Perceiving James Turrell

Lauren Kaplan
Aug 5, 2013 4:56AM

It took a few weeks for Aten Reign--James Turrell's soaring piéce de résistance, now on view at the Guggenheim--to win me over. The pre-opening hype had been immense, and when I finally saw the work, alone on a day when the museum was closed, I found myself mystified and groping for proper language. On a purely physical level, the work is impressive, ambitious, and uplifting. It is likely the most complex exhibition the Guggenheim has ever undertaken: after nearly seven years of planning, off-site construction took over three months, and on-site installation lasted five weeks. Aten Reign's shape and dimensions correspond with Frank Lloyd Wright's spiraling void, and after September 23, it will never be shown again. 

Given its highly site-specific nature, it is strange that Aten Reign seems so at odds with Wright's unique and challenging architecture. In its natural state, one of the building's strengths is its openness and fluidity. Wright once explained the museum as a three-dimensional rendering of time--as visitors traverse the spiraling ramps, they look up, down and across to see where they've been and where they are going. Turrell chose to enclose the museum's central void with temporary walls, thus separating the ramps from the inner space and blocking the sort of rambling vision that Wright promoted. This is not incidental; Turrell recently disclosed that he objects to how certain architects (i.e. Wright) have made modern museums difficult for artists to hang their work. "This is an art museum, and I don't care who made it," he proclaimed, almost angrily. "It's made for art, we're going to put art in it, end of story." 

And yet, despite this somewhat aggressive intervention, the living artist and the late architect share much in common (as Turrell freely admits). Both seek inspiration in nature; both bring the outside world in; both use pure geometric forms to create modern versions of ancient temples. In the end, these similarities indelibly link Aten Reign to Wright's 1959 masterpiece. The sculpture, built like a giant hoop skirt, has five elliptical rings, each one suspended from Wrights’s steel girders and parallel to one of Wright’s concrete ramps. And though the building’s normally large oculus is mostly obstructed, natural light still seeps through its nucleus, blending with digitally manipulated LEDs, just as the organic and the man-made merge in the architecture itself. 

Turrell has said that he’s interested in “empowering" the museum's usually empty cavity. He wants to create a “feeling of the light inhabiting this space," and to help viewers see the atmosphere, rather than the walls. Indeed, his works often dematerialize architecture and focus on intangible volumes rather than the hard boundaries that contain them. Throughout his forty-year-long career, Turrell's primary goal has been to help people perceive themselves seeing the world around them.  "What interests me is having the viewer make discoveries just like the artist," he explains. "[Aten Reign] is a product of my vision, but it's about your seeing." Perception, he says, is his medium, and though he is alternately linked to Land Art, the Light and Space Movement, and Conceptual Art, he prefers to call himself a "perceptualist." 

In the Guggenheim, Turrell--who was raised Quaker and is still deeply spiritual-- aimed to create something meditative and transcendent, a controlled experience that facilitates individual acts of revelation. When the artist first beheld the completed work, he placed a spinning office chair in the center of  the rotunda and dizzily lost himself in his towering sculpture. This solitary, whirling figure is not what you’ll find if you visit the Guggenheim now. Instead, you will encounter the equivalent of an indoor beach, with scores of people sprawled out on the museum’s circle-laden floor, snapping illegal photos (photography is prohibited, but almost everyone sneaks a few pictures), and poking each other when Turrell’s colors reach a moment of peak intensity. Though Wright's ever-gurgling fountain adds an element of serenity, the overall tone is not one of solitary contemplation, but rather, a fashionable happening. 

My many visits to Aten Reign have taught me that sitting with the work is as much about togetherness and people-watching--and pointing out the neon glow of my neighbor's orange shoes--as it is about looking at the sculpture itself. Perhaps this is because one doesn't merely look at Aten Reign's mutating hues of blue, purple, and red; one is washed in those colors, along with everyone else. In the vein of younger artists like Olafur Eliasson and Carsten Höller, Turrell has engineered a shared aesthetic adventure. In fact, the crowds generated by the work's popularity--a by-product of placing the sculpture in Manhattan as opposed to a remote locale, where Turrell's works are often sited--have only made it stronger.   


To learn more about my classes based on James Turrell's exhibition, please check my website.
Lauren Kaplan