James Turrell: A Retrospective, LACMA, Los Angeles

The renowned artist James Turrell, who masterfully works with light and space, is currently being acclaimed with a large retrospective. Due to the room size scale of much of his work the exhibit is taking place simultaneously in three museums across America. The Guggenheim in New York, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and LACMA in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles component is a home coming of sorts for the artist, a native of Pasadena, CA a mere few miles from LACMA. I was fortunate enough to recently view this part of the retrospective.

James Turrell at LACMA, Los Angeles

Being a retrospective, the exhibit begins at the root with a selection of plans for instillation works.Which incorporate an effective base line educational element into the exhibit which primarily shows complete works. Giving insight into the artist’s working process. Moving forward we encounter one of Turrell’s famed works Afrum (White) (1966). A cross corner projection of light, which from a distance acts as a trompe l’oeil evoking a physically 3 dimensional white cube. Juke Green (1968) an additional cross corner projection that follows Afrum (White) also works in an illusionary way, further evoking physicality.

His proceeding works are more current works on view also follow the light pieces conceptually. While the early light works are his most known pieces, which have made him a celebrated artist. The contemporary works in holography are both flat and physical, but work with the same play on perception and exploration with the physicality and possibilities of light. With the holograms Turrell has physically recorded light waves and composed pieces which give the impression of depth from many different angles.

This however is not the first time Turrell has worked on paper, in an artistic manner. His Music for the Mendota pieces where made in 1969 while the artist leased the former Mendota Hotel in Santa Monica where he constructed a studio. These pieces, done in a range of mediums, from ink to paint, were the artist’s attempts to record and capture the shifts of light in architecture and how it affected the space.

James Turrell at LACMA, Los Angeles

Taking us back to the past light pieces in a striking way the 1969 piece Raethro II (Blue) appears in the gallery like a levitating blue pyramid.Which points to the mystical current running through many of light works. Both in their occasional phantasmal three dimensionality and their transcendental nature and atmospheres. The final light work on view in the main exhibit space is the haunting, deceptive Key Lime (1994), which appears something like an abandoned space age room with a view of a storm.

Extending beyond the main museum in the secondary exhibiting space the museum’s Resnick Pavilion rests additional works by the artist. Beginning with plans and sculptural models for Turrell’s tour de force, the Roden Crater Project. The project is a yet unfinished effort in which he is transforming an extinct volcanic crater in Arizona into a monumental, naked-eye astronomical observatory. Like his Sky Space projects, in which walls and ceilings have been cut out, the crater project works with site specific observance of natural space and light. While the Roden Crater piece may be a masterful, epic work, the exhibition’s most striking piece was his most contemporary work Breathing Light (2013), which is placed further inside the pavilion. Breathing Light is a full room piece light with color changing LED light that has mind altering effects because of the way the space and lighting are subverted.

The exhibit, while only a component of a broader retrospective, manages to encapsulate a pertinent selection of a complex artist’s work. Turrell’s work is maverick in its multiple layers and its open ended-ness. Being at once phantasmatic and meditative while remaining hyper modern. As the artist use of these disparate conceptual themes and sensations remains unfixed, so does his place in relation to art at large. Never directly attached to an art movement but whose work remains akin to Anti-Form in its use of diffusive, unfixed media and Minimalism in its theatrical purity.

James Turrell, A Retrospective, LACMA, Los Angeles through April 6, 2014

James Turrell at LACMA, Los Angeles

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by Robin Newman
in Focus on the American West

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