Light Show: James Turrell at the Guggenheim Museum

Glenn Gissler and Barry Goralnick were at the opening of what is undoubtably the New York City art event of the summer: the exhibition of five room-size installations by James Turrell at the Guggenheim Museum. Though the show mostly features Turrell’s early works, the piece getting most attention is Aten Reign, a new installation Turrell developed specifically for the famous rotunda in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum. Here’s what Barry and Glenn thought.

James Turrell, Aten Regan, 2013, GuggenheimJames Turrell, Aten Reign (2013), Guggenheim Museum

James Turrell, Aten Reign, 2013, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 21–September 25, 2013. Photographs by David Heald

Barry Goralnick: The two most important tools we have in architecture are space and light. Turrell’s reimagining of the Guggenheim is inspired in its manipulation of both. In the rotunda, he has inserted a structure wrapped in seamless fabric–it has been described as telescoping cake pans–that subsumes the space in a delightful way. Frank Lloyd Wright created a willful structure; Turrell, taking his cues from the architect, has taken it to a new place. You can’t help wondering where you are vis-a-vis the Wright building. The color palette and the natural light from the oculus are constantly altering, and as you move through the space the shapes continue to change. I was fascinated by Turrell’s use of structure and the most cutting-edge light technologies–it’s a great melding of art, design, and engineering. The effect is mesmerizing; it can only be described as a spiritual experience. It made me feel good for the rest of the day.

James Turrell, Afrum I (White), 1967, Projected light, dimensions variable

James Turrell, Afrum I (White), 1967, Projected light, dimensions variable

Glenn Gissler: The exhibition includes four older Turrell installations, including the gorgeous Afrum I (White), from 1967, which appears to be a glowing cube floating in the corner of the room. In the adjacent antechamber is a breathtaking selection of etchings from the related series First Light (1989–90), which explore how the aquatint technique can invoke qualities of radiance.

James Turrell, First Light, Series C, Carn, Acros, Ondoe, Phantom

James Turrell, First Light, Series C (Carn, Acros, Ondoe, and Phantom), 1989-90

GG: James Turrell’s is a very important artist but given the emphasis in his works on experience, they are hard to own except as memory. I think that the First Light prints are extremely successful in depicting the simple and sublime magic of Turrell’s installations and would love to  be  reminded of this every day. The complete edition of 20 etchings is available at the Peter Blum Gallery. I am always looking for art for myself, the RISD Museum, and clients. I would love to live with one or two  of these  prints and, at some point, give them to the museum, and would love to place some of them with clients.

James Turrell, Skyspace,  Live Oak Friends Meeting, Houston

James Turrell, Skyspace, 2001, Live Oak Friends Meeting House, Houston 

GG: I am looking forward to getting the Turrell exhibition catalogue due out late July to learn what true scholars make of the work and the man. One of the things that I am particularly interested in is his Quaker upbringing. During his talk at the press opening, Turrell shared a story from his childhood: As he and his grandmother were entering a Quaker meeting house, she said to him, “Go inside and greet the light.” He has certainly done that, including creating Skyspace, a 12-foot-square window in the ceiling of the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in Houston, and designing a similar installation for the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia, which opens this summer. I find it inspiring how Turrell creates sublime experiences with so little, a subtlety and quietude that I can only aspire to bring to my own work.