LACMA needs to win an art world Academy Award because they are experts at crafting delightfully dramatic presentations. They wow you without your permission and naturally build a buzz without even trying. If the Hammer is your older, with-it uncle and MOCA is your young, “I do what I want!” brother, LACMA is the unassuming, smart, helplessly hip you that you think yourself to be.
They’ve been doing these over-the-top-yet-understated presentations for years. Kubrick was their last big wow-er and Ken Price, The 2000 Sculpture, California Design,Levitated Mass, Metropolis II, Urban Light, and more have had a similar effect. James Turrell: A Retrospective is their current wow show that has the Los Angeles Light and Space artist showing his work on his terms. It’s a show full of drama and mind-altering effects whose delicacy and dreaminess are as scary as they are inspiring. This is a bewitching presentation and is one that you will want to revisit and revisit and revisit.
Turrell creates work that transforms space through light. He manipulates a specific beam of light through space, allowing it to enter it or fixing rays of it into a corner or from behind a screen. They manipulate your senses and create very personal, deeply sublime connections in the way that Rothko did with paint.
The joy of the Turrell show is that LACMA allows you to see the show the way Turrell wants you to see it: quietly, intimately, and in a timely manner. All tickets to this show are reserved and you have a specific window of time that you can see the works. It’s timed for you to have the best experience possible with his works, a situation that feels like an arranged meeting with a deity. It’s also divided into his older works (Part I, in the Broad) and newer works (Part II, in the Resnick).
The show smartly begins with a room of sketches, drawings, and notes on his history to contextualize to the work. A docent stands in here to give you a one-on-one introduction to the artist and she then releases you to be with him. The work slowly rolls from a white, flexing square directed at a corner to the green, alien Juke Green to a series of glass holograms. These are his most patient pieces that require you to move around them and are a light entering a space. From here, the show quickly advances into Turrell’s more aggressive, powerful works like Reanar Pink White. This piece is his first to wash over you, dipping you into bright pink light and making you feel like you are a baby in the womb or that ghostly Bubble Yum was popped all over you.
The show goes on into various experiments of his that require him to alter space in order to let a light be itself. He also begins to mix colors, providing an imagined fogginess and altering of reality. Many of his works have you wondering if it is moving or if it is flat: you are constantly questioning the integrity of light, space, and your own ability to perceive the wold. Key Lime perfects this with a tri-color room that horrifies as much as it mazes. You can only encounter the piece eight people at a time and it is recommended you spend five minutes with it. You also have to go down a frightening, seven foot long lightless hallway to see it. Key Lime is a layering of four lights that appear flush while being a built out room of light. The latter is what really is being done but–through invisible fog and a light beam daze–you attempt to uncover the logistics of Turrell’a magic. The piece is a distant, quieter cousin to his Milk Run at the Hirshhorn.
As you exit these pieces in Part I, you’re curious what Part II could entail. Aside from a section dedicated to his ongoing Rodan/land art study, you are given models and his most dynamic pieces–two of which you won’t even get to see since the wait time on them ranges from 110 minutes to October. The one you will be able to see after a short, twenty-ish wait is his 2013 Breathing Light. The piece is a raised mouth that swallows you in to stare at an oval screen, a vacuum color conductor that begs you to wander into it.
You sit and watch from a bench, waiting, seeing the colors move from blue to pink and across every other note within and without this spectrum. You enter it, standing and staring, feeling placed in the belly of a beautiful beast or perhaps a small cell in a giant organism (which clearly relates to theology, deities, and his Quaker upbringing). You are one of eight-ish people in here and during the long mediations on a red or blue, you chatter about the experience. Quietly as you stare, the color dramatically shifts and no one speaks: he takes your words out of your mouth through this silent, explosive gesture. You could spend hours in here.
Turrell makes you more aware of your world and what makes it through simple splashes of light. He gives you a youthful curiosity that makes you question how his world works and why you feel like you do. In Breathing Light, you are inspecting everything and learn that even the “real world” has the beauties you feel within it as the waiting room changes colors in response to the light: the dynamism of this spirited light exists in our reality and we should remember to stop and witness it.
Turrell’s A Retrospective bends your mind, resetting you to a place that appreciates the world with the newness of a child. You get to experience it in an intimate way and Turrell casts himself in a godlike role of creator and fulfills his position with ease. LACMA–his heaven–is a brilliant setting. You will want to visit this again and you will want more of it and you will remember that California’s Light and Space movement represents how closes humans can get to communing with a higher life form. Our only complaint is that we don’t get a bit of his land art work placed around or near Levitated Mass. Perhaps such a collaboration is in the works.
James Turrell’s A Retrospective is on view at LACMA through April 6. Get more on the show here.