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Guggenheim’s “Aten Reign”: Turrell’s “Skyspace” Obscures the Sky

James Turrell, “Aten Reign,” 2013 © James Turrell Photo by David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

James Turrell, “Aten Reign,” 2013 © James Turrell
Photo by David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

For weeks, I have been eagerly anticipating James Turrell‘s “reimagining the rotunda of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic building as one of Turrell’s luminous and immersive Skyspaces” (as the Guggenheim Museum’s advance press release had described it).

The only problem is, “Aten Reign” isn’t a skyspace at all. It is, as the artist himself described it to us at yesterday’s press preview, “a skylight space” [his emphasis]. There’s a big difference…and for me, a big letdown.

Some of you have heard me discuss my disappointment briefly this morning in my “arts review smackdown” (as our interviewer, Soterios Johnson, termed it) on New York Public Radio (WNYC), where I exchanged jabs with art critic Deborah Solomon. She called Turrell’s monumental installation a “radiant and heroic” light show,” likening “Aten Reign” to an “inverted wedding cake, made of light.” I dissed it as a “discotheque.”

Speaking of wedding cakes, when I had provocatively tossed off the disco analogy, what I really had in mind was the glitzy wedding palace that my daughter had looked at (and rejected, in favor of a historic mansion) in planning her recent nuptials. The maître d’ of the wedding venue had flipped a switch in his ballroom to show off its “wow” effects of changing colors—definitely not the association Turrell was going for.

You can hear our disparate takes on Turrell, here:

Mine will surely be a minority view. With its slowly morphing succession of luscious colors, this confection will draw big crowds, composed mostly of those who have never inhabited a Turrell skyspace and, consequently, won’t know what they’re missing. Even NY Times art critic Roberta Smith, who today gave a glowing review to this glowing installation, acknowledged that she “especially like[s] Mr. Turrell’s skyscapes—small spaces with large, open-to-the-sky [my emphasis, not hers] apertures and walls lined with tilted benches.”

It was, to me, a funny coincidence that Roberta likened the effect of “Aten Reign” to the “infinitesimal chromatic gradations on a ring of paint-sample cards.” As I walked towards the subway from WNYC’s studio yesterday, I was arrested by this display in the window of a Benjamin Moore store, which displayed an array of some of the same off-kilter colors I had just seen at the Guggenheim:


Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

So why was I disappointed, instead of “blissed out”—a hallucinatory vibe that I had powerfully experienced in the Turrell skyspace at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville?

"The Way of Color" in May 2011, with with David Houston, the museum’s then director of curatorial, seated third from right Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Turrell’s “The Way of Color,” as viewed in May 2011 with David Houston, the museum’s then director of curatorial, seated third from right
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Deborah unintentionally made my point, when she observed that the Guggenheim piece “reattaches American art to…nature and the sky.” That description fits the Turrells that I’ve visited in Bentonville and at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas—a piece now renounced by Turrell and closed by the Nasher, because its view of the sky has been irredeemably compromised by a flashy new apartment tower.

But “Aten Reign,” as I said to Deborah, “doesn’t bring nature indoors; it’s under a skylight….Unlike other ones, where the sky changes and you can see bird’s flying by and, at night, it becomes particularly dramatic, this one left me flat.”

To be fair, I never expected the Guggenheim to remove its skylight and open the rotunda to the sky, notwithstanding the museum’s having promoted Turrell’s piece as a “skyspace.” But while not quite “opaque” (as I imprecisely described it on the air), the skylight is covered in such a way as to reduce it to merely a bit player in this play of light. A riveting focus of Turrell’s open skyspaces, the oculus is, in the Guggenheim’s confines, a source of scant light and minor visual interest. What’s more, your view of the top of the rotunda is veiled by a scrim across the bottom of the installation that is subtle but clearly visible when you stare directly at the oculus, further interfering with one’s experience of “Aten”—the Egyptian god and disk of the sun.

Instead of being about a relationship with nature, the Guggenheim’s piece is about a dialogue with Frank Lloyd Wright‘s masterpiece and our feelings for that building. I’ve always had mixed views on the artists’ and architects’ ambitious “interventions” in the rotunda, which were pioneered under previous director Tom Krens and carried on under Richard Armstrong. Some of these projects seem inspired. Others (especially Jean Nouvel‘s painting the entire rotunda black for a survey of art from Brazil) seem to me a desecration of Wright’s achievement.

As a native New Yorker, I grew up with Wright’s museum and don’t mind so much when its appearance is temporarily tampered with. But the international architecture pilgrims who flock to this shrine will undoubtedly feel a more profound letdown at the Turrell show than I did.

Instead of being able to gaze across the sweeping rotunda from the lobby or the spiraling ramps…

View from across the rotunda of Guggenheim's 2009 Kandinsky installation Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

View across the rotunda at the Guggenheim’s 2009 Kandinsky installation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…visitors will now see this:

Opaque white scrim blocking view from ramps across the rotunda Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Opaque white scrim along ramps, blocking views across the rotunda
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One visitors’ tip: If you do go, and if you can manage to find an empty place on the perimeter of the sure-to-be-thronged rotunda, try to claim a seat on the side opposite the (now dry) fountain, for a full view of the concentric ovoid forms. (Many of the perches offer only partial views.) Then lean back, gaze up, and do your best to tune out the hubbub around you.

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