New York

James Turrell

PaceWildenstein 22

Since 1966, when he transformed his Santa Monica studio into an artwork by meticulously arranging natural and artificial light sources, James Turrell has made works composed almost exclusively of light cast on, around, and into architectural spaces: open-air rooms for viewing the changing sky, darkened spaces into which light emanates through windowlike apertures, and large-scale walk-in environments. Descriptions of these works generally oscillate between metaphysical references, in which Turrell’s use of light is seen in terms of Platonic, supranatural illumination of eternal truths, and a uniquely American nostalgia in which his vision is tied to the iconic desert vistas of the Southwest, where he now makes his home. According to Turrell, however, his art does not represent—rather, it stands only for itself, for light in its own right, and is, in turn, less about what lies before our eyes than what is behind them. He is concerned, he has said, with the primal conditions of seeing and the limits of perception; and if there are reference points for Turrell, they range from the celestial viewing structures of ancient civilizations to the works of Monet, Seurat, and Rothko, as well as Robert Irwin, who was a colleague of the artist during his early days in ’60s Los Angeles.

Turrell recently constructed two new works at the PaceWildenstein gallery, his first show in New York since 1998. One, First Moment (all works 2003), belongs to a series of installations sharing the name “Ganzfeld” (Total Field), 1976–, a German scientific term for a uniform environment created for psycho-perceptual experimentation in which subjects are deprived of sensory stimuli. From a distance, this Ganzfeld appeared to be a large, blue-lit screen set into the center of a gallery wall; after mounting a carpeted stair, viewers found they could step within and enter a kind of glowing cave (unfortunately only after donning noisy plastic booties). This step from the platform into the gently sloping interior space felt like one of those B-movie moments when, to allow passage from one dimension to another, an apparently solid wall dissolves. Visitors seemed delightfully disarmed by a sense that, instead of moving farther into the gallery, they were escaping it entirely.

The perfect illusion that conceals its own methods is rare in contemporary art. Unlike cinema, installation art tends to make its workings visible, offering some reflection on how it manipulates audiences. Turrell’s pieces, however, offer only effect. The works in this exhibition direct us to light and space and de-emphasize everything else, including bulbs, walls, and wiring. (As the artist has said: “I want you to see the swan as it glides across the lake, not the fact that underneath it’s paddling like hell.”) Yet these seamless, minimal works still manage to provide a somehow antispectacular experience. Inside First Moment the act of looking became a reflexive one. One didn’t merely perceive light and darkness; volume and dimension themselves receded, leaving a space without measurement, a vacuum of open expectancy in which one was able to observe one’s own heightened senses. Beyond questions of representation, this is Turrell’s central move, as compelling now as it was in his first forays into light works some forty years ago: to reveal not the mechanisms of installation but the mechanisms of sight. In the process, he points us toward the sublime.

For all this reflexivity, however, the piece still does remind one of the sky—which, while perhaps not the subject of his work per se, certainly provides crucial inspiration. (On this note, Turrell has had decades of experience as a pilot and continues to develop Roden Crater, a volcano in the Arizona desert from inside of which one can view the heavens.) The sky’s depth and mutability in particular came to mind when entering the second piece on view here, titled Dinnebito after a town in Arizona’s Black Mesa region. In a darkened room viewers approached what was apparently a screen of solid color cycling slowly through gradations of green, blue, and red. Try to touch it and your hand passed through and beyond, in an experience similar to stepping into First Moment. Upon inspection, it became clear that a rectangular section had been removed from the wall, and hidden lights illuminated the compartment within, which, lacking seams or shadows, appeared dimensionless. The shift of hues in Dinnebito’s light window—so slow as to be perceptible only over the course of a half hour or so—easily seems a restaging of the transition from night to dawn in the desert sky.

With their understated sense of discovery, Turrell’s new projects were almost perversely complemented by Chelsea’s sensory overload. Among rows of gallery-filled streets, what could be better than to stumble into a dim daydream in which you’re left with only the mystery of your own perception? But, taking a more general context into consideration, perhaps it’s even more compelling to consider Turrell’s calculated illusionism in terms of today’s grand-scale artworks. Consider First Moment and Dinnebito alongside, say, Olafur Eliasson’s spectacular Weather Project, 2003—another light-based work—at London’s Tate Modern, where the illusion dictates what you see (and you will see a sun). In its subsequent resemblance to a crowded beach, the Tate’s Turbine Hall reinforces Eliasson’s illusion; but in a room where no more than three visitors are allowed—as in Turrell’s First Moment—the individual’s uncertainty is brought to the fore. Carefully controlled perceptual environments, Turrell’s works nevertheless remain intimate, since they never resolve themselves. Instead, they set in motion for the viewer an experiential process that continuously unfolds with an unhurried sense of tension.

New York–based writer Bettina Funcke is an editor at Dia Art Foundation.