James Turrell at the Guggenheim – A disappointed fan weighs in

—>Andrew Cameron Zahn has the James Turrell experience at the Guggenheim and comes away wanting more. –the artblog editors————–>

Post by Andrew Cameron Zahn

James Turrell is by far one of the top innovative and creative artists alive today. His light installations have reshaped the way we understand form and color. Turrell’s work is more about experience than about the objects or forms we are used to seeing in an art exhibition.

James Turrell, "Aten Reign," at the Guggenheim
James Turrell, “Aten Reign,” at the Guggenheim.  Photos in this post are by Andrew Cameron Zahn

His retrospective in 2002-2003 at The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, which I saw, provided us with an amazing overview of his work. On the other hand, this exhibition at the Guggenheim does not truly provide us with a worthy explanation of his work. Although “Aten Reign” ( the large installation in the main rotunda of the museum) is a good effort, it seems all of the time spent on the installation of his work was put into this piece. The rest of the exhibition suffers as a result of this decision.

Aten Reign is a new, site-specific piece that is meant to be like one of the artist’s Skyspaces, holes cut into the roofs of buildings that, by optical magic, bring the sky down into the room with you. The Skyspaces, which Turrell has made for many Quaker meeting houses — there is one underway at the Chestnut Hill Meeting — are meant as immersions in the spiritual.  Turrell was raised as a Quaker.

The site-specific new work, which uses both natural light from the museum’s central oculus and LED lights, seems less spiritual than secular.  If anything, the piece asks you to consider the spirituality of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture.

James Turrell, Aten Reign, at the Guggenheim
James Turrell, “Aten Reign,” at the Guggenheim

Besides “Aten Reign,” the exhibition is very limited, with four projected light pieces, two of them from the Guggenheim’s Panza collection (the museum owns 11 Turrell pieces in all), and a series of prints. The only exciting thing is seeing the artist’s new print work, which is a departure from his previously purist light installations.

Despite its size and 60-minute light show featuring all the colors of the rainbow, “Aten Reign” does very little in the way of being innovative or transformative. It does merge natural light with colored light, which may be new for the artist.

The piece does have one exciting factor – audience participation.  It creates a sort of “be-in” or 1960’s happening-type feeling. But it’s hard to say “Alten Reign” is spiritual in the same way the Quaker Skyspaces are spiritual, with everyone sitting silent and meditating. And, while it washes everything and everyone in its colors the piece didn’t feel as immersive as I would have liked it to be. It felt like I was participating in a spectacle that I wasn’t really a part of.

James Turrell, "Aten Reign," at the Guggenheim
James Turrell, “Aten Reign,” at the Guggenheim

As a huge fan of Turrell’s work, I was looking forward to this show, but  I came away very disappointed.

James Turrell, "Aten Reign," at the Guggenheim
James Turrell, “Aten Reign,” at the Guggenheim
James Turrell – Print studies, installation view at the Guggenheim
James Turrell – “Afrum I (White)” – at the Guggenheim
James Turrell at the Guggenheim
James Turrell – “Ronin” – at the Guggenheim

James Turrell, Guggenheim Museum, New York, on view to Sept. 25, 2013.

–Andrew Cameron Zahn is multimedia artist and designer. He is currently an MFA student at University of the Arts. Visit his websites here and here.

Tags'60s be-in, alten reign, frank lloyd wright, guggenheim museum, james turrell, new york, spectacle
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