I am always on the lookout when blue chip art critics touch upon religion and mysticism even or especially when they want to cast into doubt the relation of these to art. Here’s Roberta Smith’s review of James Turrell at the Guggenheim. Clearly in response to the kind of mystical gestures enunciated and encouraged by the artist, Smith is skeptical. But even in the disavowal, something of the mystery remains unavoidably embedded in the visual rhetoric. Sometimes the most profound assertions take the form of disavowal.
Here’s what Smith has to say, and why she’s one of my favorite art critics out there:
James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum will probably be the bliss-out environmental art hit of the summer. This is primarily because of the ravishing “Aten Reign,” an immense, elliptical, nearly hallucinatory play of light and color that makes brilliant use of the museum’s famed rotunda and ocular skylight. The latest site-specific effort from Mr. Turrell, “Aten Reign” is close to oxymoronic: a meditative spectacle.
Although it uses natural light, “Aten Reign” is a more thoroughly artificial skyscape. Spend time watching its fluctuations and you may or may not see God, but you will probably come away with both an enhanced sense of your visual powers and also a new humbleness concerning the world’s visual complexities. As the colors shift, spread and drain, as the tiers seem (but only seem) to alternate between concave and convex or change in width and depth, as you struggle to catch every nuance, you realize how much more there is to perceive than you normally do.
At the Guggenheim two projection pieces, “Afrum I (White)” and “Prado (White),” both from 1967, demonstrate the simple beginnings of Mr. Turrell’s art. “Ronin,” from the next year, is an early instance of altered architecture: in one corner of the museum’s High Gallery, a narrow slice of wall has been removed from ceiling to floor, and the exposed cavity has been rounded and lighted; it forms a shaft of astoundingly mysterious white light that seems alternately solid or infinite.