James Turrell Transforms Guggenheim Into Something Wonderful

New York woman taking a closer look at James Turell's purple oculus light piece at his Aten Reign exhibition at Guggenheim

Not since Maurizio Cattelan dangled his entire oeuvre from the oculus has a single artist so transformed the Guggenheim's iconic interior into something all his own.

James Turrell's awesome Aten Reign–and I mean that in the most literal way, as in it filled me with awe–is the only piece of art on display in the entire Guggenheim rotunda, but it's so immediately engaging, so subtly complex and in constant "motion", so all-consuming, that I happily, giddly spent my first half hour or so at museum just lying on my back on the lobby floor, staring and smiling. 

Crowds of people sitting and lying on the floor at Guggenheim looking up at James Turell's Aten Reign exhibition

James Turrel's Art Career of Space and Light 

James Turrell has spent his career creating pieces of optical trickery from seemingly straight-forward projections of light, but for this, his first NYC solo museum show since 1980, the artist has truly outdone himself. Aten Reign at the Guggenheim is composed of five fabric scrims hung like a succession of increasingly smaller lamp shades, all illuminated by LED lights,  with very center left open to the museum's oculus (or oval skylight), to let in natural light. The LEDs gradually cycle through the color spectrum–it takes an hour to see the whole thing–and as you look up into the piece the most amazing things happen to your depth perception, your ability to even process what you're looking at, as well as the ways in which you see color, not only of the work itself (which is mind-blowing enough) but of everything else in the room too, from people's clothing and skin to the lights in the adjacent hallways. Very, very cool.

Crowds of people sitting and lying on the floor at Guggenheim looking up at James Turell's Aten Reign exhibition

Appreciating Aten Reign at the Guggenheim

In addition to Aten Reign (which, as I suggested, can easily take 30 minutes to an hour or more to view "properly"), the Guggenheim also has five earlier Turrell works scattered throughout the Annex Galleries. Note: it's kind of bizarre, as you make your way up to the galleries, to see the Guggenheim's spiraling ramps empty of art on one side, and sealed off on the other. Anyway, the white light pieces are all tricky and fun, and on the top floor there's Turrell's 1976 Tungsten Light, installed in a room that only a limited number of people can enter at one  time. This is really more about space than light, and unless you're a Turrell completist it's totally not worth waiting more than a few minutes to view. But my favorite Turrell classics here are his dozen or so drawings, with which the artist recreates much of his signature optical wizardly, but on paper, rather than with light. 

One of James Turell's light and space pieces at Aten Reign exhibition at Guggenheim

More Information: James Turrell's Aten Reign

James Turrell's Aten Reign will be at the Guggenheim through September 25. The Guggenheim is located on Fifth Avenue and 88th Street and is open on Sunday through Wednesday, and on Friday, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., and on Saturday until 7:45, with the last two hours on that day with "pay as you wish" admission. Closed Thursdays. Lots more information can be found on the Guggenheim website

Close up of James Turell's blue light piece at his Aten Reign exhibition at Guggenheim

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