There’s no doubt that you’ll hear much about the work of James Turrell in the coming months. With three major exhibitions—at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), and the Guggenheim in New York—the art world seems primed to talk about nothing else. Given their geographical spread and the fact that all three exhibitions will be open to the public simultaneously from now until late September 2013, one could compare this to the “one city one book” community reading programs that exhort everyone to read and discuss the same novel. However, this undertaking seems less an opportunity to come together than a chance to debate the merits of Turrell’s oeuvre.
There are, of course, many fine qualities to Turrell’s work. The first room of the LACMA exhibition shows three suites of drawings and prints. I noticed that most visitors only gave these a cursory glance before moving on, but I was quite transfixed. Two suites of etchings (seven prints from the First Light Series [1989–90] and eight prints from the Still Light Series ) face each other across the room and demonstrate how the shading in white, gray, and black geometric shapes can produce the illusion of a three-dimensional object on a flat ground. Likewise, the ink and paper Projection Piece Drawings (1970–71) show the artist’s thinking and process in thirty-six precisely executed plans for other spacial apparitions. In the same way that an audience will remain spellbound even after a magician reveals the mechanisms of her tricks, I stood rapt in front of these works; I also came back through the room a second time after seeing the light projections in the galleries beyond. Learning the systems of Turrell’s magic doesn’t detract from the perceptual fun at all; in fact, it heightened my respect for his experimentation and craft.
The galleries beyond showcase a selection of light installations that combine the poetry of simplicity with the excess of spectacle, beginning with Afrum, White (1966). This projection of white light into the corner of a darkened room creates the illusion of a large three-dimensional floating cube that seems to rotate as the viewer walks through space. As a direct manifestation of the prints and plans of the previous room, it is breathtaking—so satisfying it is almost exhilarating—because of the way it so clearly demonstrates Turrell’s process: a voilà moment that rarely exists in museum exhibitions.
Beyond this gallery lie framed holograms and the installations Juke, Green (1968), St. Elmo’s Breath (1992), Key Lime (1994), and others. Each has its own perceptual phenomenon, and some trigger unexpected reactions, as when I stepped into the space containing Raethro Blue (1969) after resting for a while in the room of Raemar Pink White (1969). The aftereffect of the shocking pink of Raemar Pink White caused me to first see Raethro Blue as fluorescent green. To find a seat in the room I had to turn my back to the work, and when I turned around again the floating pyramid had “changed” to an electric blue, and I actually gasped.
The complete exhibition is arranged on two floors of two different buildings, and unfortunately, the satisfying work in the Broad Contemporary Art building is not sustained by the works in the Resnick Pavilion. The first installation, Breathing Light (2013), requires visitors to wait in line twice: first in a hallway outside a holding room where visitors must exchange their shoes for forensic booties and again in the holding room because the attendants can only permit four people at a time into the actual installation (and this is after waiting in a timed-ticket line for the first half of the exhibition). After lingering in the velvet-roped queue for twenty minutes, I asked the attendant to estimate the time I would remain in the hall: an hour was the answer. Similar waits were to be found for the nearby perceptual cell and dark space installations, so I moved along.
The penultimate and final galleries are given over to models, prints, a documentary video, and other ephemera, mostly from Turrell’s ongoing Roden Crater project, and this is where the exhibition plunges into hubris. Each massive print, map, or device seems engineered to awe and yet inspired only my antipathy. Take, for example, Roden Crater Field Kit (2000), a collection of drawings, photos, and brass surveyor’s instruments housed in an old-fashioned oak and brass box that would look at home in the mid-1800s. This archaic collection, set atop an adjustable oak tripod, even contains rocks from the crater, each cradled in its own custom-molded royal blue–flocked cubby. Though I’m sure Turrell does prize these items, the fact that they are gathered from his yet to be opened site means nothing to me. However, from their extravagantly precious presentation it’s clear that I am expected to be astonished. I felt similarly unmoved by the other objects in the room, from the monumental nine-by-twenty-seven-foot topographical map of Roden Crater Model (Large Overall Site) (1987), made from plaster, pigment, and materials taken from the crater, to the equivalently scaled Roden Crater Site Plan (1985), twenty-seven drawings on Mylar, each three feet square.
Unlike the process-illuminating drawings and prints in the first gallery, these objects are not preparatory so much as they are supplementary; given their pomposity of scale, they read like vanity projects instead of necessary anticipatory work. The deafeningly loud video in the final room of the exhibition only underscored my feeling of dissatisfaction: as the artist maunders on about the planning and work for Roden Crater, images of the site illuminate the screen. It looks as though Turrell has acquired a new aesthetic, one that departs from the stripped-down elegance of his past work. The massive bronze staircases and long hallways that connect the rooms of the crater look simultaneously futuristic and dated, like a campy set for the 1980s sci-fi film Flash Gordon. The video’s placement in a white room among domed white plaster architectural models set atop white pedestals, only reinforces this unfortunate impression.
Of course, Roden Crater is still in progress, and we may judge its merits if and when it ever finally opens (construction began in 1979). Meanwhile, it’s worth the time and effort to see Turrell’s phenomenological works from the early and middle days of his career, though I advise skipping the end.
James Turrell: A Retrospective is curated by Michael Govan and Christine Y. Kim and on view at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art through April 6, 2014.