James Turrell, Gatsby and America’s idealism

James Turrell, Gatsby and America’s idealism

By Yaëlle Azagury

Great art often starts with the experience of disappointment, with thwarted expectations.  Contemporary art is even more intent in its use of irony.Upon the first minutes of my visit to James Turrell’s light installations at the Guggenheim Museum on view until September 25, I wondered what the hype was about.  As one of the security guards pointed out to a perplexed tourist in front of the second floor installation titled “Ronin” while he was scrutinizing the vertical light at the corner of the room: “this is it, there is nothing else to look for beyond it.”

Yet, as I sat in Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda transformed by “Aten Reign”, Turrell’s latest installation, and shed my urban armor while mentally extricating myself from the crowd’s chatter, I begun to feel subtle transformations running through my veins as the lights’ colors started to shift above my head ( I sat there for a good 10 minutes).  The sensations are not easy to describe, and each of us will probably have a different experience.  My own glided from feelings of oppressiveness, to enveloping warmth, exhilarating freedom, uplifting soaring and finally, detached coolness.

Aside from the sensorial shifts in perception, the experience is also spiritual, and transports the viewer to a meditative realm (admittedly, that state of meditation is sometimes hard to attain these days given how crowded museums have become…).  Light is a quintessentially American element, both literally -in nature, in the American wilderness, light is plentiful, even in winter-, and as a metaphor: light as a lofty ideal bestowed upon the American people by God, or even more directly as a metaphor for God.  Take for instance the Transcendentalist movement in the 19th century, a philosophical movement that advocated a direct access to the divine through nature, which was believed to be a kind of perfect spiritual state.  The Luminist painters (1850-1870), whose paintings are a visualization of Transcendentalist philosophy, depict landscapes bathed in sublime light: Albert Bierstadt’s lofty canvasses are a good example. In contrast, the use of light in English landscape painting for instance in the same period is more dull- take Gainsborough, Constable, or even Turner -, and it is only with French Impressionism and its subsequent migration to southern and sunnier locales that landscape painting start to incorporate more light, but there is none of the religious undertone found in Luminism.

Fast forward a bit later in American history, in the early years of the 20th-century, to The Great Gatsby: the iconic American hero stands every night outside of his West Egg home looking anxiously at the mysterious green light at the end of his beloved Daisy’s East End dock.  The light is both a metaphor for Daisy, and for some higher, unattainable spiritual yearning of sorts.  It is a lofty aspiration to soar, the quintessential American dream.

James Turrell, who is part of the Light and Space movement of the 60s is in my view a direct heir to the Transcendantalist tradition which invests light with a spiritual, even religious significance.  Turrell grew up as a Quaker, and the Transcendentalists were Unitarians, but both religions have in common the belief that every person has direct access to the divine without any mediation from priesthood.  There are other differences too:  the Transcendentalists were awed by Nature, and open spaces, Turrell’s installations are indoors and incorporate both natural and artificial light as well as the latest technologies.  There is also, it seems to me, a playful dimension in Turrell’s installations missing in the 19th-century movement: light cubes placed alternately in different spots of given installations alter our perception of the space, and invests it with meaning. Ultimately, however, a light is just that.

Nineteenth-century French painter and art historian Maurice Denis wrote very matter-of-fact in 1890: “Let us remember that a painting, before being a battle horse, a nude, or any other sort of anecdote, is essentially a plane surface covered with colors and assembled in a certain order.” To paraphrase the Guggenheim’s security guard mentioned earlier on: “what you see is what you get”.  The spiritual dimension of his work is the result of a manipulation of light projection, so it is fair to say the solemnity of Turrell’s art is inseparable from its inherent irony.