Enlightened by Turrell at Guggenheim

Have you heard of James Turrell before? I did but only because I visited the Light Show at the Hayward Gallery in London. The Hayward show explored the psychological response to illumination and colour, showing 25 works from both US and European “light artists”. The Guggenheim in New York is presenting a solo show of Turrell.

James Turrell, along with Doug Wheeler, is a key figure in the Light & Space movement which emerged in the 1960s in Southern California.

The Light & Space movement is the US branch of group of artists using light as a medium for art. Light art itself is a sub-movement of optical and kinetic art. Op art employs optical illusions, while kinetic art contains movement discerned by the viewer. Optical and kinetic art originated from the Movement exhibition in Denise René’s Paris gallery in 1955. Broader perceptual art can be traced back to The Responsive Eye exhibition at MOMA in New York in 1965.

I believe Turrell’s uniqueness is in his use of both natural and artificial light in his works. His outdoor skyspace installations are made of a room with a large hole in its ceiling that opens directly to the sky. The room includes benches, allowing visitors to look at the sky as though it was framed; LED lights surround the hole and change colours to affect the viewer’s perception of the sky.

Turrell’s skyspaces can’t be shown at the Guggenheim – too bad since I can’t wait to see one – but Turrell created a site-specific centrepiece installation. The Guggenheim-specific installation, called Aten Reign, uses outdoor light from the museum’s skylight, blended with artificial light. The result is spectacular and recreates the museum’s rotunda in five concentric ellipses radiating waves of changing colours. Visitors can experience the work from below, on reclining benches.

Turrell creates shapes with light and even draws light in First Light, an aquatint engraving. I don’t think I have seen light drawn before. In his installations, the light of Turrell becomes either immaterial or creates an illusion of volume or space by its projection. In some works, his immersive environments make that immaterial light substance seem tangible. Turrell’s works are kinetic in essence as they involve the viewer’s perception. The artist narrowed the definition of his objectless art as perceptual art and not conceptual art nor minimalist. In my view, this is because his works emphasise the sensory aspects of light, as opposed to conceptual art where the idea is more important than the finished work.

2013 was certainly a kinetic year with the Light Show at Hayward Gallery, Dynamo at Grand Palais, Julio Le Parc at Palais de Tokyo and now Turrell at Guggenheim. The latter is organised in conjunction with the LACMA and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. The Guggenheim exhibition runs until September 25.

20130715-214637.jpg Photo: David Heald, Guggenheim website

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