James Turrell steps into the police station with a show from his hero

A captivating new exhibit at Manhattan’s Pace Gallery, “Ad Reinhardt: Color Out of Darkness,” has an unusual edge. It was “organized by James Turrell,” as the caption proclaims. The perspective of Turrell, an American master of light, presiding over an exhibition of paintings by Reinhardt, an American master of darkness, has a special appeal, offering not only two visions for the price of one but a glimpse into the ways of unlikely inspiration. .

One recent morning, I met Turrell at the gallery with the intention of seeing his Reinhardt exhibit. But first, he led me into a pitch-black room at street level where he had just finished installing his own track, “After Effect.” We sat on an ordinary wooden bench to watch. What appeared to be a giant screen, framed in cherry red light, rose from the ceiling. You could see through it, an illuminated green rectangle in the distance. As we spoke, the greens were turning blue to ultramarine or yellowing to chartreuse. It looked like nothing more than a three-dimensional abstract painting, a full-length Reinhardt or rather a Rothko inhabited by voluptuous color planes.

In reality, of course, there was nothing there, not even a screen, just LED lights from a cluster of projectors bathing in darkness. As we oohed at the changing effects, Turrell mentioned that he recently had cataract surgery. “It helped me with the color,” he said. “In the general population, women are more sensitive to color than men.”

Now 78, Turrell is a genius and bearish presence. He still has his long white beard, though she no longer calls him a wild man and a western-style renegade. He is a grandfather of four children and has mentioned that during the Christmas season he is willing to accept requests to take on the appearance of Santa Claus.

Turrell lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, not far from Roden Crater, an extinct volcano that has obsessed him for more than 40 years. Since purchasing the site in 1977, he has built a maze of chambers and tunnels that aestheticize the skywatching experience. Its completion has been postponed so many times that asking Turrell for an opening date prompts him to joke, “I said I was opening the crater in the year 2000, and I’m sticking to it.”

When the subject turned to Reinhardt, Turrell said he never had the pleasure of meeting him. However, he heard him give lectures. One night – it was February 1962 – Turrell visited the Pasadena Museum, where Reinhardt was giving a lecture entitled “The Artist as Artist”. (Reinhardt’s humor tended towards the edgy and the absurd.)

Turrell was then a 19-year-old sophomore at Pomona College and remembers the shock of seeing Reinhardt’s work for the first time. A few days after the lecture, at the Virginia Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles, he admired an exhibition of Reinhardt’s Black Paintings – those difficult, stubborn, almost monochromatic canvases that require careful and prolonged gaze. If you pass them quickly, they appear as empty as a wall. But if you let your eyes adjust to their austere palettes, subtly differentiated blocks of color emerge from the bulky darkness.

“They’re not really black,” Turrell said of the paintings. “They have a brownish cast. There are other colors in them. Blues, reds and browns. No greens or yellows. I like the kind of art where you look for what is hidden underneath.

Reinhardt and Turrell are an admittedly odd couple. They belong to different eras and opposite coasts. Reinhardt was born in Buffalo, NY, on Christmas Eve 1913, and died far too soon of a heart attack in his Manhattan studio at the age of 53. Although known as an abstract expressionist, he favored a style of geometric abstraction that stripped art down to the bone. Art history, he said, ended with his black paintings, which consumed him for more than a decade.

What could he share with Turrell, who was born 30 years later and is technically a sculptor, one who learned from the minimalists of the 60s to do without tabletop objects and embrace the grand scale of architecture? His reputation grew overnight in 2013, when he installed his “Aten Reign” in the Guggenheim Museum, filling Frank Lloyd Wright’s chaste white spiral with concentric rings of brilliant color. Many of us found ourselves lying on the museum floor, partaking in a “sunset” as we stared up at blurs of color and pretended the 60s never ended.

By his own admission, Turrell’s love of light is inseparable from his religious upbringing. He grew up in Pasadena, California, in a well-educated Quaker family. His maternal grandmother, he recalls, wore plain dresses and a black bonnet and took him on Sundays to the local meeting house in Villa Street, where they sat quietly on a pew and tried to “come home to inside to greet the light”. grandma asked her.

Did his parents encourage him to do art? “No,” he answered. “Art was total vanity.”

“We didn’t have a television,” he recalls. “We didn’t have a toaster. It was something that I found incredible.

Instead, her mother made toast on top of the stove, on a pyramid contraption sitting on a burner. “It was either just hot or burnt,” he said. “My mom was always scraping the toast, scraping the black. I would tell him, I do not do want toast. And she said, ‘It’s not hard bread. It’s difficult without bread!”’

Turrell’s installations are comparable to the Quaker meeting house, where Friends gather in silence, in search of “inner light”. On the other hand, Turrell’s art externalizes light, and he can feel perfectly American in offering such a literal and hedonistic version of transcendence. Seen against the backdrop of her frugal childhood, her colors are provocatively sensual and sumptuous.

“That’s what Kanye was saying,” he said, referring to Kanye West, who shot his IMAX movie “Jesus is King” at the Roden Crater. West joked, “Actually the reason all these hip-hop artists love your work is because you’re an artist of color.”

It was a reminder that desert mystics can have a pop following. Now that Covid seems to be receding, Turrell has been busy flying to different cities and countries to oversee the completion of a backlog of so-called Skyspaces. Halfway between an observatory and a pleasure dome, its Skyspaces are self-contained chambers designed to frame a rectangle of endless blue and hold it there for your enjoyment. Since 1976, when MoMA PS 1 commissioned the aptly named “Meeting” installation, Turrell has completed over 85 Skyspaces, most recently at Mass MoCA, North Adams, Mass.; in a Quaker meeting house in Chestnut Hill, Penn.; and coming in June at Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, lodged in the side of a mountain.

When we left the enveloping darkness of the Pace facility, stepping out into an empty front room overlooking a sidewalk in Chelsea, the light appeared harsh and dodgy. Turrell remarked, “The dream leaves you the moment you wake up.”

Was it a quote from a symbolist poem? “You can make a quote out of it,” he replied. “We find it difficult to cling to the dream. We are trying.”

It was now afternoon, and I still hadn’t seen Reinhardt’s performance. “One of the first to provide seats for his work was Ad Reinhardt,” Turrell said in anticipation, as we entered the elevator. “He had benches at the Virginia Dwan Gallery, and you’ll see benches upstairs!”

Reinhardt last caused a stir in New York in 2017, when the Zwirner Gallery collected his dreamlike and little-known blue paintings, some 28 in all.

The new show, on the other hand, is surprisingly small. It consists of just seven paints – a combination of all-red, all-blue, and all-black paints. Each work is hung in its own cube-shaped space, a mini-chapel furnished with a small bench. I was disappointed to find a wedge barrier on the floor in front of each artwork that keeps you at least five feet away. How could this happen? As any artist can tell you, you can’t properly see Reinhardt’s near-monochromes without doing two steps of moving a few inches from the canvas and noting the incremental variations in color, then standing at a evaluation distance to see the parts. come together.

Turrell replied that it was not his fault. The Pace Gallery, which had come to him with the idea of ​​holding a Reinhardt exhibition, insisted on having barriers to prevent viewers from touching the paintings. It is true that Reinhardt’s surfaces are fragile. They bruise easily, mostly because he used idiosyncratic materials, draining his oil pigments to achieve a matte, non-reflective surface.

“That way,” Turrell joked of the barriers, “you don’t touch the paint. You just hit it with your head when you fall.

Did he design the lighting and the small chapels?

“Yes,” he replied, “but I didn’t put the travel space!”

Turrell happens to have a special familiarity with art-related accidents. Viewers have sometimes mistaken its veils of light for real screens or walls and leaned against them, taking a fall; several lawsuits resulted.

Reinhardt’s show, ultimately, is more like a show about Turrell. And benches. It’s safe to say that no major artist has incorporated benches into their installations more frequently or more emotionally than Turrell. They stand as a rebuke or at least an antidote to the frenetic pace of today’s art world, where viewers regularly roam galleries and art fairs and rarely stop long enough to go “inside”. of a painting, as Turrell says, as if looking at it was like entering an enchanted space.

So try it. Go sit on a bench and contemplate the paintings of Reinhardt. From this distance they may not offer transcendence, but it’s nice to be invited to linger.


Ad Reinhardt: Color Out of Darkness, curated by James Turrell

James Turell: After Effect

Through March 19 at the Pace Gallery, 540 West 25 Street, Manhattan. 212-421-3292; pacegallery.com.

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