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James Turrell Illuminates at the Guggenheim

When I first walked into the Guggenheim’s rotunda and took a look around the iconic room, my first thought was, “What did I get myself into?” People were lying on the ground, sitting on benches and leaning backwards, and looking up. I wanted to hurry to the next room because all those bodies made the room cramped and humid. But everyone seemed fascinated with the ceiling so I looked up. And this is what I saw.


A large gray oval sliced like an onion with each layer losing a shade of gray. Once my eyes reached the oval’s center, it seemed as if the circle was moving. The scene resembled the landing of a flying saucer. “Aten Reign” was all about the illusion of movement using light and color as sources. Turrell forced us into a hallucinatory state by dizzying our minds with moving ovals and bright colors. That’s why there were so many people packed in the rotunda; they were in a temporary trance. “Aten Reign” happens to be the largest temporary installation undertaken by the Guggenheim.


In the press preview in June, Turrell revealed that even though people use light to illuminate things, we tend to forget the “thingness of light.” In other words, light is not only a verb but also a noun. Light on the ground could be as artistic as paint on a wall. As visitors make their way upstairs to assess the rest of the exhibition, they have the chance to witness Turrell’s use of light as an object of art in other installations. “Afrum I” and “Prado” are projection pieces from his 1967 collection that focus more on light and space. In these works, rectangular and cube-shaped figures are projected from high-intensity projectors onto darkened walls. Looking at light on a dark wall reminds us of the immeasurable significance of light and how undervalued it really is. If Turrell covered the bright, white shapes in these installations, people would see nothing but dark walls. These small light-filled shapes are able to illuminate the wide rooms of the Guggenheim without any assistance and persuade people to reevaluate the vitality of light as the ultimate illuminator.


Turrell’s Guggenheim showing joins two other exhibitions across the country showcasing his groundbreaking work. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts also provide Americans with glimpses into Turrell’s visual mindset.

All in all, Turrell’s much anticipated return to New York has been a success. His installations create a classic timeline of his innovative experiments with light and color, starting with the present-day color-infused phenomena “Aten Reign” and dating back to his 1960s projection installations. Because of the immense popularity of the exhibition, the Guggenheim only admits a certain amount of visitors at a time. So if you’re planning to take a trip to the Guggenheim, make sure you’re in a waiting mood because everyone and their mother is trying to get into this exhibit. James Turrell will enthrall the city until September 25th , so don’t miss out!

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