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Spectacle for Spectacle's Sake

James Turrell and the circus at the Guggenheim

David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

If the powers that be at the Guggenheim Museum have their wish, the crowds are going to be lining up along Fifth Avenue all summer to see James Turrell’s Aten Reign, the laidback, psychedelic planetarium that currently occupies—and totally obscures—Frank Lloyd Wright’s gorgeous rotunda. I visited on the day the show opened to the public, and my feeling was that the Guggenheim was already getting the desired demographic mix, including not only middle-aged foreign tourists but also Brooklyn bohemians. If people didn’t exactly seem blissed out, they by and large appeared pretty content as they lounged on the seating that circles the space, their eyes trained on Turrell’s mutating color combos. Using hidden lights and transparent scrims, Turrell pulls off some elegant effects in the hi-tech tent he has made of Wright’s lofty rotunda. His nestled oval shapes move from misty grisaille to jewel-like brilliance. The abstract play of forms sometimes suggests an ascending, heavenly perspective and at other times feels mysteriously opaque, like a louring gray sky. Couples were holding hands. Friends were quietly conversing. Some people seemed determined to turn on, tune in, and drop out—although anybody who flopped down on the floor of the rotunda for a bit of contemplative relaxation was quickly informed by a guard that this wasn’t allowed.

Did I enjoy Aten Reign? And what were the museumgoers who watched Turrell’s shifting lights thinking? Frankly, I’m not sure that the answers to these questions really matter. The Guggenheim has a spectacle on its hands. And it is in the nature of a spectacle that it is its own justification. It hardly matters whether Turrell’s brilliant play of light suggests painterly refinement or Las Vegas kitsch. (There is a new Turrell in Vegas, part of the collection of MGM Resorts’ CityCenter properties.) To criticize the art of James Turrell—who has major museum shows this summer not only in New York but also at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—is a little like setting out to critique the summer blockbuster movies. You may have some useful points to make, but when the subject is so inextricably intertwined with a world where might makes right, criticism can seem beside the point. I would rate Turrell—who has since the 1970s been isolating and framing light effects—as a minor but authentic poetic spirit. His surprising washes and bolts of illumination can have a Transcendentalist energy. And his Skyspaces—rooms open to the sky, with the natural light modulated and intermixed with artificial light—do supply moments of delicate lyricism. Turrell is a minor poet with the ambitions of a megalomaniac. And the art world is his enabler.

By now everybody knows that many of our museums have become playgrounds where visitors go to watch supersized egos strut their stuff. Turrell’s elaborate intervention in the Guggenheim rotunda has been preceded by the interventions of Cai Guo-Qiang, who suspended from the ceiling some automobiles along with flashing lights meant to suggest exploding bombs, and of Matthew Barney, who climbed up the walls of the rotunda in a pink kilt. Barney, who was born in 1967, was a pioneer when it comes to taking the old avant-garde attitudes—the celebration of the anti-ideal, the idiosyncratic gesture, and the private myth—and giving them a Disney-style boldness and obviousness. What few could have predicted was that Barney’s hi-jinks—along with those of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Cai Guo-Qiang, and Takashi Murakami—set the stage for the mainstreaming of an earlier generation of avant-garde megalomaniacs. There is an enormous amount of decades-old performance art, site specific art, light art, and video art that was until recently thought unworkable in the museum context. But the newfangled XL-sized art world has taken a shine to a bunch of aging avant-gardists—they include not only Turrell but also Paul McCarthy, Marina Abramović, and a host of others—who are still eager to strut their stuff.

James Ewing/Park Avenue Armory
A murder scene in Paul McCarthy's exhibit WS.

Turrell, who was born in 1943, may have until recently only dreamed of mounting a supersized spectacle in a big urban museum. The same probably goes for Abramović (born in 1946), whose MoMA retrospective in 2010 was nothing less than the apotheosis of performance art. Then there is McCarthy (born in 1945), whose raunchy mix of performance, video, and sculpture is featured in New York this summer in WS, a gigantic multimedia installation that fills the drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory with the artist’s X-rated riffs on the Snow White story, intermixed with some eye-popping tableaux dedicated to murderous sexual mayhem. WS will probably leave most visitors feeling restless, unfocused, edgy, possibly bored as they survey its multiple screens, interminably long videos, the forest of artificial foliage, and the buildings where victims of savage murders are just visible through the windows. If Turrell’s Aten Reign suggests heaven to some people, McCarthy’s WS can certainly stand for hell, featuring as it does a life-size replica of a naked middle-aged man on all fours, with a broom stuck up his anus so far that the handle pops out of his mouth.

Some will say that what we are seeing at the Guggenheim, MoMA, and the Park Avenue Armory is nothing more than the gradual evolution of the mainstream art world, at long last embracing Turrell, Abramović, and McCarthy. But not everything that is initially received with a certain skepticism deserves to be wholeheartedly embraced later on. Whatever their avant-gardist credentials, these artists strike me as emotionally and intellectually predictable, if not downright banal. Abramović, who spent the entire run of her MoMA show staring at museumgoers who waited for a chance to sit down opposite her, was merely offering the latest in pop interactive psychology, with visitors pitting their egos against hers. McCarthy’s WS may be kinkier than anything you’ve seen in the raunchiest toilet-humor comedies coming out of Hollywood, but I would argue that the distinction is quantitative rather than qualitative. And I imagine that Turrell’s Aten Reign would look perfectly at home as the setting for a Cirque du Soleil show. Turrell, Abramović, and McCarthy have always struck me as dabbling in theatrical acts or strategies that in the theater world would look at best undistinguished and at worst altogether amateurish. And now, when the aggressively amateurish artistic acts of Koons, Hirst, and their kind dominate, an earlier generation of the amateur avant-garde can appear almost heroic.

I enjoyed some of Turrell’s effects in Aten Reign. But I found myself wondering if what he does is any different from what theatrical lighting designers have been doing for decades with lights and scrims—and doing with infinitely greater modesty, as the backdrop for dances by Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and Mark Morris. What Turrell and McCarthy’s very different works really amount to is stuff that is tailor-made for our attention deficit disorder generation. In these multitasking times, a work of art that does nothing but hang on the wall or sit on the floor runs the risk of being ignored. McCarthy and Turrell refuse to be ignored. In their utterly different ways, they put the make on the audience. They would say they give museumgoers something extra special. I would say they mistrust an audience that they attempt to shock and subdue. McCarthy clobbers us. Turrell hypnotizes us. We are not meant to respond. We’re supposed to succumb.