The Summer of Turrell

James Turrell, Breathing Light, 2013, LED light into space, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo © Florian Holzherr
James Turrell, Breathing Light, 2013, LED light into space, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo                         © Florian Holzherr

If the art world had a “song-of-summer” equivalent, the title would definitely go to James Turrell for 2013. Giving even the Venice Biennale and Art Basel a run for their money (pun intended), his three concurrent retrospective exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Guggenheim in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, have coalesced into a venerable extravaganza of light, generating a massive amount of feature articles, interviews, tweets, blog posts (ahem) and everything in between. One of the most high profile, a New York Times T Magazine cover story last weekend, states that together these three exhibitions amount to the biggest art event of the summer, and with their combined 92,000 square feet of occupied space for the display and enjoyment of all things Turrell, one can hardly argue with the assessment.

Jame Turrell, Aten Reign, 2013, Guggenheim, New York
Jame Turrell, Aten Reign, 2013, Guggenheim, New York

For a single artist, even one of Turrell’s prominence, having three large-scale exhibitions at three of the most important museums in the United States open within a month of each other is quite a feat. I don’t anticipate being able to see any in person over the summer – though if you have visited or intend to definitely share your impressions in the comments – but I am certain that all three took a tremendous amount of curatorial and organizational acumen, will involve a very crowded viewing experience, and would, simply put, be really fun.  The shows grant access to some of Turrell’s early pieces, made in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he was associated with California Light and Space, and highlight his longstanding commitment to using light as palpable material and showing its power to dramatically alter a given space and our experience within it. They also unveil new works that speak to Turrell’s current status as a blue chip artist working in a rarefied sphere; his projects demanding ever-increasing sums of money, engineering, and orchestration to realize. I am not decrying his success or claiming his access to such resources has not resulted in some remarkable artistic feats – I mean for goodness sakes the man transformed one of the most iconic pieces of architecture for the Guggenheim exhibition and continues to transform an entire volcano into an artwork. While I cannot personally speak to the effectiveness of these recent projects, I have experienced enough Turrell’s to mostly agree with Chuck Close’s recent statement that Turrell “is an orchestrator of experience, not a creator of cheap effects,” but all the recent, profusely celebratory hype has made me consider just what he represents within contemporary art. ¹

View from inside Turrell's Tending: Blue at the Nasher Sculpture Center before its closure
View from inside Turrell’s Tending (Blue) at the Nasher Sculpture Center before its closure

The coverage has not been limited to the retrospectives. Easily the saddest story has been the ongoing saga of Turrell’s Tending, (Blue), his site-specific skyspace at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. The museum posted a sign on 9 August 2012 announcing the fatal destruction of the work due to visual interference from Museum Tower, the newly constructed residential building across the street. While he has presented the Nasher with plans for a new work for the site, funds have not yet been raised to cover the costs, and so the structure sits empty and dark at the back of the Garden.

James Turrell, Akhob, 2013, Louis Vuitton Store, Shops at Crystals, Las Vegas.

On a more positive note, another new work garnering notice in the press is Turrell’s Akhob, his third collaboration/commission with Louis Vuitton. Occupying the fourth floor of the brand’s new store in the Daniel Libeskind-designed retail center The Shops at Crystals in Las Vegas, the permanent work is the largest of Turrell’s ganzfeld or light field installations. Though open to the public, Turrell-enthusiasts might have better luck at his equally new if less well-received Untitled of the Crystals monorail station nearby, since the Vuitton piece is limited to four viewers at a time, by appointment only.

James Turrell, PIcture Plane, Collection of Pamela and Jarl Mohn
James Turrell, Picture Plane, Collection of Pamela and Jarl Mohn

There is also my favorite recent Turrell news item, just in terms of how-the-other-half-lives-voyeurism, a piece in the Hollywood Reporter on what has to be the poshest screening room ever, Picture Plane.  A $2 million private commission built in 2004 for the Brentwood home of the founder of E! and noted art collector Jarl Mohn, the work is a modified skyspace.  In describing Mohn’s decision to commission the work, the article reports:
“Only one thing deterred him [Mohn]: Turrell’s fondness for minimalist stone seats in his skyspaces. “There was no way I was going to make my friends watch the movies on stone benches,” says Mohn, who has updated his 35 mm projection system to digital and 3D. “I told Turrell that.” The 70-year-old artist and longtime aviator…designed a stylish solution: love seats modeled on the chairs in DC-3s.”

Promotional Photograph of James Turrell for Louis Vuitton
Promotional Photograph of James Turrell for Louis Vuitton

I have happily read all of this copious coverage, but while I find it intriguing, even interesting, it has also left me a bit ambivalent if not outright suspicious. This might just be due to my natural inclination to be cynical about anything so widely acclaimed, my inability to connect with reality of elite clients in a position to pay exorbitant amounts of money for a Turrell, or maybe it has to do with my own preference of art made with more substantive, weighty material, but Turrell’s increasingly colorful, dazzling installations can veer uncomfortably close to outright spectacle and the ubiquity of his pieces make many seem blandly, self-derivative. There is also something a bit disingenuous about the uniformity of his image, real or consciously constructed, as a visionary, white bearded, Quaker gentleman artist-rancher who dresses “like Santa Claus in mourning” and espouses near mystical statements about the power of light, to again quote from the T Magazine piece – something also not exactly refuted by his work with Vuitton (see photo above). Perhaps though this speaks more to the nature of contemporary art, to the system that still seeks to construct art superstars and geniuses, than it does to the inherent value or accomplishment of Turrell’s work itself. Perhaps, I just need to go the nearest Turrell, sit quietly, and attempt to see the light.

James Turrell: A Retrospective is on view at LACMA through 6 April 2014. James Turrell: A Light Inside is on view at MFAH through 6 September 2013, and James Turrell opens at the Guggenheim tomorrow and will be on view through 25 September. Curators from all three exhibitions will participate in a Google Art Project Talk online, 9 July at 12pm PST.

1 Chuck Close as quoted inWil S. Hyton, "How James Turrell Knocked the Art World Off Its Feet," T Magazine 13 June 2013.

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