In a three-part retrospective that spans the country, James Turrell will transform museum spaces with works composed of spatially disorienting ambient light
When architect Frank Lloyd Wright wrote to arts patron Hilla Rebay in 1944, he described his vision for the design of New York’s Guggenheim Museum as a terraced pyramid of successively expanding rings—a ziggurat turned “top side down.” That’s precisely the sort of space that intrigues California artist James Turrell, who since 1977 has been converting an extinct cinder cone in the Arizona desert into his ongoing magnum opus, Roden Crater. On June 21, Turrell will take over the Guggenheim’s entire inner rotunda and oculus, transforming it—to similarly otherworldly effect—into an enormous, volcanic volume of shifting color and light.
“We are making a connection between the spaces Turrell has been creating at Roden Crater and the Guggenheim, whose structure has a relationship with Mesopotamian architecture and geological forms,” explains Nat Trotman, cocurator of the show with Carmen Giménez. For the installation, Turrell is enhancing the museum’s skylight with artificial illumination and lining the rotunda’s spiraling ramps in still more lights.
This feat of engineering expands on the artist’s five-decade-long career, relating to his well-known Skyspaces and Ganzfelds, rooms filled with spatially disorienting ambient light. Looking up from the ground floor into the Guggenheim’s central void, museumgoers will see concentric rings of glowing color leading to the illusory opening—a deepening funnel that appears to collapse into flatness at its shimmering apex.
Turrell’s first museum show in New York since 1980, this presentation is part of a tripartite retrospective taking place simultaneously at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Meanwhile, Kayne Griffin Corcoran gallery inaugurates its new Turrell-designed Los Angeles space with a fourth exhibition by the artist, opening May 25 and focusing exclusively on Roden Crater.
“Turrell’s material is light, and he creates these occasions for us to experience it,” says Richard Andrews, curator of the show and president of the Skystone Foundation, which oversees funding for Roden Crater. “The Crater is a fusion of art, architecture, engineering, and astronomy, on a scale that is very hard for people to grasp. But the experience is genuinely individual, as if it was built for you.” Highlighting the artist’s process rather than completed works, the show offers a glimpse into Turrell’s studio practice with photos, notebooks, tools, and drawings dating from the 1970s through the present. (In March, Pace Gallery in New York mounted its own Crater-oriented display.)
“You may think you love Turrell’s art. But until you experience it in person, you don’t really get it,” Trotman explains. “It’s pretty anti-conceptual—it’s about the feelings that it creates for you.”