It takes balls to empty all of the art out of the Guggenheim’s main rotunda, just as it takes balls to spend over 40 years coaxing an inactive volcano into a naked-eye observatory — which you may or may not ever open for viewing. When artists have that level of confidence, it’s forgivable to rush to their exhibits — forgivable, but still possibly a mistake. That should be all the warning you need before slapping down $22 to walk around the halls of an almost naked Guggenheim, waiting for something to happen at James Terrell's new and purportedly museum-wide exhibition.
A disclaimer: I've always found it a challenge to appreciate modern art. Most Kandinskys and Rothkos grate too deeply on my impulse to say, “A toddler could have done that by accident.” I've come to understand that not all art is painfully detailed Renaissance masterpieces and that expression can be achieved through slaps of the brush just as it can through meticulous layers of paint. I've also grown to appreciate the kind of installation work that surrounds and centralizes the viewer, which is why Turrell’s Guggenheim takeover was so promising.
Turrell’s play on light and form can transport a viewer to the inside of a Rene Magritte painting or the bowels of a spaceship. His structures and installations create mass and form out of nothing but light and corral the sky into abstract geometry. Inside Frank Lloyd Wright’s already space-bending museum, there should have been nothing but magical, hallucinatory light and as the write-ups promised: the whole building, recast by Turrell.
But upon entering the museum, I was thrown off by the crowds swarming through the first floor of the rotunda. They made it difficult to look up at Aten Reign, the centerpiece of the exhibit: a shifting cone of bright rings stretching into the ceiling. Six concentric layers, each lit from below, moved gently across a spectrum of colors, bathing visitors in its glow. Just as you acclimated to a color, it began to fade, slow and uniform like twilight. From the edge of the room, it looked like an egg; from the center, an alien beam. It was mesmerizing, and I wanted to sit down to consider it properly, but that was nearly impossible as there were people everywhere, nudging me up and around the rotunda ramp.
I went on, excited that there were even better installations upstairs. The advertisements for the exhibit touted it as a Turrell retrospective and full-museum installation, so I was expecting floating cubes and beams of illusory light everywhere. This hope started to wane as I rounded the first bend in the ramp of the rotunda, which had been walled off from the central cavity by a white screen to prevent any interference with Aten Reign. A hall off to the side of the ramp was empty except for a bright vertical bar of light in one corner, where a security guard was pacing back and forth, staring at his shoes.
As I rounded the next curve of the rotunda, I encountered a line. This must be it! I thought, and hope returned. I'd dragged my boyfriend along on this adventure, and he trotted up to the front of the line to see what was going on and how long the line was. “There's a dark room with two doorways that's spitting out a few people every few minutes,” he reported back. “And the line is very long.”
An hour later, when we finally reached the room, we saw several people exit the dark doorway with looks on their faces that could register as shock and awe or anger and confusion. Before we could suss out which it was, it was our time to enter.“I saw the Mona Lisa when it was in L.A., saw it for 13 seconds and had to move on,” said Turrell in a 2005 interview with ARTINFO. “But, you know, there's this slow-food movement right now. Maybe we could also have a slow-art movement and take an hour."
It's a lovely sentiment, but one that wasn't in play at the Guggenheim. Inside that room at the end of the line was Iltar. The dimly lit space had a far wall that was anchored by what seemed to be a rectangular piece of grey canvas. Three track lights in the corners threw a murky sort of white light at the box. We entered and approached the grey rectangle at the end of the room reverently, waiting for it to change. It didn't. The guard in the room paced back and forth in front of the piece, alternately passing his hand over it and telling people it was very thin paper, before then seeming to stick his hand into it, revealing it to be a depression in the wall. Or was it paper? When anyone tried to crane closer, he asked them to keep back, and he soon announced that we had to limit our visit to five minutes so he could let the next group in. We shuffled around the other people in the room, trying to get a better look at whatever it was before leaving. On the way out, we probably looked as angry and confused as the people we’d seen earlier.
As we walked back down the ramp with others who had left Iltar, the audible reactions ranged from anger — "The fuck was that shit? Like, really?" — to feigned understanding — "Did you keep staring at it? It's like, it gets really deep if you do, right?" to disappointment in one's self — "We should have come high."
The Guggenheim is iconically beautiful and a natural choice for someone looking to play with light and space. Had Turrell’s “takeover” been carried out with more thought towards how the exhibit could be approached by large numbers of people, it would have undoubtedly been a powerful experience. Instead, five installations were placed in hard-to-find corners that were further obstructed by guards and visitors tromping through the exhibits. It’s frustrating to feel like you've missed most of the exhibit when you leave a museum; it’s telling when, despite that disappointment, you don't feel the need to take another look.
On the way down, the vertical column of light that I had passed on the way up had won a small line of its own. The addition of an audience made it more apparent that it was in fact a work in and of itself; it was Turrell’s Ronin, and when viewed in the absence of other gawkers and shuffling security guards, it can look like the creaking opening of a door into a room of blinding white light — but, just then, it looked like a guard trying to dissuade an older woman from touching a museum exhibit as 20 other people waited in line to be chided.
I usually wish that the longer captions and explanations that typically accompany museum displays weren't there, but in their absence, I wanted them back. Anything to signify that you were passing a piece besides a line would have changed the entire experience (maybe the Guggenheim can add some sort of warning buzz to their new app) — which says a bit about the pieces and their curation, and a lot about me and my patience in the face of tourist swarms. Despite giving him nearly all the space they had, the museum wasn't able to give Turrell’s pieces the breathing room they needed.
We did get a chance to lay down on the benches around the ground floor of the rotunda and look at Aten Reign once more before we left — unfortunately, the shrieks of Swedish children bouncing around the room rushed us along before we could become too meditative. If you do want to see Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim, go early on a weekday, when the museum will be empty. Turrell’s work holds up better in quiet and near-solitude. Like the Mona Lisa, you don’t want to see it for a few seconds before you have to move on.