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 Continue reading “The Summer of Turrell”