Contemporary Metropolitan Museums

Retrospective Reflecting

A James Turrell Retrospective,
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, BCAM, Level 2 and Resnick Pavilion
May 26, 2013–April 6, 2014

An example of light works in the Turrell exhibition at LACMA.

Turrell, the artist who is still working inside the old meteor crater outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, was talked about when he first arrived in town like a crazy man is discussed — with a bit of wonder amid plenty of aversion. He’s been working to transform the inside of the crater into a natural observatory and work of art for more than 35 years, and still Rodin Crater is not open to the public, but his reputation, and the belief that he is an artist has gotten around.

In Los Angeles,  a James Turrell retrospective exhibition opened at the end of May at the LA County Museum of Art and there is plenty of his light installations to see — unless you come on a day when the show is sold out.  People are buying tickets with such intensity that many full days are sold out and sign-up sheets for the various Turrell environments are maxed out.

The crater couldn’t be moved here, but a model, plans and drawings are on exhibit, along with some very early, light-like, print projects, early light projects and rooms of light-driven experiences,  all part of the two building show that will stay at LACMA until April of 2014.

Nearly all the works require a viewer to move into the space where it sits and contemplate what its doing. Even the entry of the show requires the attendants to instruct viewers on how to see the show. This is not the Louvre where we file through in a queue and stand before each painting, square on, guessing what the paint arrangement represents. This show is an experience and most everyone was giddy,  lapping it up.

Filled with light ideas, we moved to the second building and hurried to sign up for the Black Balcony, only to listen to instruction, warnings and the awe that it inspired in the museum attendant, to then be told that its available spots had already been nabbed for the day. People started complaining loudly that they wouldn’t get this experience – and they paid for it.  More coveted than the roller coaster, this piece seemed to be.

We moved onto the next devise that looked like a CAT-scan capsule, which was booked through January.   I moved on to the next, which started with a long line, from which I could hear an exiting woman say the experience ‘was as close to heaven as I could imagine.’  We shouldn’t miss it, she said, but my 85-year old mother in law decided she could. The anticipation was part of the process, waiting for 30 minutes in an anteroom, while gazing up at the color-lit room, watching other people ascend with bootie-covered feet into a space forbidden to us (until our  turn).  We had to see it, we willingly waited, removed our shoes and put on booties, and waited some more.

Out on the street after this, everything was kind of a let down. The burger shop with endless options of make your own meals, the laBrea Tar Pits, Wilshire Boulevard.  Turrell’s world is pretty wonderful.


James Turrell is an artist whose works you walk into and wonder what will come over you. My first remembrance of his name was sitting in a little white building at the back corner of the outside galleries of the Nasher Sculpture in Dallas, Texas.

Walking in to the completely white room, it became obvious there was a shadow on most of the wall,  and one patch of pure sunlight coming through a skylight. I don’t know if the skylight was covered so it didn’t rain in the little room or if it was open to the sky, but when I looked up it was like a painting of the sky.

I’ve seen paintings of sky before, and don’t always love them. Why do I remember this one, 10 years after the viewing? I think the answer to this question is the same on as the one I was asked last night, in a rhetorical kind of way — I was asked: How do you tell what’s good art?

First you have to really look, and that means that you clear your mind from the ticker-tape of static, information and gibberish that usually fills it, and then devote your attention to the work. Turrell does this by making you walk through a anti-room, then into his spaces.  Attention to detail is demanded, quality maintained, so much so, that Turrell has closed the Nasher piece declaring it destroyed by the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System’s tower built across the street.

Another mysterious disappearance of a Turrell also lives in my memory. The Black Room sculptural environment of Turrell’s is/was at the Denver Art Museum.  One only sees black, with no way to know what is inside, or where the narrow hallways is leading …. until you stand still for a moment in the pitch black, and let your eyes adjust. Then, there is really a lot to see. I do still have the scar on my shin from entering and walking into the bench.

Where is this piece now? Does it remember my shin?