In his 1959 review of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum for The New Yorker, Lewis Mumford ends with a suggestion that may be his idea of a joke. “I can think of only one way of fully redeeming [Frank Lloyd] Wright’s monumental and ultimately mischievous failure—that of turning the building into a museum of architecture,” he quips. Yet each time the Guggenheim allows an artist to take over the building’s central rotunda, the truth in the witticism is revealed: what looks best in Wright’s building is work that refers to, sets off, qualifies, or amplifies the architecture. It’s almost never architecture itself. Zaha Hadid’s angles clashed with Wright’s curves (2006). Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggan’s Soft Shuttlecock (1995) merely accessorized them.
James Turrell’s Aten Reign (2013), installed in the rotunda as part of a multi-city retrospective, manages to defy and celebrate the building all at once. As Turrell said at the exhibition’s opening, “Richard [Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s director] was wondering for a while if this was something Frank would like.” A pause like a shrug. “This is an art museum, we are going to put art into it.” At that, he has done a spectacular job.
Turrell has been working with light since the 1960s, beginning with small, destabilizing and immaterial sculptures, then moving outward into corners, rooms, tunnels, and an ongoing series of skyspaces. The skyspaces are open to the sky, usually designed to be experienced at dawn and dusk, and use various degrees of artificial illumination to highlight the natural variation. Meeting (1986), a square room with a rectangular skylight at P.S. 1 in Queens, is one of Turrell’s simplest. Twilight Epiphany at Rice University is his latest.
Roden Crater, Turrell’s 600-foot volcanic cinder cone in Arizona, upon which he has been working since the 1970s, will be his most complex. The crater project is an obvious comparison for what he has done at the Guggenheim, by design and by reputation a kind of natural monument. For his own part, Wright first played with the spiral in his concept for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective of 1925, which was to turn Sugarloaf Mountain into a site for viewing nature through the windshield or through the lens of an embedded planetarium. For both Turrell and Wright, outside is a very inspiring place—but one that calls out to be reframed.
At the Guggenheim, Turrell and his assistants have essentially installed a new museum within the old. Five oval apertures, stepping inward as they rise, have been created by stretching and shrinking fabric over an aluminum frame, hung from above. The usually-open first floor has been encased in another fabric curve, cutting off all but a wedge of Turrell’s lightshow at the entrance. Turrell’s version has none of the interruptions of the real architecture: no gaps, no heads, no mullions. Just surface. No cracks either. I became acutely aware of the outlets along and cracks in the existing terrazzo gallery floors. Turrell’s work deals in perfect, tapering edges that can make even an extraordinary building like the Guggenheim look a little messy and worn.
And then the light falls. You may enter in Aten Reign’s ultra-violet phase, which turns neon accessories iridescent, and ordinary light green. Or at a stormy moment, when ripples of blue-gray seem to descend from the real sky. You think of breakfast, for a moment, with a range from lemon to peach. Watch the dawn’s rosy fingers touch each curving edge.
At the press preview, by unspoken signal, a dozen people lay down in the center of the floor, including the prodigiously bearded artist. Others around the edges would not stop talking, or trying to take pictures with their phones—a futile, equally disruptive effort, given the number of stolen images already circulating. It was the first time I’ve been with a skyspace audience not struck dumb.
Turrell’s shaping of illumination also calls attention to some of Wright’s quirkier details. Did you remember that the overhead lights on the ramp were triangular? I didn’t. But when you turn away from Ronin (1968), a bright pillar that seems to split or seep from the corner of the High Gallery, those triangles suddenly seem like artworks in themselves—as they should. Ronin is one of four early works by Turrell also installed as part of the exhibition. Each is given its own room off the ramp, the better to focus on the specific effect of depth, volume, or hover. The layout sidelines them, as they are on levels one, two, and five.
If you can stand it, save Aten Reign for last, as seeing it first diminishes the smaller pieces. More surprising were a set of Turrell’s drawings for sculptures. Expertly lit, the two-dimensional white spaces seemed to shimmer off the page. But you could be forgiven for never leaving the atrium: That’s where Turrell meets Wright’s mischievousness with a twinkle of his own.