TEXT: Maya Kramer
IMAGE: Courtesy of the artist and Long Museum, Shanghai
Some encounters with art are so revelatory that the work moves beyond provoking an experience, and instead alters the viewer’s framework for processing experience itself. These epiphanies are rare, and despite the rabid marketization of art, ubiquity of art fairs, and blockbuster exhibitions I still contend this is the sensation artists, collectors, critics, museum curators, and gallerists, worth their salt, are after as they engage in this rarified world. Thus, it is difficult for me to approach James Turrell’s oeuvre objectively, for many moons ago, upon seeing his work for the first time my conceptions of what art could be were so viscerally reconfigured that I was completely seduced. Since then, Turrell’s reputation has grown and with the 2013-14 retrospectives of his work at LAMOCA and the Guggenheim, his status as a contemporary master has been secured. I was curious then, to see if the current exhibition at the Long Museum, James Turrell Immersive Light, could still invoke the sense of awe it elicited years ago.
James Turrell’s medium is light, and he manipulates its color, intensity, shape and duration in ways that both mesmerize and confound the viewer. Born in 1943, Turrell was part of the LA-based Light and Space movement, the west coast’s answer to New York Minimalism.
If artists out east, Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Dan Flavin employed the blunt materiality of steel, plywood and florescent lights to create their obtuse ‘specific objects’, the California Light and Space movement was minimal but still seductive. In using delectable surfaces, inviting colors and in their creation of etherial light enigmas they still promised a bit of what New York minimalism disavowed: to stimulate the senses and transport the viewer. Yet particularly in James Turrell’s work, one is not exactly transported to another place. Rather, through his work one is ushered into a state of hyper awareness, of the pieces themselves and more to the point of one’s own consciousness.
To understand the phenomenon Turrell creates it is useful to detail how the work unfolds in time and space. For the piece, Tall Glass, on view now at the Long Museum, one approaches a moderately-lit gallery space, and in the middle of the wall there is a shimmering something of light. Something is an accurate descriptor here, as it might be a hole it could be a screen, however long the mind reels and the eyes look the origin and mechanisms, the how or what this light is, never reveal themselves. Consciousness thus gives up, settles in and watches the piece unfold. At first, an intense red light blazes in the middle of the aura, surrounded by a ring of pale blue and a border of whitish light. Then slowly, the colors rearrange themselves and a faded blue later occupies the center while around it a dusk-like orange bleeds at the edges into grey. The work keeps changing slowly, almost imperceptibly, and at one moment associations of fading suns and passing time come to mind, at other times a sense of pure disembodied wonder takes over.
Different works in the exhibition inspire different reactions in the mind and underscore how easily our perception is manipulated. In Afrum, a cross projection piece, a bright magenta rectangle occupies the center of a convex corner in a dark room. The rectangle is a conundrum, is it a three dimensional light cube protruding from the wall, is there a void cut into the space or is it just flat light projected onto the corner? Ultimately it is not the physical condition of this light that is most interesting, rather it is the experience of seeing one’s consciousness as it tries to grasp an incomprehensible phenomenon.
While the artworks themselves are remarkably abstract, almost futuristically so, Turrell’s pieces are grounded in a nexus of real life inspirations. The artist’s upbringing as a Quaker, along with his avid love of flying and astronomy and his undergraduate degree in perceptual psychology, are all part of the DNA of this exceptional oeuvre. The influence of a long linage of colorists is also present. Artists such as Mark Rothko, Joseph Albers and Claude Monet spent their careers experimenting with hue, saturation and value to better understand the magic color can make in the mind, and Turrell is in part the inheritor of this tradition. Yet by using light directly and in such mysterious and immaterial ways, he heightens these perceptual plays for the viewer. Turrell physically immerses audiences in an abstract, sensory and luminous riddle, and the experience of his work is as remarkable as ever.
About the Artist
James Turrell was born in 1943 in Los Angeles, California. He received his B.A. in 1965 from Pomona College, California, and his M.A. in 1973 from Claremont Graduate School, California. Recent solo exhibitions include “Infinite Light,” Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Arizona (2001); Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich (2001–02); Hausler Kulturemanagement, Munich (2001–02); National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (2002); “Light and Land,” Sonoma County Museum, California (2003–04); Kunsthaus Zug, Switzerland (2003–04); Institute Valencia d’Art Modern, Spain (2004–05); “Alta White,” Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2006); Musee de Grenoble, France (2006); “A Life in Light,” Louise T Blouin Institute, London (2006–07); “The Roden Crater Project by James Turrell,” University IUAV of Venezia, Italy (2007); “Beyond the Light,” Villa and Collection Panza, Italy (2008); Oroom Gallery, Seoul Total Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea (2008, traveled to Musee Shuim, Korea); “The Wolfsburg Project,” Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany (2009–10); Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow (2011); Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, Colorado Springs (2012); Art Academy Museum, Maryland (2013); Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California (2013); “The Light Inside,” Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2013); Guggenheim Museum, New York (2013); “Gard Blue,” Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas, Lawrence (2013–14); and The Israel Museum, Jerusalem (2014, traveled to National Gallery of Australia, Canberra).
Maya Kramer is an artist, an independent art writer and arts project coordinator. She was based in New York City for nine years during which time she worked in the curatorial department of the Guggenheim Museum and for private collectors. In 2010 she moved to Shanghai, and has since exhibited internationally in conjunction with institutions such the Hong Kong Arts Centre (Hong Kong) and the Van Abbe Museum (Eindhoven, Holland) among others. She is the recipient of the Jacob Javits Fellowship, her works have been featured in media such as Fortune Art, Randian and Blouin Art Info, and she has written for The Shanghai Gallery of Art, Artlink, and Bank Gallery. She currently lives and works in Shanghai, China.