If You Like Having Your Mind Blown, See the James Turrell Exhibit At the Guggenheim

“Art is not such a big deal.” James Turrell said those very words during a June 21 interview with LACMA Director Michael Govan; a day that was also the opening day of his exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and, appropriately, the Summer Solstice. It seems right that someone whose entire career has focused on something as monumental as light would remain so humble. Nevertheless, he is currently the subject of a cross-country retrospective celebrating 48 years of his work with 23 oeuvres appearing in three museums in New York, Los Angeles, and Houston.

Turrell, who says one of his hobbies is flying planes just before dawn to catch a glimpse of the sunrise, is obsessed with light and color. Naturally, he produces works of art that reflect his reverence for light, consequently pushing his audience to do so as well by challenging our perception of light, space, and color.

Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

My first experience with James Turrell’s work was at MoMA PS1 in Queens, with one of his renowned Skyspaces. In his 1986 installation, Meeting, the simple showcasing of the changing sky through a huge squared off hole in the ceiling for viewers seated below evokes existential questions similar to those you might get while listening to Sagan point out that our existence on our pale blue dot of a planet is pretty inconsequential. Considering how little progress we have made in terms of environmental policy, Turrell’s environmentalist nudges are more important now than ever (at least in Queens, the sky is still visibly blue — in other places, not so much).

Turrell has remained consistent with his environmental approach — his works utilize simple forms to celebrate light and space. “The fact that light itself has its own power is best felt if it doesn’t carry an image,” he says, as he explains the minimalism in his designs to Govan. However, Turrell spares no expense when it comes to the size of the space he uses, which he notes is necessary “to perceive light both as the ephemeral quality that we notably give it and also as the physicality that I like to see it with.” He leaves it up to his audience to assign forms and images themselves to his amorphous works. In this summer’s exhibition, organized by the Guggenheim’s Curator, Carmen Giménez, 20th Century art curators, Stephen and Nan Swid, and Associate Curator, Nat Trotmanas, he audaciously seizes the enormous space and natural light in Frank Lloyd Wright’s illustrious rotunda, and leaves us all mesmerized.

Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Aten Reign (Aten being an ancient Egyptian term for sun-disk), is the main piece of his current Guggenheim exhibition, in which he literally reshapes the atrium with white fabric, and adds color-changing LED lights to create a hypnotic upright light tunnel of concentric ovals. As I walked into the museum, the usual open entryway was missing, which was slightly disorienting, as was the red light glowing onto the guests in front of me. Turning the corner into the rotunda, a crowd of red-lit people appeared staring up at the ceiling in a daze. Not surprisingly, at least half had their smart phones in hand (myself included), effectively guaranteeing that everyone on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook would get at least an impression of our “Mind blown” status. Still, this scene brilliantly contradicts the intensely personal experience that the piece itself renders.

Photo: Courtesy the Stedelijk Museum

The rest of the exhibition delivers similarly intangible images that gave my friends and me the sensation of staring into eternity, or other similarly dark abyss-like places. These were our own conclusions, but the piece absolutely lends itself to endless other interpretations. That said, Turrell succeeds again in manipulating light, space and color to craft an experience for his audience that reminds us of all the unknown natural elements surrounding us daily that we take for granted. Much to our frustration, as intervening humans who seek control over our environments, we find ourselves unable to fully grasp what we are seeing. Defeated, at least we can put a picture of it on the internet, and we emerge happy, realizing that the experience was actually a pretty big deal.

James Turrell is on view at the Guggenheim through September 25.