James Turrell's Guggenheim Exhibit Makes Frank Lloyd Wright Irrelevant


It is impossible to ignore the role that the Guggenheim's architecture plays in any exhibit shown there. The building has a philosophy of progress that becomes evident as it spins ever wider, ever upward. Whether it’s a Kandinsky retrospective or Tino Seghal’s Tino Seghal, the visitor’s experience of an exhibit is significantly affected by the shape of the space.

The James Turrell exhibit currently on show at the Guggenheim (closing September 25) proves the solitary exception. Its main attraction, Aten Reign, appeals to the spiral core of Frank Lloyd Wright’s classic dome, but for a work so intimately concerned with space, it renders the surrounding architecture irrelevant.

Aten Reign blocks off the entire rotunda of the museum, creating an inverse cone of oval planes within its center while the building itself expands upwards.

An introduction to the exhibit states that as "one of the most dramatic transformations of the museum ever conceived, the installation recasts Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic architecture — its openness to nature, its graceful curves, its magnificent sense of space and light — as a volume of shifting natural and artificial luminescence." But Aten Reign doesn't just recast Wright's architecture — it ignores it. Although some filtered natural light descends from the glass dome at the pinnacle of the rotunda, no light from the shifting LEDs touches the building itself. The hazy screens transform the once open spiral ascent into a winding tunnel.

This is unusual for the Guggenheim; in contrast with many other museums, the Guggeheim's unique space typically forces you to reckon with it no matter what exhibit is shown there. 

In 2009, I saw two Kandinsky retrospectives in two very different museums. The first was at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the second was at the Guggenheim. The Pompidou exhibit had a classic gallery structure. This meant the visitor could chose which side of the room to begin with, how to navigate through all the pieces, and eventually which door through which to exit. In the Guggenheim, on the other hand, the chronological progression of Kandinsky's works was inescapable; there was no choice for the visitor regarding direction or order as there had been in the Pompidou. As a result, the evolution of Kandinsky's aesthetic — his decreasingly globular and increasingly precise geometric forms, his flattening use of color, and his developing preference for fine lines — became much more evident, even though the majority of the works on display were the same.

Tino Sehgal marks another example wherein the Guggenheim's structure played a central role in an exhibit's execution. This was the first time in the museum's history that all physical artworks were removed from the rotunda. Sehgal aimed to "defy the traditional context of museum and gallery environments," but he was dependent upon the architecture of Wright's spiral in order to do so. His central work, "This Progress" was ineluctably informed by its environment. Visitors were greeted by a child at the base of spiral walkway, told, "This is a piece by Tino Sehgal," and asked how to define progress. From there, the visitor conversed with a variety of increasingly older companions — a teenager, a young adult, a person in middle age and finally an elderly man or woman — who informed the visitor that their conversation was over by saying, "The piece is called 'This Progress.'" With progress in the title, evolution was the thematic core of Tino Sehgal's work — but in a typical gallery space there would have been no sense of physical progress. A visitor could have engaged in the same conversations, but his or her movement would have entailed more choice and less compulsion.

As Kandinsky and Sehgal's exhibits reveal, Frank Lloyd Wright's structure has impacted the work shown at the Guggenheim since its construction. That is, until Aten Reign. The truth of this work is that it is unlikely you will consider anything specific to the physical exhibit before you. The exhibit's lights shift so gradually that it is not possible to watch them without a wandering mind. Turrell's ambition to create a "site of meditative contemplation and communal meeting" is superbly engineered, and insodoing eliminates any consideration of the museum's hidden architecture.

Aten Reign is a rare work because it is at once aware of Wright's iconic structure while being entirely removed from it. There are works by Turrell on show in other parts of the museum, and other entire exhibitions on view not occupying the rotunda. These side galleries still inhabit a somewhat unique, cave-like space, but the squared walls and lateral movement mirror a traditional museum aesthetic. They serve to heighten the dichotomy between summiting the Guggenheim's central rotunda and reaching the last of a series of rooms.

James Turrell is particularly interested in the way color and light interact with the physical act of seeing. In one of the accompanying exhibition books Turrell asks, "When you dream where does the light come from? There is a light that has a clarity as great or greater than the daylight vision, and a lucidity of color that's beyond how we see color now." He goes on to say, "I'm interested in the point where this imaginative vision meets the seeing that comes from what we want to think of as outside physical reality, because it has a lot to do with how we create reality." Turrell has rendered the Guggenheim's physicality irrelevant not only through Aten Reign's structure, but through his creation of an environment most suited to the exploration of the visitor's own imagination.