Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Beyond Light" (on James Turrell: A Retrospective) by Douglas Messerli

beyond light

Michael Govan and Christine Y. Kim James Turrell: A Retrospective / Los Angeles County Museum of Art Howard Fox and I saw the show on June 24, 2013.

Before visiting the remarkable James Turrell retrospective I had seen two or perhaps three Turrell works, once in 1995 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and later at the Brentwood home of Mandy and Cliff Einstein’s, where Howard and I sat for a long while in the startlingly beautiful, Second Meeting, wherein, while watching the twilight sky over our heads, we heard the howls of local coyotes.      

I had also, obviously, seen pictures of his wonderfully lit spaces, and I had read a little about his great Roden Crater project, but I had still been unprepared for what we witnessed at LACMA. The show, along with its substantial catalogue (which represents, mostly, works not on display at the museum) should help catapult Terrell to the stellar level of artists, if not position him as one of the most amazing creators today. Museum Director, Michael Govan’s show takes us  from prints such as the Still Light Series (1991) and Deep Sky (1984) to early projects such as the famed white Afrum (1966), one of the first pieces to be shown at the Pasadena Art Museum, curated by John Coplans, in 1967. Further projects such as the stunning Juke (1968) are followed by a room holograms and other memorable lighted spaces such as Raemar Pink White (1969), the cross-corner construction, Raethro II (Red) (also of 1969), Arco (Green) (1968), Tycho (White) (1967), and the wedgework piece, Key Lime (1994), along with numerous others.  

     As most visitors to whom I’ve spoken about this show comment, while they are absolutely awestruck by the spaces, there is also something quite dizzying and even a bit frightening as one makes one’s way into the various spaces, sometimes with only a hand against the wall to lead the way.
      Across from the Broad Museum, at LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion, lies Turrell’s large Ganzfield, Breathing Light (2013), a monstrous machine-like work where one lies down, after signing a statement of sobriety and sanity, to witness a strange out-of-body experience that is based on the inside of one’s eyes. The powerful Dark Space Dark Matters (2011) follows in the next gallery. In the final room, the curator has gathered several cast plaster models of Turrell’s invented constructs such as Boullé’s Boule l (1994) and a complete model of what is perhaps the most ambitious art installation of all time, Roden Crater, owned by Turrell, in which he has constructed numerous buildings which house visual sun and light projects  

      Each of these pieces deserves its own commentary, something, however, which I will (perhaps cannot) attempt. What I will reassert, based on observations by my companion Howard N. Fox, published in his “Dreamworks: A Concept of Concept Art in California (in Reading California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000), is that there is a huge difference from Terrell’s major minimalist influences such as Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Richard Serra, and the light works of figures such as Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Eric Orr and Turrell. If the concept-driven works of the East Coast figures, as well as artists in Europe, South America, and Japan were based on their “literalism and materialism,” those on the West Coast are embedded with associate meanings that alter the effect of the works. Fox compares, for example Joseph Kossuth’s work One and Three Chairs and Eleanor Antin’s California Lives, the first consisting “an ordinary wood chair, and flanking either side, a black-and-white photograph of the same chair and a photograph of the text of a dictionary definition of the word chair,” all of which questions, obviously, what we suppose to be a chair. Antin’s work, consisting of a folding snack table “on which are scattered a hair curler, a melamine plastic coffee cup and saucer, a king-size filter-tipped cigarette, and a matchbook from a low-life bar-and-grill uses her everyday   objects to play out “meaning” in a completely different way, in, taken together, they create a series of possible associations, a kind personal entry into the imagination of a fictional figure who might have owned these ordinary things. 
      Using several other comparisons between West Coast and East Coast concept-based artists, Fox argues that rather than the literal materialism of East Coast conceptualists, the California figures seek out different types of meaning, certainly something quite apparent in Turrell’s art. The light and illusion Turrell’s works create, instead of revealing the light itself as, say, in Flavin’s colored tubes of illumination, effects the viewer in several ways—marvel, awe, reflection, spiritual awakening, internal questioning, etc—that Flavin’s elements of light, though often beautiful and, perhaps, even awe-inspiring, do not invoke. Although Turrell works in simple forms created out of his spiritual and conceptual interrelationship with light and space, what they manifest is something “other,” a series of associations and meanings not unlike Antin’s objects upon a folding tray. If people choose to use terms, as Wil S. Hylton has argued in his recent New York Times Magazine article on Turrell that almost descends in “gibberish”—“the thingness of light,” “the alpha state” of mind—it is perhaps because Turrell’s use of light calls up so much else than its own materialism; it is light that through the artist’s wizardry and manipulation almost become something else, something that creeps into our own individual imaginations and calls up personal meaning for each viewer. While we may all be in looking at the very same “object,” that object is most definitely no longer just itself, but something other and apart.
     Walking out into the plaza the other day, Howard pointed out the heavily-bearded Turrell at Stark’s Bar, surrounded by a group of admirers. The artist looked, indeed, very much like a Quaker—the faith in which he grew up—from the 19th century, or a wise guru who clearly might also be able to speak, as I’ve read he does, on Riemannian geometry.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2013
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (June 2013).     


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