Meditating from the floor of the Guggenheim with James Turrell’s “Aten Reign”

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ID_IC_MEIS_TURRELL_AP_001There is an egg in the middle of the universe. Sometimes the egg contracts. Sometimes the egg expands. Sometimes the egg fades away completely, though a hazy aftereffect of the egg-that-used-to-be hovers in the eye (or mind). The light around the egg changes slowly. In the beginning it is a soft white. Over time, you realize that hints of pink have crept in. Then it is violet, and blue, and rose, though not necessarily in that order. It is hard to remember the order of colors. They come and go as the egg contracts and expands. Your conscious mind does not always register the change in color until after the fact. The colors are pastels. Calm. Soft. The egg glows and hovers in the middle of a field of mesmerizing color.

The spell is broken when the guard finally says, “Everybody up off the floor.” We’ve all been lying on the floor of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, the famous spiral building. The artist James Turrell has transformed the spiral into a giant art installation. The openings between the floors are covered with fabric. Hidden lights project color. Turrell calls the work “Aten Reign.” It is museum as light sculpture.

James Turrell has been working with light for a long time. He was part of the Light and Space movement that came out of Los Angeles in the 1960s. Those were the heady days of Minimalism. It was a time when artists were dissatisfied with art objects. They didn’t want to make traditional paintings or sculptures. They’d rejected the idea that art should try to represent what we see in the real world: sky, trees, buildings, people. They were even tired of abstract work in painting and sculpture. Why, they asked, do we make paintings and sculptures at all? In 1965, Donald Judd wrote an influential article called “Specific Objects.” He wrote, “Painting and sculpture have become set forms. A fair amount of their meaning isn't credible.”

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