Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Turrell Graces the Guggenheim

As I walk into the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum it is all white. Serendipity, I soon learn. The floor is white, the walls are white, and the space overhead is bright, though not uniformly, white. Everything except all the people. People line the curving walls of the space, sitting on specially designed and installed benches. People also lie flat on their backs in the center of the floor, on a mat installed for that purpose. All are staring straight up into the whiteness overhead. I quickly lie down on the only patch of bare mat, a small sliver that allows for only my head. No matter. I too stare straight up.

Six white ovals seem to float in space.  There are six concentric edges but nothing that resembles a ceiling. As my eyes—and my mind—adjust to the effect, it doesn’t even resemble space; at least not any earthly space I’ve experienced. Celestial space perhaps. I wouldn’t know.

Someone next to me rises, departs. Immediately, I scoot up so that I am more centered on the mat. I am aware of the body heat in the mat left behind by that person. I am aware of breathing on both sides of me, the rubbing of clothing. I hear the murmur of voices all around the room, some loud enough to understand, most simply ambient noise.

The white ovals change ever so slowly, becoming a pale robin’s egg blue. The smallest oval, in the center, remains lighter than the others. It feels like a great eye is staring back down as I stare up. The pale blue gradually becomes the most intense cerulean I can imagine. When I blink I see yellow on the insides of my eyelids.

A baby cries out, briefly. One of the voices I hear clearly—and repeatedly—is that of the guard warning people not to take photos. I am aware of the heads of people moving about around the circle. My gaze remains upwards.

The blue becomes pink, then intensely, magnificently fuchsia, then magenta, orange. My eyelids are green now when I blink. The orange fades to the most delicate peach and once again white. The oval center seems to recede at times, to stand forward at others. Briefly it disappears altogether. At no time does the space above us feel like an enclosure; it continues to float through every color change, not a corporeal presence at all: pure light.

I relinquish my place on the mat and stand. The room becomes an oddly shaped room again, not quite recognizable as the Guggenheim rotunda; reminiscent of futuristic architectural visions from the past. The benches around the periphery of the room are still full of people, though not the same people. The visitors are interchangeable, like the colors. I choose a vacant spot, sit, and lean back against the curved wall behind me.

From this vantage point, at an oblique angle, the illusion is imperfect. The concentric ovals recede like a wormhole going upwards. But to where? No frame of reference provides a clue.

The people moving about the room are more distracting. There is a boy across from me wearing a fluorescent chartreuse shirt. A woman next to me holds up a cell phone. The guard comes towards us. “No photographs!” he says forcefully. The woman is startled, chastened. (But she got the shot. Who is being injured? I wonder. This work of art can’t be captured anyway, not really.) The guard turns away; looks harried. I sympathize. The impulse to pull out that cell phone seems nearly universal these days.

I sit through another sequence, but the colors are not the same this time. There are the peach and the blues, but then the “sky” turns gray and darkens. It is almost oppressive, as if a storm is approaching. The ovals lighten again, pale blue like a clearing sky, pink, fade to white.

I recall the story in the New York Times just last week about art museums that feel obliged to provide visitors with more than great but static art on the walls; to provide an experience. Well, yes, I muse, as I continue to gaze into colored space. This is not the same as standing in front of a painting. How will that feel, I wonder, when I go upstairs and wander through the galleries, look at the Kandinskys, Picassos, and all the rest?

I lie back down on the mat. Different colors again. Yellow now; orange; red-orange; fuchsia. (My eyelids turn blue.) I am aware of words being spoken in a variety of languages: French, Spanish, German, Russian. People come and go. Lavender. I love the lavender! How long have I been lying here? Time, like space, seems to dissolve into light. When it becomes white again, it is such an intense white I am reminded of stories of the afterlife in near death experiences.

Why did Turrell choose ovals? I am thinking it is a baroque gesture. By elongating the rigid geometry of Wright’s circular building Turrell injects a dynamic shift, as baroque architects did in their vaulted ceilings. And the trompe l’oeil frescoes that adorned those ceilings often created the illusion of gazing up into the heavens. I’ve always loved Turrell’s work, but this is a triumph!

There’s more, but I’ve gone on too long. (I think I’ve outlasted most of the other visitors, too.) At one point the woman lying next to me whispers to her (presumed) husband, “Let’s go, this is getting boring.” He demurs, says that Turrell admits that some people will not be willing to spend the 10 to 20 minutes needed to appreciate it. The woman retorts, “Did you talk to him?” No, he replies patiently, “he’s interviewed on the video.”

When I finally decide I’ve had enough, I calculated roughly that I must have been in there over 40 minutes. I spy a young woman wearing a badge that reads, “Let’s talk art” and ask how long the sequence lasts. “About an hour,” she thinks. For a more traditional (and briefer) description of the installation, go to City Paper. At right, for what it’s worth, is an image I got from ArchDaily.

I did go through the rest of the museum. I did find the Kandinskys and Picassos a bit..., not boring exactly, but, well, static. 

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