The great rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York has recently been transformed—replaced, really—by a grand new James Turrell installation called Aten Reign. Five elliptical rings of LED color rise up, funnel-like, to the oculus of Frank Lloyd Wright’s structure, concealing his ramps and walls. As Turrell’s lights slowly modulate from blues to lavenders to fuchsias or to neutral grays, our sense of depth alters too: sometimes the rings so flatten space that they read as concentric ellipses on a single plane; at other times, the rotunda seems deep and high, with the rings marking out its recession. As the lights change, it can feel like looking up into the shade of a Chinese lantern as it opens and closes, accordion-style.
Photo by David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
“My art deals with light itself. It’s not the bearer of the revelation—it is the revelation,” Turrell has said. And: “I am making spaces that play the music of the spheres in light.” Turrell “transports us to the exterior of our interior … to explore that bottomless well that spans our lowest depths and greatest heights” writes Guggenheim curator Carmen Gimenez.
So I know that, looking up into Aten Reign, named for the god of light whose worship tore ancient Egypt apart, I’m supposed to almost literally see stars, and feel the spirit move me. As my eyes climb the heights of Turrell’s piece, my soul ought to reach out from Plato’s cave to the light of timeless truth. But I’m afraid that what I feel and see most clearly are dollar signs, and the troubling social structures that art such as this now reflects.
The project cost a fortune to make, but Turrell now moves in a deluxe world where such sums are commonplace, as he flits between homes in Manhattan, Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and Arizona, where he has a 150,000-acre cattle ranch and keeps a plane. A tiny circle of absurdly rich private collectors own custom Turrells, including the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley (that’s “Chumley,” for those not to the manor born). This one-percentism has now settled deep in our artistic culture: The art world has come to be split between a tiny caste of megastars such as Turrell, whose most grandiose visions get funded by the super rich, and another 99 percent of artists who can barely afford a new bulb for their video projectors. When I look up into Aten Reign, I don’t feel that I’m peering into the Platonic heavens so much as scanning the social heights. If this work came with a Latin motto, it might be per aspera ad Astors.
This is not the necessary fate of all abstract and perceptual art. The four superb, much earlier Turrells perched in the Guggenheim’s side galleries are about a modesty so radical that it reads as almost anti-materialist. Afrum I (White), from 1967, is about how a simple patch of bright light projected into a corner can yield huge perceptual insight. It was first produced in an abandoned hotel that Turrell occupied and transformed. With Ronin, conceived the following year and in the same modest digs, Turrell creates an almost solid wall of whiteness out of thin air. Like much of the best early abstraction, the sheer daring of this work seems to have political, anti-establishment force (as it did in Quebec in 1948, transforming the social order).
Whereas Aten Reign seems best described by the words my grandmother used for things above her social sphere: “fancy” and “exclusive.” It has a lavish, Art Deco feel that reminds me of picture palaces from the Great Depression, and how hard they worked to gloss over hardship. Like Wright’s Guggenheim, maybe—and certainly like so much of today’s splashy, Zaha Hadid-ian building—there’s frankly something a touch corny about Aten Reign. It’s more escapist than transcendent.