make the white light.”

“James Turrell” is on view at the Guggenheim Museum through September 25, 2013. Explore the exhibition on Artsy.

Portrait by Florian Holzherr © James Turrell

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