Why James Turrell is perfect for the Guggenheim

The Guggenheim in New York is not a great museum but it is a great building; it also, famously, can be a problematic and inflexible space in which to display art.  The James Turrell exhibit on now (until 25 Sep 2013) makes the very most of these contradictions.  He is well known for site-specific installations — most dramatically, the Roden Crater Project at an extinct volcano near Flagstaff, Arzona — that are especially sensitive to light.  In his installation “Aten Reign” at the Guggenheim, Turrell takes Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic spiral atrium and reshapes it as a cleaner, more defined series of ever-smaller ovals lit by hidden LED lights that subtly shift through a dynamic range of colors, the edge of each tier in contrast to the one above it, while a practically invisible scrim veils it in an indistinct haze.

This can be watched for quite an extraordinary length of time, especially if you claim space on the mat on the floor and lie down.  I did not find the experience hallucinatory or disorienting, as reviewers often claim, but I did find it utterly transfixing and an exercise in almost pure sensation.  Alas, this creates a kind of vacuum that others near me filled with a particularly senseless chatter: one young woman to my right rambled on about blueberry picking and the ostrich eggs on sale at Whole Foods; another to my left, an Israeli, chose that moment to practice translating (aloud) Japanese numbers into Hebrew.  But far more than the Guggenheim’s 2011 Maurizio Cattelan exhibit in which all his works were suspended in the atrium, Turrell has turned Wright’s building — already a work of art — into a new and different work of art.

There’s practically nothing else in this exhibit beyond “Aten Reign,” though for non-staff this affords a rare chance to see the empty, curving galleries along the ramp as they must look when the museum is between shows — a reminder of just what a difficult space it is to work with.  On the fifth floor, the line to get in to see “Iltar,” a recreation of a Turrell installation from 1976, took 45 minutes and did not reward the effort: a large rectangle on the wall appears flat but is really a deep, recessed space obscured by artful lighting.  On a lower floor, I saw a small cluster of people perplexed by “Ronin” (from 1968) which is a wedge of light in the corner so unengaging that most couldn’t figure out if it was even an installation.

No matter: “Aten Reign” is the most site-perfect installation the Guggenheim will likely ever have, so I spent another hour with it and then walked down to the Koloman Moser exhibit at the Neue Galerie.



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