|Since the late 1960s, the American artist James Turrell (born 1942) has conceived a wide-ranging body of work that explores his specific aesthetic concerns: the use of light as a material that affects the medium of perception; a refined formal language based in geometry; an interest in the optical and emotional effects of color; an interplay between the solid and the ethereal; and an emphasis on quiet, almost reverential atmospheres of introspection and reflection. Building on his early research into sensory deprivation—in particular the Ganzfeld effect, in which viewers experience disorienting, unmodulated fields of color—Turrell pursues a state of reflexive vision that he calls “seeing yourself seeing,” in which one becomes aware of the function of one’s own senses and of the material aspects of light.
"Light is a powerful substance,” Turrell explains. “We have a primal connection to it. But, for something so powerful, situations for its felt presence are fragile. . . . I like to work with it so that you feel it physically, so you feel the presence of light inhabiting a space,” he says. “My desire is to set up a situation to which I take you and let you see. It becomes your experience."
One of the largest installations the artist has ever mounted and the result of nearly six years of planning, Aten Reign will materialize the light and the air that fill the expanse of the Guggenheim rotunda. The work proposes an entirely new encounter with the building, as attention is drawn away from the boundaries of the built environment and toward the interior space, creating what Turrell has described as “an architecture of space created with light.” For the first time, the rotunda can be experienced only from below—not as an open void to be looked across, but as a mass of vibrant color that expands and contracts above the heads of visitors.
In Aten Reign, daylight enters from the museum’s oculus, streaming down to light the deepest layer of a massive assembly suspended from the ceiling of the museum. Using a series of interlocking cones lined with LED fixtures, the installation surrounds this core of daylight with five elliptical rings of shifting, colored light that echo the banded pattern of the museum's ramps. As is typical of Turrell’s work, the apparatus that creates the effect is mostly hidden from view, encouraging viewers to interpret what they see by means of their own perception. The work promotes a state of meditative contemplation in a communal viewing space, rekindling the museum’s founding identity as a “temple of spirit,” in the words of Hilla Rebay, the Guggenheim’s first director and a pioneer in the promotion of nonobjective art.
Aten Reign also relates to Turrell’s Roden Crater Project (1979– ), his magnum opus currently under construction in the desert outside Flagstaff, Arizona. When complete, the modified extinct volcano will house nearly two dozen separate installations, many carefully aligned with astronomical phenomena and all incorporating natural luminance. According to Turrell, the project was informed by the design of ancient observatories, which were oriented to celestial events. The Guggenheim itself echoes ancient architecture—Wright imagined it as an inverted ziggurat—and Aten Reign’s elliptical shape bears similarities to certain spaces at Roden Crater and Agua de Luz (an elliptical, stepped pyramid Turrell built in the Yucatan in 2012). Just as the natural world is an inspirational force for Turrell, so it was for Wright, who was fond of the open landscape of the American West, making his second home in Arizona.
Offering a complement and counterpoint to Aten Reign is a selection of Turrell’s early works, some drawn from the museum’s Panza Collection and others on loan. These pieces offer a sample of the artist’s various installation types and link the new project to his work of the 1960s and 1970s.
James Turrell is one of three concurrent, independently curated presentations of the artist’s work in summer 2013. Together, the exhibitions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art form a three-part retrospective across the country.
Born in Los Angeles in 1943 to a Quaker mother and a father who was a school administrator, James Turrell attended Pomona College, where his studies concentrated on psychology and mathematics. He later received a master's degree in Art from Claremont Graduate School.
James Turrell is curated by Carmen Giménez, Stephen and Nan Swid Curator of Twentieth-Century Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Nat Trotman, Associate Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The show is accompanied by a fully illustrated, 128-page catalogue detailing the production of Aten Reign (2013) and situating it in the context of the artist’s career.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Website