Before the much-anticipated opening of “James Turrell” at the Guggenheim Museum, the exhibit's curator, Carmen Gimenez, told the Wall Street Journal, “You will not recognize the Guggenheim—you will see it in a different way."
James Turrell makes Frank Lloyd Wright’s museum entirely new. For the central installation, Aten Reign, Turrell encases the Guggenheim’s spiral in taut white fabric. The result is rising, layered circles, which the museum’s app compares to a stack of lampshades. The structure is back-lit with colored light that gradually changes overtime. Roberta Smith of The New York Times likens the work to “the underside of a giant spaceship setting down,” and it’s hard not to imagine an engine’s hum.
This exhibition is Turrell’s first solo show in an American museum since 1980, and when questioned about his absence on the museum circuit during the press preview, the artist cheerfully reminded us that you have to be asked to be in a museum show. Besides the monumental Aten Reign, the show displays Turrell’s earlier light experiments, including his signature squares of light projected and back-lit on the museum’s walls. The Guggenheim show coincides with two other Turrell retrospectives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine
In the press preview, Turrell noted that we use light to illuminate things, but we forget “the thingness of light.” His work materializes the immaterial, reminding us that light on a wall can be just as much an object of art as much as paint on a canvas. Gimenez commented that Turrell was “the first artist to use light not as a means, but as an ends.”
Viewing Aten Reign is a both a meditative and disorienting experience, almost like being hypnotized. The space seems to collapse into a dizzying optical illusion. Also, the soft light changes so gradually that you almost forget its progression through the spectrum. The experience reminds us of notes on a scale, where the difference between two adjacent notes may be indeterminable but the change between the first and last notes sounds drastic. You might not notice Aten Reign change from pink to red, but walk away, and the change to purple is a pleasing shock.
Convincing us that light is an artist’s medium, Turrell also makes us consider its variations. In the Wall Street Journal, he describes his monumental work in Arizona, Roden Crater, as using “crisp but hard” light. In a dark room in the Guggenheim, we view Turrell's 1976 light installation Itlar. Smith describes the works as a “chalk-smeared blackboard” and then a “snowbank in twilight,” depending on how you look at it. And maybe Turrell means to show us that light performs for us as we take it through our pupils. He stresses: "Light knows when we're looking."