“A Forest of Symbols,” Exhibition Catalog essay for William Pope.L, Art After White People: Time, Trees, & Celluloid…, Santa Monica Museum of Art, September 2007
Dec. 14, 2015
The Broad Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened September 20 in Downtown Los Angeles, will be, its benefactor Eli Broad hopes, the crown jewel of a reconfigured Grand Avenue on Bunker Hill, the long-awaited “civic and cultural center for a region of 15 million people.” Broad and his wife, Edythe, have invested considerable capital in making this notion a reality, spending $800 million over the years on LA’s cultural institutions, much of it on Grand Avenue, including major gifts to the Museum of Contemporary Art across the street and Walt Disney Concert Hall next door, for which they led the construction capital campaign in the 1990s. (These in addition to giving $60 million to build the Renzo Piano-designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the LA County Museum of Art campus on Wilshire Boulevard.)
What the $140 million building isn’t is a contribution to the LA’s cultural life in the 21st century. Instead it represents the final monument to the powerful institutions that dominated Southern California in the last century: the region’s Growth Machine, an interlocking suburban industrial complex made up of developers, banks, insurance companies, newspapers, and the government agencies that supplied the services and infrastructure to support their business model.
Eli Broad made his money first in mass-producing suburban tract houses, beginning in 1957 in the Detroit suburbs, before moving on to Phoenix and Los Angeles. He used the stock market to leverage his wealth, taking his company KB Homes public, as he later did with SunAmerica, the insurance and retirement savings giant he founded in 1971 and sold to AIG in 1999 for $18 billion. His name-plated museum will be in good company on Grand, joining the three original 1967 buildings of the Music Center: the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, paid for by the family fortune anchored by the virulently pro-development Los Angeles Times, the Ahmanson Theater, funded by Howard Ahmanson, the owner of Home Savings & Loan, a major financier of Southern California’s suburban expansion, and the Mark Taper Forum, named for the housing tract developer who built the city of Lakewood, and swaths of Norwalk and Compton, before founding a Beverly Hills bank. The Music Center’s fourth venue, Disney Hall, is named for the man who sited Disneyland in 1955 in a bulldozed orange grove alongside the brand-new Interstate 5 being extended from Downtown LA into the new suburban frontier of Orange County.
These benefactors got fabulously wealthy by cracking the code of postwar American development: obtaining cheap land on the periphery of cities, financing on good terms (owning one’s own bank helped), and getting the government to underwrite the highways, electricity, mortgage insurance, tax deductions, and defense industry jobs that made suburbia possible. Possible, that is, for white people exclusively—in the era of unchallenged white supremacy, suburbia was closed to others, and was in no small part fueled by White Flight away from the diversity of central cities to areas where “good schools” and “low crime” were watchwords for racial and class homogeneity.
The irony is that the only immediate progress for racial equality achieved in those decades didn’t come with the Civil Rights laws aimed at black Americans—since that revolution hasn’t even yet fully paid off for millions—but the grudging acceptance of Jews as “white,” especially if they were if wealthy enough. In the mid-60s, WASP socialite Dorothy Chandler reached out to Mark Taper, a Jew born in Poland, for a million dollars to complete the Music Center. Eli Broad, born in the Bronx to Lithuanian Jewish parents, follows his footsteps down Grand Avenue.
It is useful to recall that Bunker Hill was once a diverse working class neighborhood, bulldozed in the 60s at taxpayer expense to build high-rise banks and freeway ramps for the white-collar suburbanites who worked in them. It is appropriate that the true jewel of Downtown’s civic crown is the Department of Water and Power building, a 1961 modernist icon that dominates the hill. City Hall’s position at the low end of Grand Park makes clear where power has lain since the days of William Mulholland. This infrastructural legacy is honored a few blocks down First Street by the CalTrans District 7 HQ, whose plaza is unsurprisingly named for Eli & Edythe Broad.
Lining both sides of Grand Park and the crossing streets below Grand Avenue is a parade of stolid buildings housing the rest of the government apparatus that maintains order
in this “region of 15 million people”—making up what Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, called the “carceral universe” of police, courts, prisons, and probation, immigration, and administrative agencies. On the main axis are the LA County Sheriff, LA Superior Court, Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, and LA County Superior Court; just off the park are the US District Court, Hall of Justice, US Bankruptcy Court, Roybal Federal Building containing the US Marshall’s Service, the General Services Administration, Citizenship and Immigration Service, LA Fire Department, LA Police Department’s new headquarters building and old one at Parker Center, and of course, the Los Angeles Times building. Not far away is the densest concentration of prisons in America: the Men’s Central Jail, the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, and the Metropolitan Detention Center.
The majority were built in the decades of the postwar suburban boom in some variation of neo-classical modernism—a dull idiom of white, symmetrical facades studded with regular windows and no ornamentation, often employing precast concrete panels. Think of the buildings of William Perreira, who designed half of the short, white skyscrapers on Wilshire Boulevard, or those ubiquitous Home Savings branches around the region, white boxes livened up with cheerfully bright mosaics of suburban families having fun at the beach. The Broad, despite its promoters’ rhetoric of innovative design, is of a piece: a box wrapped in white, precast panels—the “veil” that hides the “vault” within, a dark concrete bunker where the art is stored. It not only looks like a 1960s bank, it acts like a 1960s bank, this one for billionaire art collectors. The art collection is a perfect match: canonical examples from all the usual suspects of the American Century—Abstract Expressionists like Rauschenberg and Johns, Pop Artists like Warhol and Liechtenstein, and their Postmodern offspring, like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Setting aside the fact that the collection, while made up of quality art from quality artists, feels like a children’s version of contemporary art history: each work being among the easiest, and most colorful, of each artist’s oeuvre, so that the whole feels like a department store version of New York’sMoMA collection: super-bright and sticky-sweet. There is little that is new, little that is from Los Angeles, even less that is from the current century.
In spite of its splash, The Broad is already largely irrelevant to the cultural life of the vast majority of Angelenos, and will have little to say about their future. It may be a fitting monument to last century’s power structure, but the Growth Machine that it implicitly celebrates has broken down. A few blocks away the freeways are gridlocked and crumbling, homeless camps and luxury lofts alike proliferate, while affordable housing is a disappearing dream and the public schools lack the resources to teach art in the classroom. What LA needs isn’t more fancy architecture on top of the hill, but a new blueprint for building a 21st century global city, integrating its civic-minded elite and its broadest cultural ambitions. Art institutions ought to be down in the city, where real people live, and be about making, not buying; about inspiring, not showing off. They should be about art, not architecture—like the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo, an old warehouse simply redesigned for what it can stage, not for what it owns. Or better yet, like Inner City Arts, in Skid Row, an (admittedly high-architectural) arts campus where thousands of school children are given the opportunity to learn about, and make their own, art, every year, in a city where arts education has been largely stripped from the public schools.
Let’s enjoy the billionaire’s $140 million gift, and then move on to creating a truly vibrant Los Angeles, with a creative built environment to match its artistic and cultural diversity.
Review by Wade Graham, firstname.lastname@example.org
for The Santa Barbara Independent
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
On View: May 26, 2013 – April 6, 2014
2013 is looking to be the Year of Turrell. As the biggest and first of six concurrent, separately-curated exhibitions about to open—also at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (June 9-September 22, 2013), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (June 21-September 25, 2013), LACMA’s show anchors a sort of national retrospective of the artist’s five-decade career. It is truly enormous: with nearly 50 works, occupying 33,000 square feet—the entire 2nd floor of the museum’s Broad Contemporary building and a third of its Resnick Pavilion.
Moreso than almost any artist besides Christo, Turrell’s work requires leagues of real estate—because it is about space itself, using carefully controlled light effects to explore how we experience the dimensional world. Several of the exhibition rooms are taken up with fairly conventional, small objects: prints, holograms, photographs, or models, such as those of Turrell’s unfinished magnum opus in the Arizona desert, the Roden Crater Project. But the main events at LACMA are the light spaces: a typical Turrell exhibit features one; here there are 10, each work a room of its own, some the size of a theater.
Turrell became interested in the processes of human perception in the 1960s, when he formed part of a loose group of LA artists dubbed the Light & Space movement, centered around the Santa Monica neighborhood of Ocean Park. There, in 1966, Turrell rented the Mendota Hotel and began experimenting: painting over windows, then opening apertures in the building’s skin to allow selections of outside light inside a room, changing with the passage of day and night. Then he learned to “materialize” light: projecting it to make depth and volume appear where none is. LACMA has several elegant examples from this period, including: “Afrum (White)” 1966, where a cube appears to extend from a wall; and “Juke, Green” (1968), where light seems to pour into an open window where there is really just a wall.
He moved on to creating the appearance of flatness where there is depth, such as in his
famous “Skyspaces” which frame a piece of sky, flattening it into a plane—there are none in the show, but a room is devoted to pictures and plans of the more than 75 he has made all over the world. But three works in a row provide some of the show’s highlights: “Key Lime,” “Wide Glass,” and “St Elmo’s Breath” are eerie rooms in which one is challenged to tell whether an apparently flat surface is actually a large room, or an apparently deep room in fact a flat surface. Inside these conundrums, the confusion and evolving awareness are exhilarating.
Viewing a Turrell installation is all about seeing how we see: the color and intensity of light continuously change, near the limits of perceptibility, sometimes subtly manipulated by the artist, often produced by our own brains. It is hard to tell, and this is the point—the uncertainty that illuminates perception. Turrell explained: “We all know the sky is blue, but it’s blue because we give it its blueness. We all have prejudiced perception, or perception that we’ve learned. And I like to push that a bit.”
It is also about being: being in the work, that is. Commitment is required: of time, physical presence, and awareness—not exactly anything as effortfull as attention, but simple attendance. To attend means both to be there and to wait. At LACMA, waiting is literally part of the show, as several of the works are designed to be seen by only a few people at a time, and staff limit the number allowed inside. “Breathing Light,” a species of what the artist calls a “Ganzfeld,” accommodates only four at a time, for as long as one likes. My advice is, take the time: the longer you attend, the more the seemingly flat field of color before you subtly gathers depth, and gradually the boundaries between it and the rest of the room begin to blur, and flicker, and who knows what else, given enough time. These are lucid hallucinations.
Befitting its ‘60s roots, Turrell’s art is like a drug experience, without the drug: you take it, wait for it to come on, and marvel as odd things happen in your mind. The medical analogy is not accidental: Turrell’s art is fundamentally somatic. The point is driven home in “Light Reinfall” (1969) a species of what the artist calls a “Perceptual Cell”: a sphere illuminated inside by blue neon light into which two young women in white lab coats slide a single, shoeless person on a tray—just like a CT scan. Each viewer is allotted 12 minutes inside. Tickets are allocated for three people per hour. With such limitations on attendance required to ensure full immersive attendance in the works, one can see why the museum plans to keep the show open for 10 months.
Though the artist has continued to fine-tune his techniques in producing such effects and insights, the art remains firmly rooted in the ‘60s, when a fascination with individual sensory experience gripped the art world and the larger culture. Being immersed in a large, expensive installation all by oneself is a rare luxury these days, and surely the height of solipsism—especially when the culture and the planet have more pressing issues to confront. And yet Turrell’s art is a solipsism of awareness—of a demanding, even monastic type we struggle to attain in this twitter universe of fast-twitch continuous self-promotion, aspiration and dissatisfaction. It can be thought of as a kind of practice, not unlike meditation, that promises to reconnect us to the world by making us aware of how we experience it, and in so doing, shape it.
Published April 11th, 2012 by Wade Graham
LETTER FROM LONDON: David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at London’s Royal Academy (closed Apr. 9) was a smash hit even in a London season inundated with blockbuster exhibitions ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Francis Bacon. An astonishing number of Hockney landscapes — more than 150 — filled the walls. Some of them, like “Winter Timber” (2009), which covers 15 canvasses, are huge — a bigger picture indeed. Others of more modest size were hung in vast phalanxes. There was a whole wall of watercolors, for instance, and 50-odd iPad works printed on large paper covered three enormous gallery walls in floor-to-ceiling grids. And, except for one smaller room containing a retrospective of landscapes that Hockney had painted elsewhere, the show was made up entirely of recent work depicting the fields and woods of Hockney’s native Yorkshire, in the north of England, where the artist had returned in recent years to tend to his ailing mother.
This is East Yorkshire as it has surely never been seen before: bright and sunny, its blue skies crowded with white scudding clouds, its woods, copses, and banks of flowering hedges open and inviting. In contrast to some of his earlier, psychologically more complex works, these are simple, almost childlike celebrations of country roadside scenes, made exuberant by their intense color. “Tunnels,” or views down tree-lined dirt lanes, are rendered in striped purples and oranges, as if in Van Gogh’s Arles. Especially wonderful are the hawthorn hedges covered in creaming flowers, the most orgasmic of them like frothing masses of caterpillars, irresistible and (unintentionally?) comic. The expressions of an old man confronting mortality as he cares for his declining mother, these works celebrate life and fecundity and the continued promise of fertility of the natal place.
But questions grew as I stumbled along, trying not to bump into the other, seemingly equally perplexed visitors to this crowded exhibition. Hockney’s pop-inspired appropriation of impressionism is certainly facile, but it’s uninteresting without some social observation, intervention, or purpose. Perhaps the works are subversive, but how far does rendering the English countryside in colors normally reserved for tropical effects go in helping us see the North of England not just in a new color scheme, but in a new light? The relentlessness of Hockney’s summery effect is suspect: There are few deep shadows or dark clouds, and even the autumn scenes are sun-bright. Every Hockney tunnel has a light at the end of it; those that aren’t sunstruck are perhaps gray but never dark, and none are even remotely foreboding.
I heard one visitor say that “these paintings are lifting my mood,” and indeed many in the crowd seemed to want to feel that happiness. Bright color can do that — witness the shared palette of children’s TV and eye-candy advertising. Here, the relentlessness of the cheer works like Prozac — this is Pharmaceutical Art.
Hockney has made me want to see East Yorkshire, but not because I want to locate his sunny views. The Daily Telegraph reports that the actual landscapes Hockney worked in are often choked in litter from “fly-tipping” — illegal trash dumping. And nowhere in these happy scenes of rural splendor are there any complications of people (not a one), or buildings, or actions economic, political, historical, or psychological. There is a total absence of real life, rain, and vexation. Absent, too — and probably not coincidentally — are complications like aging and death. Many of these pictures will no doubt become perennial favorites in print shops everywhere, next to their impressionist models. But I wonder whether the industrious Hockney, who worked so busily on these that he turned down an offer to paint the Queen, is guilty of the sin of omission, or far worse, of evasion. Surely it is a missed chance for landscape painting to reflect on landscape, not just on the painter.
David Hockney: A Bigger Picture will be at Spain’s Guggenheim Bilbao from May 15 until September 30 and at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, from October 29 until February 4, 2013.
February 27, 2012
Like his name, the paintings of Victor Hugo Zayas recall the passions of late 19th century art: his oils are bold, romantic, luminous and seemingly in motion, alive with an astonishing energy. The pigment is layered on in thick, wavelike swirls of deep contrast and color so saturated that it appears wet, as though the paint had not finished drying. (It has: the canvases in this show—landscapes, cityscapes, still lives, and figures—are selected from 20 years’ of the artists’ work.)
Born in Mazatlan in 1961, Zayas came to the United States in 1979, receiving BFAs from United States International University and Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. For over 20 years, he has lived and worked around Downtown LA. Painting on rooftops at night, and in Elysian Park and along the Los Angeles River by day, Zayas has captured a wide range of expressionist scenes of the city swathed in fog, smoke, and light. Many of these paintings recall Turner’s darkest Thames riverscapes, rendering an emphatically urban world as a darkly enchanted landscape, a kind of industrial pastoral of constant change and rough vitality.
Nearly a decade ago, Victor Hugo Zayas was offered studio space in South-Central Los Angeles at a rent he couldn’t refuse. There he found himself painting in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the US, an area riven by gangs and violence. In response to the need that she saw there, his then-girlfriend opened a community-oriented café in his studio space. Zayas himself turned down a teaching position at Art Center and instead asked the school to fund him to start the Maestro Fine Art Program in 2005, teaching art to 50 local kids.
Officers of the LAPD soon took note, and came in to offer their encouragement. They included Charlie Beck, then a division commander and since 2009 LA’s chief of police, who befriended Zayas, discussing with him the possibility of making art from some of the guns that the police department was collecting off of the streets in its Gun Buyback program. It took four years. Then, earlier this year, two tons of the guns, shredded and crushed down into a mass of twisted metal, were delivered to the artist’s studio.
He began welding and assembling, wondering, “How do I take something negative and make it positive?” Gradually, portraits began to appear—visages, and profiles, often of people he knew. From Francisco Goya on, Zayas said “the idea of making a portrait of violence is a tradition.” Yet, he asked himself: “How do I make portraits out of metal? Portraits have an energy—how do I capture it?”
The results are arresting: flowing coagulations of twisted metal gunbarrels, revolver cylinders, and shafts, looking at first like improbable trees. On closer inspection, faces emerge from the wreckage. They are equal parts the Terminator and Alberto Giacommetti—eerily realistic and oddly touching. In Victor Hugo’s hands, the guns have become bodies, fluid, vital, and alive. No longer capable of taking life, they’ve been transformed into something life-affirming—the faces of friends and loved-ones. Like the proverbial transformation of swords into ploughshares, this is a patient, deliberate, and necessary alchemy, a demonstration of art’s power to transform consciousness and lives.
Guest Curator Gregorio Luke saw this power demonstrated at an event for relatives of crime victims at which a photograph of one of Zayas’ gun sculptures was shown. He was worried at first about the crowd’s reaction. “These are people who have lost brothers, sons, daughters, parents. No amount of longer sentencing, no number of increased arrests, can heal their hearts. How could a sculpture not seem trivial?” Yet, when the image was unveiled, “The energy in the room completely changed,” he said. “I felt a transformation in the content of the conversation. I never realized art could be so meaningful.“
Victor Hugo Zalas: Mi Obra at the Laguna Museum of Art through April 29
It’s sunset on a winter day at the Brentwood home of Mandy and Cliff Einstein, the latter a trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Outside, on what had been the family’s tennis court, sits a 20-foot white cube that, from the exterior, seems an unlikely candidate for a work of art. The interior is another matter.
We enter through a doorway. The walls are white, lined with inclined wooden benches. Above the benches, recessed yellowish tungsten lighting is aimed up the walls at the ceiling, which has a 12-foot-square opening that shows the sky. We sit and gaze up as the light blue sky slowly gives way to darker blue. The square of color appears to be at once incredibly deep and perfectly flat, as if it’s painted on the ceiling like the sky in Giotto’s “Last Judgment” at Scrovegni Chapel in Padua: a perfect illusion but for the little angels pulling at the edges of the backdrop.
Through the doorway, the sky is completely different, with less color and density. As we stare up inside, the deep blue gradually gives way to an impossibly velveteen black, a transition so seamless that we’re at a loss to pinpoint the moment of change.
The artist who designed the cube, James Turrell, likes to say that night doesn’t fall, it rises like a veil. The effect here is bizarre and wonderful, not unlike watching the stars come out at Joshua Tree after dropping acid–but without the saucer eyeballs and the three-day brain burn. Here you come home, pour a glass of Chardonnay, spend 40 minutes in the Turrell and still make your dinner reservation.
It is the only large-scale Turrell work on permanent display in Los Angeles, and the first to be viewed by the public in more than 10 years. But the world is about to see more Turrells. A full-scale “lightwork” opens March 16 in an installation commissioned by the cell-phone giant Nokia at the Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills.
More significantly, Turrell’s monumental work in the high Arizona desert, Roden Crater, will open to the public soon (although Turrell is coy about the date, which has been postponed before). It is the product of a quarter-century of labor to convert the immense volcanic cone into an elaborate light and space installation. Could it be among the most important artworks of the 21st century?
If so, it will be a remarkable legacy for an artist who doesn’t paint, sculpt or make objects that are easily bought and sold. Most of his works are too large to fit into a museum. Even the small ones can be seen only with a lot of effort. His materials are light, empty space, silence and darkness.
Those have been his media since the late 1960s, when he surfaced as a member of an obscure group of avant-garde artists living and working in Venice and Ocean Park. In the decades since, as we entered the age of celebrity artists and architects who design billion-dollar museums, Turrell became a cattle rancher and something of a recluse, one of a small group of American artists who continue to challenge the form and function of museums and their basic claim to contain the full range of contemporary art.
James Turrell has always stood out. Born in Pasadena on May 6, 1943, the son of an aerospace engineer and technical instructor, he became an Eagle Scout at 13 and Pasadena’s “boy of the year” in 1960. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Pomona College in perceptual psychology and also studied art and art history before attending graduate school at the Claremont Colleges.
He burst out of art school as a member of the groundbreaking Los Angeles scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s. This group, drawn to Venice and Ocean Park by the cheap rents, boho vibe and beach, included diverse artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Bruce Nauman, Peter Alexander, Billy Al Bengston and Ed Moses. Tagged variously as Light & Space or Finish Fetish, they pushed the bounds of art beyond even the New York minimalists of the early ’60s: Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt.
The minimalists’ purpose had been to rescue art from the illusionistic, emotional, tragic hero postures of the Abstract Expressionists of the postwar period and to refocus modernism’s gaze on basic questions of form. Instead of making paintings that depicted some thing or feeling, they made objects that “meant” nothing beyond their literality–real things in real places in real time. “What you see is what you see,” said the artist Frank Stella. Hip galleries were filled with blank cubes, square white paintings and bare fluorescent bulbs propped against the walls.
In New York City, the work was about a physical paring away, accompanied with a flourish of rhetorical pronouncements from reviewers and the artists themselves. But in Los Angeles, minimalism was a comparatively quiet movement. It was more sensual than New York minimalism, full of rich surfaces made with industrial materials such as resins, plastics and glass, and influenced by the culture of customized cars and surfboards.
Many of the L.A. artists worked on both. Turrell for some time made a living restoring vintage cars and airplanes. The concern for precision, craft and finish was general. John McCracken, a prominent West Coast minimalist with whom Turrell studied, finished slabs of wood with layer upon layer of hand-rubbed lacquer until the colors seemed infinitely deep. He then leaned them nonchalantly against gallery walls.
The artist Peter Alexander, known then for his resin sculptures, calls the L.A. style sensualism. “Everything was really beautiful and you believed it, and you wanted it to be and the observers wanted it to be like that, and everybody felt like that,” he says. “Because it was the ’60s, there was enormous optimism and naivete, which was a good combo. There was a lot of smiling.”
And then there was light. Bell, Irwin, Nauman, Maria Nordman, Eric Orr and Doug Wheeler produced work concerned with the effects of light on different materials. Turrell went even further, bypassing painting, sculpture and objects of any kind in making light itself his medium and human perception his subject. In his first one-man show in 1967 at the Pasadena Art Museum, he used a slide projector fitted with a special lamp to create the illusion of a cube of white light standing out from the walls. When the viewer moved, the cube dissolved.
Turrell moved on to make small apertures in rooms and buildings to bring un- seen light sources into the space of the viewer, creating beautiful, sometimes disorienting, effects.
Turrell had come on the scene at the perfect moment, according to Michael Govan, director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, a private contemporary arts foundation that began helping Turrell fund his projects in the 1970s. “Minimalism, in its generic sense, was artists bringing art to nothing,” Govan says. “Jim Turrell could start by that nothing. His career begins there. Once you throw out the frame and the pedestal and start looking at things like light, purely, that’s a starting point for a whole new world.”
Turrell drew on everything in his background: experimental methods of perceptual psychology from college, minimalism from McCracken, and his own experiences as a pilot, where he immersed himself in the light of the sky. Once, watching slides in an art history class, he fixated on the light beam hanging in the darkness: “The light itself seemed somehow preferable to the pictures,” he has said.
In November 1966, Turrell leased a building, the Mendota Hotel, on the corner of Hill and Main streets in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica. Back then it was a “poor white beach,” Turrell recalls, a place struggling artists could afford to live. “There aren’t really too many left. I suppose there might be some down in Florida where the old men go and fish the pilings, or like Jimmy Buffett used to talk about.”
For two years, Turrell sealed up the rooms, painted out windows, closed off the outside. Then he carefully began opening it up. In a body of work called the “Mendota Stoppages” he experimented with cutting holes of different sizes in the walls, allowing light from outside–like the passing of the sun or the passing of a bus at night–to come inside, filling the space in extraordinary ways.
He was learning about light and the unreliability of human perception, how we “make the world through our senses.” He tweaked the dimensions of rooms and the color frequencies of lights to make light “materialize”–to “apprehend” it. Some of the spaces at the Mendota were called “sensing spaces,” where the artwork essentially was a performance by the viewer.
What did Los Angeles have to do with this? Was it the beach light, soft and white, as the painter Richard Diebenkorn remarked, that inspired such art? Turrell downplays this common explanation. “Yes, there’s light there, but if that were true, there would have been many artists out of the south of France.”
It would be the equivalent, he argues, of attributing the English fondness for watercolor to the ample rainfall there. Instead he links the creativity in Los Angeles to “a greater anarchy of taste, [leading to] greater possibilities, because taste is restriction.”
But if you had been looking for the ultimate substance with which to make art, it wouldn’t have hurt that the sun was almost always shining and that, in a movie town, watching the play of light on a wall in a darkened room as a form of entertainment isn’t out of the ordinary.
“I think that Los Angeles plays a huge role,” Govan says. “Bob Irwin was turning the world upside down. James Turrell, Maria Nordman, Doug Wheeler, if you take just those four artists, it goes head to head with what was happening in New York, and it’s never really been fully appreciated.” That said, Turrell’s reputation has risen steadily. Art dealers and most critics attest to his significance, although he remains obscure to most museum-goers.
Paul Schimmel, chief curator of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, says Turrell’s greatest contribution to the world of art has been in changing the relationship of viewers with art, making them into participants rather than observers. Since Turrell, an entire generation of artists has turned to large-scale video, film and sculptural room installations. “It’s de rigueur,” Schimmel says. “All of these come out of this legacy of how he approached art-making as an environment and an experience.”
His work also reflects the ’60s in L.A.: the pushing against the doors of perception, the faith in the possibility of liberation through a deep experience of the world. Turrell’s inquiries mirror Timothy Leary’s, without the drugs. His work requires, even forces, attention. The art is in going through the ritual of waiting for perception. In one variant of the “Mendota Stoppages,” a prospective collector was instructed to sit in a room for several hours. In the “Dark Spaces” series, the “percipient” must wait in a dark room for 15 or 20 minutes before beginning to see anything at all, and even then is uncertain if what he or she is experiencing is optical illusion, stray photons, retinal imprints or artistically induced insanity.
Those interests in the boundaries of human perception were shared by the booming aerospace industry of the late ’60s and early ’70s. From 1967 to 1971, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in partnership with NASA, set up an “Art and Technology” program. It consisted of collaborations between artists and engineers in local firms, giving artists the use of lasers, holograms and other fancy equipment. Irwin and Turrell teamed up with a scientist at Garrett Aerospace to design an anechoic chamber, a sensory deprivation enclosure without sound or light, where the “viewer” was then exposed to various stimuli to see what would happen. It was essentially experimentation on human subjects.
The anechoic chamber led to Turrell’s next innovation making Ganzfelds (“total fields” in German), spaces where all visual and aural clues to dimension are lost in an undifferentiated light like a white-out blizzard or dense fog–except that Turrell’s light came in pretty colors. Turrell compares the Ganzfelds to the floating and otherworldliness experienced when diving or dreaming. “This otherworldliness can exist here coincidental in our conscious, awake state too,” he says. “I’m interested in how we dream as well because there we create the world entirely. It’s totally visual. Here, with eyes closed, is full vision, clarity is great or better than when the eyes are open, certainly with a lucid dream, with colors perhaps even richer, and it’s suffused with a light. It’s something we know about, but it’s rarely seen with the eyes open.”
Another sensation and ’60s reference he invokes is that of listening to music and feeling as if the room has become larger than it is, “sort of like the old Volkswagen ads, where it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. There’s truth to this in the sense that reality is not just what we like to think of as ‘the real world.’ “
turrell lost his lease on the mendota hotel in 1974, but by then he had larger spatial ambitions. He had been helping support himself by flying mail around the West under contract with the Postal Service, and his skill as a pilot enabled him to search for a spot, such as a butte or mesa above a surrounding flat landscape, where he could practice his art on a grander scale. A Guggenheim grant paid for the gas while he searched for seven months, crisscrossing the West from Canada to Mexico, the Pacific to the Rockies. Again he was right in the avant-garde moment. A few other artists had already gone out to the landscape, making something nebulously called Land Art: Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, beginning in 1969, a pair of gouges in a Nevada canyon wall as long as the Empire State Building laid on end; Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah, in 1970; Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico, in 1977; Judd’s concrete works in Marfa, Texas, beginning in 1979; even Christo’s wrapped buildings.
Turrell’s flying had opened up new conceptual vistas. He was interested in re-creating certain effects that occur at different altitudes: celestial vaulting, where the sky appears rounded, curving like a perfect dome to the horizon, and the “dollhouse” effect, “where people become ants and then houses become models,” Turrell says. To preserve those effects, he needed a site remote from city light pollution, with flat, open horizons not cluttered by buildings and a clear, not too cloudy, blue sky.
He found his grail 42 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz., at the edge of the San Francisco Peaks volcanic field at an elevation of 5,000 feet. It was a 600-foot-high red cinder cone called Roden Crater, overlooking the haunting expanses of the Painted Desert, adjacent to the Navajo and Hopi reservations.
Here he planned his most ambitious project, a kind of symphonic assemblage of his discoveries from the Mendota Hotel and since: skyspaces, light corridors, sensing spaces, all connected by a series of tunnels. Each space would be built to frame and capture events in the day or night sky, some occurring every day, some biannually and one, an alignment of the moon, every 18.61 years. The light sources would be the sun, moon and lightning, with the moon or sun lined up with apertures to cast images through tunnels and onto stone slabs or pools of water, even the polar star. Turrell would reshape the crater so celestial vaulting would be exaggerated to the point of doubting one’s eyeglass prescription. The work would be a sort of giant machine for contemplating nature’s grandeur.
Turrell recalls how, in his childhood house, his father had built a glassed-in room covered by blackout curtains from World War II. Young James, 6 or 7, would poke tiny holes in the curtains in the pattern of the constellations so that he could “see” the stars in daylight. At Roden Crater, he is revisiting this game on a huge scale.
There is considerable humility in the gesture–as a form of devotion to the overwhelming beauty of this world and vast hubris in the expectation of getting someone to pay for it. Fortunately, Turrell is a compelling salesman. He got his first Dia Center grant in 1975, which helped him acquire the crater in 1977. In 1979 he moved to Flagstaff full time.
His funding from Dia soon collapsed, due to a falling stock market and financial difficulties, so Turrell hit the road to raise money, mounting exhibitions in Europe, Japan and the United States. The Italian collector Guiseppe Panza di Biumo gave him a grant to do a set of schematic plans for the crater. He also shared a 1984 MacArthur “genius” grant with Irwin, the first such award for visual artists. In the ’90s Dia came back into the picture, along with the Lannan Foundation, but still Turrell kept running out of money as the scale of his vision increased.
He is quick to joke about it. “This piece became more involved, which is a lesson that if you don’t get support to artists soon enough, their projects become even more grandiose than when they began. I’ve moved 1.2 million cubic yards of dirt. I didn’t actually understand how I could shape sky with it until I’d moved about 220,000 cubic yards, and it’s about a dollar and a quarter to move a yard of earth no matter where you put it.” The delays and costs mounted. He had matchbooks printed up saying, “Sooner or Later Roden Crater.”
He is aware of the parallels to other giant lifework projects, some of which were never finished. He ticks off San Simeon, the Watts Towers, Mount Rushmore and, also in Arizona, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti and the Biosphere 2 Center. He recalls going to see the artist Jean Tinguely’s giant sculpted head in France and asking himself, “What was he thinking?” He admits that others might ask the same about his crater.
In 1998 the Lannan Foundation decided to go all the way, providing most of the money, $9.5 million to date of a total that could reach as high as $20 million if every element the artist envisions is built. In collaboration with Lannan, the Dia Art Foundation will take on the management.
Dia’s Michael Govan defends the cost: “We’ve had paintings from the ’50s that regularly sell at auction for a lot more than that. For example, a Jasper Johns, $17-some million [the painting “False Start” sold at auction in 1988 for $17,050,000]. I think Johns is a fantastic artist, but people are spending sums for artists of roughly the same generation for a 4-square-foot canvas. And I don’t think Jim thinks of his work any differently, he’s just making an artwork. It just happens that the terms are completely different.”
As you approach the crater from the southwest, bumping along 11 miles of dirt road, you see cattle lolling among the rabbit brush. These are “Jim’s girls,” 1,000 head. Arizona is still an open range state, where the law requires that you fence your neighbors’ cows out. The only way to protect the crater’s “viewshed” was for Turrell to become a rancher, gaining control of 156 square miles, either owned outright or through grazing leases.
Visiting the crater is a trip in every sense. Phase one, begun in January 1999, is nearly complete. As one walks up from the flank into the center of the volcano through the 854-foot Alpha Tunnel, footsteps and voices boom and return like cracks of thunder. A disc of bright light marks the tunnel’s upper opening, the East Portal, a room with a hole in the ceiling to reveal the sky. From there you continue in the tunnel down under the crater to Crater’s Eye–a huge kiva-like opening that frames a circular slice of blue air. A curving staircase leads from that spot to the surface at the center of the crater, emerging into an elliptical, sloping theater of red cinder. A ring of benches directs your attention toward the rim, which seems to attach itself to the distinctly domed sky–bright red, bright blue, with white haze at the edge. Four inclined slabs interrupt the benches. Lying down on one, with your head lower than your feet, looking up the slope into the blue, the sense of celestial vaulting is radical, alarming, a little dizzying, like stepping into a fisheye lens. Behind you the East Portal yawns, a clean, elliptical concrete hole in the red earth.
The scrupulous order is incongruous in the desert wilderness. It feels like being alone on another planet amid the ruins of an alien civilization. The quiet on this still January day is so huge that it begins to howl and vibrate in the city dweller’s mind.
Schimmel offers another description: “It’s about the ultimate sort of controlled fantasy, creating a place on earth–that’s the only way to describe it because it will actually be visible from outer space. The aliens will know that it’s been built.
“If his desire initially was to control the perceptions of individuals when they enter this space, now it’s much more encompassing, not a 30-minute thrill ride, a much more extended experience.” This is just a fraction of the planned spaces that have been built, and to experience them all, with all of the intimate little discoveries in between, would take some time, at least a day.
With size comes logistical difficulties, not just for Turrell but for many artists and sculptors who, decades ago, moved off of and outside the gallery walls. They collectively voice the complaint that the art establishment has swept them aside, throwing hundreds of millions or billions of dollars not into art but into building new museums that are no more than elaborate eye-catching wrappers concealing galleries that are often too small and inflexible for anything but traditional exhibits.
“There’s this triple-A club that artists talk about–architects against art,” Turrell says. “This all started with Frank Lloyd Wright and the Guggenheim, and the Guggenheim has, of course, continued in Bilbao. This is a terrific, amazing building; what it has done for art I’m not sure is good. If you were to build a building for General Motors or a skyscraper for some company, and wouldn’t allow them to make next year’s product, they wouldn’t put up with it, not for a moment.” Galleries in many museums are often too small for anything but paintings or small sculptures. Floors are not designed to bear heavy loads or be nailed into. Walls and ceilings can’t be moved. “They lock art into something that doesn’t necessarily contain art. When you make a container for art, at least you ought to see what art is happening then,” Turrell says.
“When you deconstruct an architect’s space, since now we’ve moved into a period where the modern cathedral is actually the art museum, the architects are alive so they get quite insulted by your cutting into their space. It’s getting so we can’t do anything in these hallowed places that the architects have made. It’s their show and we have to go somewhere else. So I do that.”
During construction of the $1-billion Getty Museum in Los Angeles, architect Richard Meier nixed plans for a Turrell work on the main plaza, even though the artist had been paid for it. Irwin’s troubles with Meier over the artist’s bizarre garden at the site are now legendary. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s plans for a $300-million Rem Koolhaas-designed museum to replace its current buildings will be one more such “cathedral” in Los Angeles, in Turrell’s view.
Schimmel acknowledges this: “A lot of the most radical questions being asked in the late ’60s about museums being irrelevant are as unresolved today as they were 30 years ago.” Nonetheless, he says, work like Turrell’s isn’t easy. Even within the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary, which is set up “to work with this kind of experience, it’s still a bear. The challenge is twofold: one, to get it right, and two, how much real estate it occupies. It takes money and it takes space.”
At the core of the appeal of modern architecture is the promise that it can create spaces of personal and collective transformation. At least in the personal dimension, this is what Turrell does. It also is accessible as a type of art that can be experienced without requiring the viewer to have an education in art theory. A friend of mine, Agustin Garza, a designer in Pasadena, tells a story about going with his in-laws to the Temporary Contemporary/MOCA show, “Individuals,” which opened in December 1986. They were “unsophisticated about modern art,” he says, the kind of regular people who “think most of contemporary art is a hoax. They thought Picasso was a scam.”
In the show they saw a Chris Burden piece called “Exposing the Foundation of the Museum,” in which the artist had dug a long trench along the wall, literally exposing the building’s concrete foundation, with the excavated soil piled up on the floor. “They thought it was bull. When they saw the title, they thought that confirmed that it was bull. Then they looked at–or experienced–the Turrell installation that was there, a skyspace. At first they weren’t really quite sure how to think of it as art, which opened up a whole discussion about art. They were both entertained and taken by the sublime effect of the light and the space. After that, they were able to go back to the Burden piece and experience it and think about it in a different light. They got down into the hole and smelled the soil and humidity and began to understand what he was trying to communicate,” says Garza.
“So I consider Turrell a really important artist, and I just wish that the general public would be more exposed to his work, because I think, ironically, it would make it easier then to understand what Picasso meant.”
One response has been the commitment of Dia and Lannan to fund and manage over time a group of landscape-scale works, including Roden Crater, The Lightning Field, the City projects, Spiral Jetty and Judd’s works in Marfa–collectively referred to as “the Western Projects.” Govan describes the venture as building a museum without walls. “The truth is, it’s taken time for some of that work to mature, it’s taken time for everybody to get over the conceptual radicalness of minimalism and now see what these artists were doing was as maximal as anything. If you ask me, these objects are as important as anything since Mondrian or Picasso.” To complete and preserve them for generations of people “means taking the institution to them.”
Today the Mendota Hotel houses a Starbucks. Ocean Park, the poor white beach, is posh real estate. Turrell has his $20 million lined up, if all goes according to plan. A major international corporation, Nokia, has been attracted to his luminance. All of these are signs, on the one hand, of the triumph of the entire cultural project of Los Angeles in the ’60s–liberation while smiling. On the other, success threatens to devolve into just money, art’s revolutionary power into just the entertainment and feeding of the private self. “Therapeutic ceremonials,” as one critic has put it. Sort of like yoga. Inside a Turrell space, there is the potential for transformation, but equally there is the absence of history, of politics, of other people. The answer to the challenge lies in going in and experiencing it oneself, in the flesh.