Friday, June 21, 2013

James Turrell—Light Ascending

Aten Reign, 2013. Daylight and LED light. Site-specific installation, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 
Looking up into the Guggenheim's rotunda.
What more appropriate day to view James Turrell at the Guggenheim than yesterday, the summer solstice, with more hours of sunlight than any other day of the year? Well, basically any other day through September 25 (natural light is just a part of it); just try and get there for this transporting installation.

Aten Reign, the main artwork, occupies the entire rotunda of the Wright building, which apparently influenced Turrell's concepts for his ongoing, monumental Roden Crater, based in a volcano in Arizona. Once inside, you may not recognize the Guggenheim. The airy ground-floor lobby has been walled off to create a viewing area. Lie back on one of the encircling benches, look up, and spend as much time as you can observing the light, continually shifting hue and intensity. (As Turrell remarked, he included his favorite colors, and, like musical notes, you need them all to make music.) Additional artworks are installed in the High Gallery, just up the ramp (which is devoid of artwork), and in the Annex on 2 & 5.

The installation of Aten Reign is extremely well executed. The surfaces of the nesting oval rings that narrow toward the perfectly egg-shaped oculus are made of stretched fabric. Rounds of LEDs provide the continually phasing light. The effect is simple, humbling, and so profoundly, mysteriously moving that it feels silly trying to talk about it. Previous works by Turrell have had a similar, if muted, effect; it's magic spun from relatively simple materials and technology and, most of all, light. Perhaps part of the allure is the evanescence of light, the key material—the coaxing and sculpting of it, like some supernatural, life-giving substance tamed.

It's hard not to contrast it with the other big show that opened this week—the Paul McCarthy show at the Armory, an exercise in excess, indulgence, and the messy side of human imagination and the psyche. Both recreate certain circumstances of nature and tap emotions and subconscious feelings. The Turrell caused my to heart sing and made me want to stay indefinitely, although it demands little work. The McCarthy show, which is nothing if not demanding, made me queasy and want to run out the door. Together, they cover the emotional and cerebral gamut of the human condition.

A handful of older works by Turrell are on view, including the very cool Afrum I (White), 1967, in which projected light forms a floating cube. But you may, as I did, regret every moment I spent away from Ater Reign. Crowds may be a problem, but it's worth it.

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