New York

James Turrell


With an atmosphere that was equal parts chapel and fun house, an exhibition of recent works by James Turrell demonstrated not only the obvious achievements but also the nagging limitations of the artist’s practice. Seventeen pieces from the last several years represented two primary impulses pursued by Turrell across his distinguished career-long engagement with light: deploying it, on the one hand, as a paradoxically material presence designed to draw our perceptual attention outward, toward the spectral volumetric “objects” it creates, and, on the other, as a dematerialized emanation designed to turn viewers’ psychic attention inward by altering their experience of the larger physical environment. Though the two approaches are to some extent interdependent in all of Turrell’s work, with this current selection, the former mode’s tendency—especially in the aggregate—toward a brand of trompe l’oeil gimmickry effectively undercut the more edifying pleasures of the latter approach, resulting in an overall experience that satisfied the eye but never fully engaged the mind.

The show was anchored by five large pieces in Turrell’s “Tall Glass” series (2006–). In keeping with the approach he first began exploring in the late 1960s, these featured a light source placed within a shallow niche cut into the surface of a wall that simultaneously frames and diffuses the illumination. Here the pieces were arrayed around the central gallery space in small alcoves, like a series of private devotional chambers lining a central nave, complete with carefully placed benches that suggested pews. While the two works along the right wall contained computerized neon arrays set within glass and the other three, including the centerpiece, Stand Alone, 2007 (also the largest on view, with a seven-foot-high aperture), used LEDs in the same configuration, the effect was essentially the same: Each rectangular opening appeared from a distance to be a floating pane of light whose hues slowly and subtly evolved over time.

Watching the morphing tones of Turrell’s lambent voids—in one space, a pool of white, peach, and beige being gently overtaken by a welling green fog; in another, a Rothkoesque miasma of lavender, magenta, and cocoa cycling to a solid sheet of scarlet—did act to dramatically slow the pace of viewing, successfully forging the link Turrell has always sought between altered perceptual states and modes of psychic mindfulness. Yet if this suite of gracefully contemplative pieces made a persuasive case for the continuing effectiveness of Turrell’s macro-scale phenomenological experimentation—one that finds its fullest expression in his legendary magnum opus at Roden Crater—the dozen other works that accompanied them, descended from the artist’s more literal, object-oriented projection projects of the last three decades, were less convincing.

The nine small, wall-mounted “reflection” light works and another three larger installation pieces from what Turrell calls his “transmission” sequence, all untitled, are technologically updated descendants of the projected works he also began producing in the mid-1960s. They are designed to create slightly different versions of the same apparition—namely, ghostly holographic forms (typically planes or very acute wedges) that seem to either recede into or thrust out from their two-dimensional surrounds. While there’s no denying the initial gee-whiz factor of such illusions, the effect here of one hologram after another (even when well executed, as these are) creates an air of formal aloofness and technical coldness rather strikingly at odds with the more expansive theoretical and poetic concerns at the core of Turrell’s conceptual program, proving that, even in the hands of a master, luminous doesn’t necessarily equal numinous.

Jeffrey Kastner