It happens. For writers, musicians, choreographers and artists alike, increasing public attention produces the pressure to create ever bigger, ever splashier stage acts, novels and works of art. Some people resist the temptation. Others, such as James Turrell, do not. His newest work, Aten Reign (2013), has transformed the Guggenheim’s rotunda into a crowd-pleasing light-show extravaganza. There is nothing vulgar about this piece—it is, in fact, gently hypnotic. But despite its scale and technical wizardry, it never achieves the power of Turrell’s earlier works, which are on view in the Guggenheim’s side galleries.
Along with fellow artists in the California Light and Space movement, such as Doug Wheeler and Robert Irwin, Turrell has, since the 1960s, pursued a sensual variation on minimalist art that depends for its effects on perceptual phenomena. For all of these artists, that method has most often entailed site-specific installations, in which interior lighting or architectural elements are altered to effectively change the viewer’s experience of their setting.
In the case of Aten Reign, Turrell has blocked off the soaring central space of the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright building from its surrounding spiral ramp, constructing within it, high above the floor, a stepped series of five wraparound screens, each smaller in circumference than the last as they ascend toward the ceiling. The effect is rather like looking up into the inside of a giant collapsible drinking cup turned upside down, with the museum’s circular skylight, or oculus (now covered by a scrim), being the bottom of the cup. Computer-controlled LED arrays hidden along the base of each screen produce a constantly changing play of colors that move slowly up and down the horizontal bands of the piece.
At the same time, the lights in the halls outside of the rotunda, visible through two doorways, are cycling through a different set of hues—mostly greens and yellows. Colliding with the colors emanating from Aten Reign, they create an effervescent atmosphere, where color seems to atomize and dance in the air. Without directly incorporating it (except as a faint glow emanating from the scrim-covered skylight), the piece invokes nature. Cool white light flushes a warmer shade of the same, as if the sun were breaking through clouds; a deepening gray conjures the uncertain light before a thunderstorm; and a jade green, growing paler as it moves up the well of the atrium, feels as pure and chilly as the center of an iceberg. But culture is referenced as well, in shadings of black-light purple, neon red and streetlight orange.
At their best, Turrell’s works are perceptual conundrums. Among the older works included in the exhibition, Ronin (1968) consists of a light-filled floor-to-ceiling gap at the end of a gallery wall that can be read as a portal or as a rounded column. Meanwhile, in Afrum (White) (1967), two flat intersecting planes of light projected into the corner of a room appear as a weightless, glowing cube, floating in space. Most confounding are Turrell’s installations that exploit something known as the Ganzfeld effect—a temporary blindness or hallucination that can result from staring at an undifferentiated field of color for too long. Iltar (1976), located on a top floor, is a darkened gallery with low-level lighting along opposite walls. On a third wall, facing the entrance, a rectangular aperture leads into a second darkened space that lacks any defining features. It appears variously as a flat gray shape, a raised object (perhaps a piece of thick felt) and a depthless hole. With prolonged viewing, its edges seem to melt and dissolve as the murk within begins to swim with faint tonal changes.
While still a work of perceptual art (Turrell’s favored term for what he does), Aten Reign doesn’t possess the mystery of these earlier works. To involve the spectator is always to flirt with spectacle, but until now, Turrell has avoided it, or left it to nature, as in his “Skyspaces”—square or circular holes in the roofs of buildings that frame and flatten patches of sky. Since 1979, the artist has directed most of his energies toward creating a warren of viewing chambers (some of them “Skyspaces”) in the depths of the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in the Arizona desert. It is to be hoped that the finished project will employ simpler means to more complex ends—inducing us, as Turrell’s previous efforts have done, to observe ourselves in the act of seeing, while questioning the reality of what we see.—Anne Doran