James Turrell’s Light at the Guggenheim Museum, New York

July 26, 2013

by Carlisle Hashim

The Guggenheim Museum on 89th and Fifth in New York City is round.  Designed round, a piece of architecture where the viewer rarely encounters intersecting lines.  James Turrell, the 20th Century Light and Space artist, was commissioned by the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Guggenheim Museum to fill the top five tiers of the Guggenheim’s Rotunda with a work of art.  He did.  The first floor is lit with people, their own installation with cell phones clicking to the change of light that Turrell has created in the elliptical shaped cavities that are built into the rotunda space.


Crowds wait their turn to stare into the light.  The light changes color, white, pink, blue, very slowly.  Not neon light of the past, but LED light, soft, soothing. The light is hard to define in color.  Mr. Turrell  believes that white is the culmination of all colors.  At the top of the rotunda through the oculus,  the clouds become a part of his work.


People participate with this work of art. They choose a position, a posture to view.

There is a horizontal on the floor view for many or a seated, head tilted back posture for others.  The third option is to begin walking up the ramp for an elevated view above.  What is remarkable is that everyone is in the light.  Its color changes within the whole work and its softness does not allow a division of any sort.


A gentleman upon leaving the Guggenheim Museum Store commented that he didn’t think he was going to buy a poster because a photo would not do the installation justice.  Videos are not adequate either.  One must participate with the light. Go to the Guggenheim. The power of Mr. Turrell’s show is calming and certainly contemplative.


Old Masters such as Carravaggio have been said to influence James Turrell who is a product of the 1960’s Light and Space Movement from California.  At that time, children on third grade museum field trips where these Masters’ paintings hung, sat on benches staring up at the light.


Turrell’s light installation, Aten Reigns makes the viewer its fourth dimension. It is not complicated to view but hard to interpret.  Does Mr. Turrell want us to interpret our feelings about this light, or does he want us just to feel? Either action or thought brings us into the light.





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