Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Jenny Holzer

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

August 26, 2013

Every hue throughout your work is altered by every touch you add in other places.

—John Ruskin

The work promotes a state of contemplation in a communal viewing space, rekindling the museum’s founding identity as a “temple of spirit”—Guggenheim Museum press release for James Turrell’s Aten Reign, on view through September 25, 2013.

For the past several weeks I’ve been trying to make sense of my profound underwhelm with James Turrell’s otherwise much-touted light extravaganza at the Guggenheim. I love the Guggenheim; the architecture makes any reason to go there a special event, and now one of my most-admired artists has filled the atrium with a giant hollow cone of light and color which, ovoid and tiered like a wedding cake, floats over a seating area like a flying saucer. Gently diffused by the cone’s scrim-like fabric, LED lights gradually shift from one gradated color to another, while muted natural light filters in through the skylight. What’s not to like?

It should be right up my alley. Turrell’s permanent installation at MoMA/PS1, Meeting (1986) is at the top of my ten best list. In addition, I’ve spent a good part of my professional life writing about Robert Irwinand Olafur Eliasson, who work with perception and light in similar ways. I also have a special affinity with Turrell because I, too, come from Quaker stock and have been a practicing Quaker. Meditation and contemplation are important parts of my life.

However, seated in the atrium at the press preview, instead of going into rapture, I began thinking about Eliasson’s circular 360°Room(s) for all Colors of similarly changing hues. There visitors are highlighted participants, lit like fashion models against a seamless background, where here they appeared to have little relationship with the piece that hovered above them.  I also thought about how, in those Eliasson pieces, you can walk right up to the “wall,” which seems to have no substance but that of color, and practically put your nose in it—while the entire experience Turrell has created at the Guggenheim is “up there.” Not significantly related to the scale of my body, it felt separate from me, which meant I didn’t have the desired heightened awareness of my place in it—I was not, to employ the overused phrase, “seeing myself seeing”—any more than I would at a fireworks display. In every work of art the “here” and “there” are important aspects; to be fully satisfying, I want even a painting to tell me something up close as well as from a distance. In an installation, it’s even more important, because if my situation as a visitor isn’t fully developed, I don’t feel a connection with whatever else is going on.

Olafur Eliasson. 360° room for all colours. 2002. Stainless steel, projection foil, fluorescent lights, wood, and control unit, 126 x 321 x 321" (320 x 815.3 x 815.3 cm). Private collection. Installation view at Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. © 2008 Olafur Eliasson

The most important aspect, however, of “seeing ourselves seeing” is that our perception is challenged to the point that we no longer trust our normal visual clues. This produces a particular state of self-consciousness that merges with the work—and at this, Turrell has been a master. In his Skyscapes, like the one at PS1, the sky becomes a “thing” you feel you could almost touch, with the result that you find yourself simultaneously questioning it and yourself. And looking at one of his early, simple corner light projections, your brain processes it as a cube with actual mass, even though you know it isn’t.  Nothing like that happens at the Guggenheim; while it’s beautiful, even stunning, there’s no mystery. What you see is what you get—an indication that the line between art and lighting design (which has become extremely sophisticated through the influence of artists) is now very, very thin.

James Turrell, Meeting(1986) MoMA/PS1. Photo: Carol Diehl, 2011

“He’s an orchestrator of experience,” Chuck Close has said of Turrell—but what makes up that experience? Where does it start and stop? Does it begin when you hear about it from a friend, or read a review? Those are things the artist can’t control, but he can influence what happens from the minute you walk through the door.

And what’s that like? My friend, David, a hospital administrator who made the mistake of visiting the Guggenheim with his out-of-town family on a weekend, described it as…“Horrible. Like Disneyland. There were 4-5 lines squeezed into the walled-off lobby, and you’re trying to get in line and bumping into everyone…and once you get your ticket and come into the atrium you’re trying to look up but can’t because there are so many people. It was pretty, but hardly transcendent. The architecture was all covered up and you could have been anywhere. And then, still bumping into people, you walked up the walled-off ramp, which felt like a missed [artistic] opportunity, to stand in more lines. Not that we were looking to be entertained, but we were looking for $20 worth of something.”

Another friend said the guards were ordering people around, telling them to get off the floor if they tried to lay on it….”It’s not their fault,” he said, “They were only doing their job, but it could have been managed better.”

So how much of that has to do with Turrell? I think it all does.

Much to the annoyance of painting students when I refuse to overlook a warped stretcher (the perpetual question being, “Is this intentional?”), I have always contended that everything that falls into my experience is part of the piece—a view that has fueled my no-doubt tedious bloggy diatribes against artists’ statements, wall text, audio tours, black-out curtains, headphones, etc. 

I was irritated when, a few years ago, I found that entrance to a Turrell installation, required shedding my shoes and donning floppy Tyvek protective booties. While surely an over-reaction on the part of one who’s invested too much in her fashion statement, I interpreted this as a power play on the part of the artist (“Really? Part of your piece is to make me look ridiculous?”).

So yes, in my book, the queues, crowd control, and the need for crowd control are all part of it.  This is, after all, the same museum that, in 2010, featured relational aesthetics guru, Tino Seghal, whose piece involved engaging visitors in conversation. After that and many similar, such as Martha Rosler’s garage sale and Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, both recently at MoMA, it would be arbitrary to insist that personal interactions are significant in one circumstance, but not in another.

Eliasson (who was largely inspired by Robert Irwin, also my biggest influence, and now both have shaped my thinking) was aware of this responsibility on the part of the artist back in 2003, when he configured his monumental weather project at the Tate Modern. Approaching the institution as a whole, part of his preparation involved talking to members of each of the museum’s departments to discuss how their roles would impact his project.

 Olafur Eliasson, weather project (2003), Tate Modern

Eliasson also configured something that could handle the crowds it brought—which raises a related question: what is the artist’s accountability to the social situation his work is creating and/or occupying? For defenders of Richard Serra’s threatening Tilted Arc, which after much controversy, was ultimately removed from a busy office plaza, the answer was “None.” But much has gone on since 1989, with artists now more aware of, and willing to embrace, the public nature of their work. If relational aesthetics has had a positive impact, it has been to highlight the artist’s role in configuring the entire art experience.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (1981)

All of this casts doubt on the decision to turn Frank Lloyd Wright’s soaring masterpiece into a confined area that requires limited entrance—and attempt to create a relatively intimate space in a public institution whose most basic function is to accommodate large numbers of people. Another power play perhaps?

I like to think of “generosity” in terms of public sculpture/installation, as a measure of the number of ways a work may fulfill the artist’s intention to successfully affect his audience. For example, few works are more “generous” than Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Installed in 2006 and nicknamed “The Bean” for its shape, this giant organic structure of highly polished stainless steel is engaging day and night, from afar, up close, and even underneath, involves light, reflection, and movement, and is as affective in the presence of crowds as it would be in solitude.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2003-6), Chicago.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2003-6), video: Carol Diehl (2012).

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2003-6) View from underneath. Video: Carol Diehl (2012).

This is not to say that art has to be popular or even pleasing, but that it fulfills its purpose on every level. Therefore, if the intention of a piece was about the frustration of not being able to see it, say, then the question of its success would be, was everyone sufficiently frustrated?

Frustration and contemplation, however, do not go together.

Meanwhile, the frustration at the Guggenheim continues even after one leaves the atrium and attempts to see Turrell’s earlier works by joining the crowds to ascend the museum’s curving ramps, now claustrophobic tunnels with “walls” of opaque white fabric that block any view of the atrium. As students know, one of the first questions one asks when evaluating any sculpture is, does it perform equally well from all sides, or does it have a “dead zone?” This is something sculptors like Mark de Suvero and Richard Serra have obviously given a lot of thought to—as did the ancient Greeks. And especially now that sculpture engages the scale and dynamics of architecture, just as with personal interactions, it seems arbitrary to insist that we shouldn’t take the outside of Turrell’s cone into consideration as an integral part of the piece—it was, as my friend, David, put it, a “missed opportunity.”

Unattributed, possibly a Roman copy from the Greek
Opaque white scrim along ramps, blocking views across the rotunda
Photo by

Jenny Holzer, 
JUNE 27–SEPT 1, 2013 Photo: Carol Diehl 2013

PART II Robert Irwin on "Scrim Veil-Black Rectangle-Natural Light (1977)" recently at the Whitney

Further reading:

Roberta Smith on Turrell "New Light Fixture for Famous Rotunda"  and Irwin "Ineffable Emptiness: From Dawn to Dusk"

Gabrielle Selz "Considering Perception: Robert Irwin and James Turrell": a look at their shared history.

Lee Rosenbaum: "Turrell's Skyspace Obscures the Sky"

Blake Gopnik: "Has the Sage Turrell Sold Out?"

March 10, 2010
A friend recently experienced culture shock, coming back from a month of meditation in India and going to the Armory Show at the piers while still jet-lagged. “There’s such a contrast between the vital, natural, creative impulse that is India, and the intellectual constraint of Western art, “she said. “There the creative, intellectual, and spiritual are all of a piece, where here we tease them apart. Indian art is raw; Western European art is processed, an intellectual product.”

I haven’t been to India, but I have been to Egypt, where the soft pastels of the clothing and painted clay houses, the graceful sails of the feluccas on the Nile, were one with the sandy, palm-treed landscape, each vista more breathtaking than the last, every aspect harmonious. The way the shopkeepers in the Aswan market laid out their wares was as artful as any installation I’d ever seen. Beauty seemed as natural as breathing.

And beauty, I’m convinced, is as necessary to healthy life as clean air, water, and food, yet we in the West pretend that it’s a luxury. The only way we acknowledge beauty’s importance is by punishing criminals by depriving them of it. Prison wouldn’t be prison if cells had brightly colored walls and inmates wore attractive uniforms— “Jil Sander for Attica" would not fly.

Even the environments we create for people to live and work in (and supposedly get well in, just look at our hospitals—we won’t even speak of the food) are equally aesthetically barren. Every time I drive through mall heaven in the towns outside Boston, or on Long Island or…anywhere, I go into shock.

So back at the piers, there’s an inescapable irony in paying $30 to look at art—try to find beauty—in the most inhospitable of situations: crowded, hot, claustrophobic, everything squished in. Another friend says she likes Ikea better—“at least they give you a green line to follow.”

From the Armory Show: Keltie Ferris, He-She, 2010, oil, acrylic, oil pastel & sprayed paint on canvas, 80x60"
Horton Gallery, New York. Photo: Mark Woods

Meanwhile, a real armory on Park Avenue, intended for storing military equipment and built at a time (1861) when beauty was still a priority, makes a much better backdrop for art, which is why I prefer the ADAA (Art Dealers Association of America) Art Show, this year concurrent with the ones at the piers. Not edgy, you say? Okay with me. At least I can breathe.

…and visit with John Kelly, who’s artist-in-residence in this lavishly decorated monument to war that’s being turned into an alternative art space. Dancer, singer, actor, writer, painter (my review of his recent show at Alexander Gray was in the November Art in America), John is one of the most charismatic performers ever, the proof being that he can make even cabaret (a musical genre I loathe, right up there with musical theater) into a thrilling experience. I’m such a fan! John will be channeling Joni Mitchell in performance in Usdan Gallery at Bennington College at 9:00 this Friday evening.

John Kelly

The Armory Studio

However if the backdrop makes the art, it does not make the music. Forgoing dinner with friends, I had high hopes for Animal Collective and Danny Berger in the rotunda at the Guggenheim last Thursday, but hardly the “kinetic, psychedelic environment” promised by the press release, it turned out to be totally anemic. It’s as if they weren’t even trying. I, like others, expected a concert, but instead it was arty computerized electronic plinking that could barely be heard over the conversations of the milling crowd, who also rarely glanced up at Berger’s vapid projections. Unlike Jenny Holzer’s project last year on the exterior of the building, it was a great opportunity, piddled away. (Vanity Fair agrees.)

My desire for sound and light, however, was more than satisfied the next night, when I bought a single ticket to hear Muse and the Silversun Pickups (who you must know by now are my favorite band) at that most unaesthetic of venues, Madison Square Garden. No doubt the show cost a gazillion dollars and took months to prepare—and Muse is definitely OTT, no subtlety there—but I was primed. It wasn’t Art, so they had to deliver. At the end I was getting hugs from sweaty, 20-year-old guys (“You like Muse? Let me give you a hug!). Totally worth it

Muse at Madison Square Garden 3/5/10
November 23, 2008
No, I have not fallen down a rabbit hole, just swamped with work while fighting off the early winter blahs. I did attend some art-related events, though, one being my eye exercises but this one—with Mario Naves, Ana Finel Honigman, and Joe Fyfe, talking about current exhibitions by Sue Coe, Elizabeth Peyton, Lothar Baumgarten, and Ron Gorchov—was short, sweet, and engaging, with a question and answer session at the end where the audience members revealed themselves to be as knowledgeable and thoughtful as the panelists. Future review panels:

January 30, 2009: Ken Johnson, Elizabeth Schambelan, Joan Waltemath
February 20, 2009: Johanna Burton, Mark Stevens, Sarah Valdez
March 20, 2009: Michael Brenson, Carol Diehl, David Ebony
Aptil 24, 2009: Deborah Garwood, Blake Gopnik, Alexi Worth

All at 6:45 p.m. at the National Academy Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street ($5).

On the way I caught Jenny Holzer’s projections at the Guggenheim,.which illuminate the exterior of the building every Friday evening through December 31, 2008, with a special additional showing on New Year’s Eve:

And finally there was the opening at Mass MoCA for the Sol Lewitt retrospective of 105 wall drawings. I didn't take any pictures, but will have plenty of opportunity as it will be up for the next 25 years.
November 27, 2007
From a comment (thank you!) under my post below, “Light Fantastic” about Jenny Holzer’s projection piece at Mass MoCA, I learned that you can access a live feed from it here, which is very cool. And before you go see the actual piece, you might want to check that site, because last weekend friends made the trip from Catskill, NY, only to find out that it wasn’t working that day.
November 18, 2007
In the post below about Jenny Holzer, I noted that the artist underwrote some of the costs of the exhibition, which on the face of it seems laudatory and in this case, where Mass MoCA was brought up short by the Buchel debacle, it no doubt is. However what kind of precedent does it set? An article in the New York Times today, entitled "Museums Solicit Dealers’ Largess," focuses on the now common practice of galleries contributing to the exhibition costs of publicly funded museums when their artists are featured, yet another example of commerce having an influence on the art we see.
November 18, 2007
An unexpected outcome of the Buchel debacle (say “Buchel debacle” ten times) at Mass MoCA, is that the institution now has the best exhibition in its decade-long history: Jenny Holzer’s first interior light projection project in the U.S. Entitled, appropriately, Projections, it'll be on view for nearly a year. Director Joe Thompson told us last night at the opening that Holzer called and asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?” volunteering to step in and even offering to cover the cost of very expensive projection equipment--with lamps so bright, Thompson said, that they could even project on the mountains that surround the museum. Here Holzer's signature light projections fill Mass MoCA's humongous main gallery, playing over walls, ceilings, floors and visitors, who can flop on giant grey beanbags and take it all in. When the art world was small, it was possible for artists to see everything of importance and react to it in one way or another. Now that it’s global and dispersed, no one can see everything and we’re going in a million different directions at once. That could be good—who knows?—but it limits the conversation. Therefore I think works such as this, which can be experienced by thousands, or even millions, of people, are the most significant for our culture--and this is the most exciting I’ve seen since Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates and Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Modern.