The Guggenhim Museum, Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, through September 25.
Sunday to Wednesday, and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., closed Thursdays. Open on Shabbat until 7:45 p.m.
“Spend a lot of time in the rotunda,” I was told by the lady at the front desk. “It takes an hour to cycle through all the colors.”
Walking into the main hall of the Guggenheim museum, known as the rotunda, I was greeted by the scene of a throng of people occupying every possible sitting spot, their necks craned, staring directly up. The museum even put a giant cushion on the floor where people spread themselves out horizontally, staring up into the web of color shifting screens above.
The Guggenheim Museum rotunda has been temporarily re-imagined by artist James Turell into a site-specific work of art entitled Aten Reign. It is comprised of a complicated web of screens designed to mimic the rotunda’s usual appearance. Lit up with rows of red, green, and blue LEDs, which combine in varying strengths to form every imaginable hue, and bathe the hall in a dizzying color array. The entire hall glowed with neon intensity. One time it was deep red, while yet another time the hall was immersed in mellow yellow.
The aesthetic appeal of this presentation will draw crowds and help the museum’s bottom line, and Turell stays within the field of artistic expression and is not launching a career in nightclub design, so one might try to understand the piece a little differently. While one could simply appreciate the entrancing effect of the lights and leave it at that, I was inclined to look a little deeper to see what I could take out of the exhibition.
In that vein, I feel that to really appreciate the rotunda, designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, in its current state, make your way up the spiraling ramp to the top floor, wait on line for 15 to 45 minutes and experience the work waiting there. Incidentally, the sides of the usually open waist-high sides of the Guggenheim ramp, are, for this exhibit, veiled in white material, as if to control or shelter us from the holiness of the light. Then, come back down and look at the rotunda. A caveat, I suggest that to really appreciate the piece on the top floor first experience the gleaming slash of light piece just up the ramp from the main hall, off to the right. And as always, allow enough time for the piece to sink in, to think about what the artist is trying to express. Four works are on display.
An unanticipated component of the upstairs art works, is the presence of a guard restricting the viewer’s movements. “Please stand three feet away,” “Please stand six feet away.” “Sir, please step back from the piece.”
One guard, who clearly appreciated the artist’s intentions, lamented to me, “I wish they would let people go closer so they could see what’s really going on.”
On the top floor, after waiting for 30 minutes, I entered a darkened room where a rectangle on the wall was the focus of attention.
“What am I looking at?” I asked the curator-type individual standing to the right of Iltar, Turell’s 1976 work created from tungsten light.
“Just try to let your eyes adjust to the light,” he told me. “It should take about five to ten minutes. Afterwards, come and talk to me.” I moved off to the side, wondering about the dark rectangle on the wall in front of me. From six feet away it was difficult to tell. Was it a painted square on the wall or a canvas? Was it black or grey? I viewed it from the front and then moved off to the side. From six feet away it was difficult to discern much about the nature of the object. Was it painted directly on the wall? Was it a canvas hanging on the wall? Was it black? Or gray?
A woman with two young girls walked in one door, took a look and quickly out the other door, without contemplating the work. Perhaps she was disgusted, after waiting in line for a half-an-hour, to view this minimalist presentation. For this they had waited thirty minutes? Or so I projected them saying to one another.
The artist has in his way, twisted our arms. He has proved to us, both in grayscale and in livid color something we are not so comfortable admitting, which is, things are not always exactly as they seem. A dark square sometimes is not just a dark square, a rotunda may not be the same rotunda that Guggenheim-goers know and love. All that glitters is not necessarily what we think it is and a cursory glance does not, as we sometimes dangerously presume, does not, as we sometimes presume, tell us everything we need to know. The exhibit is an unabashed critique of those who walk in one door and out the other, as if to say “I know exactly what’s going on here and I want no part of it. I understand what really matters, what’s really important.” Turell is indicating that we don’t always know exactly what’s going on even right under our noses. Not only that, but our initial impression may be dead wrong. Indeed, we may sometimes never fully appreciate what is happening between the shadows or beyond the screens, in the museum and out in the world, even after 15 minutes of heavy concentration, or 45 minutes, or years.
This awareness seems to have been Turell’s goal in everything he exhibited in this museum. Maybe that is the goal in all his work I know he has some extinct volcano somewhere that he has been working on for years that he does not let people see, so I do not know what that is about. What I do know is that that what was screaming to me from all of these works was not to judge prematurely. Chazal tell us, havei mesunim badin, be slow in judgment. By which I mean to say that we don’t really need James Turell to tell us that, but it definitely doesn’t hurt to have a visual presentation to help drive the point home. That is what I took away from this work. Whether it was the recreation of the rotunda, which is not really the rotunda, or the upstairs exhibits which were downright confusing optical illusions, the message or lesson which I took away, after all the enjoyable visual effects, was that things are not always as they seem at first glance.
“Iltar [the piece upstairs] could be whatever you want it to be,” said the curatorial museum worker who seemed to have an understanding of the piece. After having explained to him my understanding and being told “that’s exactly it,” I felt like maybe I did understand it.
Other museum goers expressed more emotional reactions, even religious. “I felt like I was being dragged toward (the ambiguous rectangle at the center of Iltar),” one woman told me. “I don’t know how he did that. I wish my synagogue could have that effect.”
Whatever the artist is trying to accomplish, whether trying to say something profound, experimenting with light and shadow, or offering a prayer-like meditation in between, it’s worth waiting to see the exhibit, especially during this Holy Day season.
Shimon Katz grew up in Bergen County and is now a student at Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ
By Shimon Katz