by Wil S. Hylton, NYTimes, 13 June 2013
It was a beautiful Thursday morning in May, and everything was going wrong. James Turrell had six days to prepare for the biggest museum exhibition of his life — 11 complex installation pieces at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — but he didn’t have a single work finished, and he was missing crucial parts.
He shuffled into the office of Lacma’s director, Michael Govan, and flopped into a chair with a sigh.
“I’m pretty concerned,” Turrell said. “You know, the computer that came back from Russia was completely wiped.”
Govan tapped a foot underneath the table. The computer was essential. Much of Turrell’s work consists of special rooms that are infused with unusual light, and the computer helps run the show. It had been in Russia for another exhibition, but something went awry in transit.
“There’s nothing in it,” Turrell said. “Nothing’s in it at all! Nothing.”
Govan shook his head calmly. “That happens in Moscow,” he said.
Turrell shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I guess,” he said. “I don’t have a piece that’s finished yet. You know, it’s getting late on everything.”
“Has the lens left Frankfurt?” Govan asked. This was another essential part.
“No, it hasn’t left Frankfurt,” Turrell said.
“I thought it did,” Govan said.
“No, no,” Turrell said. “It has not left Frankfurt. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Now it was Govan’s turn to sigh. “You should have been a painter,” he said. “Five years of planning, three months of construction, and there’s not one work of art.”
The plan had been simple on paper: Turrell would open three major shows inside a month. As soon as he finished the Lacma pieces, he would race to Texas for another huge installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and then to Manhattan, where he is opening a show at the Guggenheim next week. Taken together, the three-museum retrospective is the biggest event in the art world this summer. As the curator of the Houston exhibition, Alison de Lima Greene, put it, “This is the first time that three museums have mounted exhibitions of this magnitude in conjunction, all devoted to a single artist.” In total, the retrospective takes up 92,000 square feet.
Assembling any Turrell show is a complicated affair. Unlike a show of paintings and sculpture, every piece must be built on site, and even more than with most installation art, his work requires elaborate modifications to the museum itself. Windows must be blocked off or painted black to obscure the outside light; zigzagging hallways are constructed to isolate rooms; and each of the rooms has to be built according to Turrell’s meticulous designs, with hidden pockets to conceal light bulbs and strange protruding corners that confuse the eye. Even the drywall must be hung and finished with exacting precision, so that each corner, curve and planar surface is precise to 1/64th of an inch. It can take hundreds of man-hours to finish a single room; he was erecting 11 at Lacma.
Turrell at 70 is a burly man with thick white hair and a snowy beard. He tends to dress in dark clothing, like Santa Claus in mourning. We had been spending a lot of time together as he prepared for the shows, and I had followed him to Los Angeles to see the final stages. After the conversation with Govan, I retreated outside and found a bench in the shade to do some reading. I expected to be there a while. Two hours later, I looked up and saw Turrell standing there with a smile. “Well,” he said, “we’ve got one ready. Come on, let’s take a look.”
I followed him inside the building, and we rode an elevator to the second floor. We stepped into a dim lobby filled with construction equipment. “This way,” he said, turning into a dark hallway. I walked behind, my hands groping for the walls. Turrell stayed a few steps ahead, muttering directions — “forward now, another step, this way, and turn” — until I rounded the final corner and saw the piece materialize before me. It was a looming plane of green light that shimmered like an apparition. The rush of blood to my head nearly brought me to my knees.
It is difficult to say much more about the piece without descending into gibberish. This is one of the first things you notice when you spend time around Turrell. Though he is uncommonly eloquent on a host of subjects, from Riemannian geometry to vortex dynamics, he has developed a dense and impenetrable vocabulary to describe his work. Nearly everyone who speaks and writes about Turrell uses the same infernal jargon. It can be grating to endure a cocktail party filled with people talking about the “thingness of light” and the “alpha state” of mind — at least until you’ve seen enough Turrell to realize that, without those terms, it would be nearly impossible to discuss his work. It is simply too far removed from the language of reality, or for that matter, from reality itself.
The piece that day at Lacma, for example, was one of his “Wedgeworks” series. The room was devoid of boundaries, just an eternity of inky blackness, with the outline of a huge lavender rectangle floating in the distance, and beyond it, the tall plane of green light stretching toward an invisible horizon, where it dissolved into a crimson stripe.
I suppose it would be fair to say that all of this was an illusion. The shapes and contours I saw were made entirely of light, while the actual walls of the room were laid out in a way I could never have guessed. When, after a few minutes, a museum worker accidentally flipped on a bright light, I was surprised to see a small chamber in the back, with a workman’s ladder propped against the wall. Turrell lurched toward the doorway in a panic, crying out, “What the hell are they doing?”
Other pieces by Turrell are even more disorienting. His “Dark Spaces” can require 30 minutes of immersion before you begin to see a swirling blur of color, while some of his rooms are so flooded with light that the effect is instantly overpowering. Stepping into one of his “Ganzfeld” rooms is like falling into a neon cloud. The air is thick with luminous color that seems to quiver all around you, and it can be difficult to discern which way is up, or out.
Not everyone enjoys the Turrell experience. It requires a degree of surrender. There is a certain comfort in knowing what is real and where things are; to have that comfort stripped away can be rapturous, or distressing. It can even be dangerous. During a Turrell show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1980, several visitors to a piece called “City of Arhirit” became unsteady in the bright blue haze and tried to brace themselves against a wall made of light. Some of them fell down. A few got hurt. One woman, who broke her arm, sued the Whitney and Turrell for more than $10,000, claiming that the show made her so “disoriented and confused” that she “violently precipitated to the floor.” Another visitor, who sprained her wrist, sued the Whitney for $250,000. The museum’s insurance company then filed a claim against Turrell, and although a member of the Whitney family put a stop to the suit, Turrell still gets sore thinking about it. He spent $30,000 to defend himself, but it’s not the money that bothers him the most. It’s the lingering feeling that the work didn’t … work.
“On some level,” he told me, “you’d have to say I failed.”