James Turrell Takes Up Curating, With a Show by His Hero

A compelling new show at the Pace Gallery in Manhattan, “Ad Reinhardt: Color Out of Darkness,” comes with an unusual perk. It has been “curated by James Turrell,” as the subtitle proclaims. The prospect of Turrell, an American master of light, presiding over a show of paintings by Reinhardt, an American master of dark, has a special allure, offering not only two visions for the price of one but a glimpse at the improbable ways of inspiration.

On a recent morning, I met Turrell at the gallery with plans to see his Reinhardt show. But first he led me into a pitch-black room at street level where he had just finished installing a piece of his own, “After Effect.” We sat down on a plain wooden bench to watch. What appeared to be a giant screen, framed in cherry-red light, rose up the ceiling. You could see through it, to an illuminated green rectangle in the far distance. As we talked, the greens blued into ultramarine or yellowed into chartreuse. It looked like nothing so much as a three-dimensional abstract painting, a walk-in Reinhardt or rather a Rothko inhabited by planes of voluptuous color.

In reality, of course, there was nothing there, not even a screen, just LED lights from a group of projectors suffusing the darkness. As we oohed at the changing effects, Turrell mentioned that he had recently undergone cataract surgery. “It helped me with color,” he said. “In the general population, women are more sensitive to color than men.”

Now 78, Turrell is a genial and bearish presence. He still has his trademark long white beard, although it no longer brands him as a Western-style wild man and renegade. He is a grandfather of four, and mentioned that during the Christmas season he is willing to accept requests to assume the guise of Santa Claus.

Turrell lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., not far from the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano that has obsessed him for more than 40 years. Since purchasing the site in 1977, he has constructed a labyrinth of chambers and tunnels that aestheticize the experience of sky-watching. Its completion has been postponed so many times that asking Turrell about an opening date prompts him to joke, “I said I am opening the crater piece in the year 2000, and I am sticking to it.”

When the subject turned to Reinhart, Turrell said he never actually had the pleasure of meeting him. He did, however, hear him lecture. One night — this was in February 1962 — Turrell visited the Pasadena Museum, where Reinhardt was giving a talk entitled “The Artist as Artist.” (Reinhardt’s humor tended toward the edgy and absurdist).

Turrell was then a 19-year-old sophomore at Pomona College, and remembers the jolt of seeing Reinhardt’s work for the first time. A few days after the lecture, at the Virginia Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles, he admired a show of Reinhardt’s Black Paintings — those difficult, obdurate, near-monochromatic canvases that require close and prolonged looking. If you walk by them quickly, they appear as vacant as a wall. But if you let your eyes adjust to their austere palettes, blocks of subtly differentiated color emerge from voluminous darkness.

“They’re not really black,” Turrell said of the paintings. “They have a brownish cast. There are other colors in them. Blues, reds and brown. No greens or yellows. I like the kind of art where you are looking for what lies beneath.”

Reinhardt and Turrell are an admittedly odd couple. They belong to different eras and opposite coasts. Reinhardt was born in Buffalo, N.Y., on Christmas Eve 1913, and died way too soon, from a heart attack in his Manhattan studio at the age of 53. Although known as an Abstract Expressionist, he favored a style of geometric abstraction that stripped art to the bone. Art history, he declared, ended with his Black Paintings, which consumed him for more than a decade.

What might he share with Turrell, who was born 30 years later and is technically a sculptor, one who learned from the Minimalists of the ’60s to dispense with tabletop objects and embrace the grand scale of architecture. His reputation broadened overnight in 2013, when he installed his “Aten Reign” at the Guggenheim Museum, filling Frank Lloyd Wright’s chaste white spiral with concentric rings of glowy color. Many of us found ourselves resting supine on the floor of the museum, partaking of a “lie-in” as we gazed upward at blurs of color and pretended the ’60s never ended.

By his own admission, Turrell’s love of light is inseparable from his religious upbringing. He grew up in Pasadena, Calif., in a well-educated Quaker family. His maternal grandmother, he recalled, wore plain dresses and a black bonnet and would take him on Sundays to the local Villa Street Meeting House, where they would sit quietly on a bench and try to “go inside to greet the light,” as his grandma instructed him.

Did his parents encourage his art-making? “No,” he replied. “Art was a total vanity.”

“We didn’t have a television,” he recalled. “We didn’t have a toaster. That was something I thought was unbelievable.”

Instead his mother prepared toast on the top of the stove, on a pyramidal contraption set on a burner. “It was either just warm or burned,” he said. “My mother was always scraping the toast, scraping the black off. I would tell her, I don’t want hard toast.’ And she said, ‘It is not hard bread. It is hard without bread! ’’

Turrell’s installations beg comparison to the Quaker meeting house, where Friends gather together in silence, in search of “inner light.” On the other hand, Turrell’s art externalizes light, and he can seem consummately American in offering such a literal and hedonistic version of transcendence. Viewed in the context of his frugal childhood, his colors are defiantly sensual and sumptuous.

“That was what Kanye was saying,” he said, referring to Kanye West, who set his IMAX film “Jesus is King” at the Roden Crater. West joked, “Actually, the reason all these hip-hop artists like your work is that you’re an artist of color.”

It was a reminder that desert mystics can have a pop following. Now that Covid appears to be receding, Turrell has been busy flying around to different cities and countries to oversee the completion of a backlog of so-called Skyspaces. A cross between an observatory and a pleasure dome, his Skyspaces are free-standing chambers designed to frame a rectangle of boundless blue and hold it there for your delectation. Since 1976, when MoMA PS 1 commissioned the aptly named installation “Meeting,” Turrell has completed more than 85 Skyspaces, most recently at Mass MoCA, in North Adams, Mass.; at a Quaker meeting house in Chestnut Hill, Penn.; and coming this June to Green Mountain Falls, Colo., lodged into the side of a mountain.

When we left the enveloping darkness of the Pace installation, exiting into an empty front room overlooking a sidewalk in Chelsea, the light appeared harsh and squinty-bright. Turrell remarked, “The dream is leaving you the moment you awaken.”

Was that a quote from some Symbolist poem? “You can make it a quote,” he replied. “We have a hard time holding onto the dream. We try.”

It was now afternoon, and I still hadn’t seen the Reinhardt show. “One of the first to provide seats for his work was Ad Reinhardt,” Turrell said with anticipation, as we stepped into the elevator. “He had benches at the Virginia Dwan Gallery, and you’re going to see benches upstairs!”

Reinhardt last created a stir in New York in 2017, when the Zwirner Gallery gathered his dreamy, under-known Blue Paintings, some 28 in all.

The new show, by contrast, is surprisingly small. It consists of only seven paintings — a combination of all-red, all-blue and all-black ones. Each work hangs in its own cubby-like space, a mini-chapel furnished with a little bench. I was disappointed to find a wedge barrier on the floor in front of each work that keeps you at a distance of at least five feet. How could this happen? As any art person can tell you, you cannot properly see Reinhardt’s near-monochromes without doing a two-step that involves shuffling up within inches of the canvas and noting the incremental variations in color, then standing back at an appraising distance to see the parts come together.

Turrell replied that it wasn’t his fault. The Pace Gallery, which had come to him with the idea of curating a Reinhardt show, insisted on having barriers to prevent viewers from touching the paintings. It’s true that Reinhardt’s surfaces are fragile. They bruise easily, mainly because he used idiosyncratic materials, draining his pigments of oil to attain a non-reflective matte surface

“This way,” Turrell joked about the barriers, “you don’t touch the painting. You just slam into it with your head when you fall.”

Did he design the lighting and little chapels?

“Yes,” he replied, “but I didn’t put the trip space in!”

Turrell happens to possess a special familiarity with art-related accidents. Viewers have occasionally mistaken his veils of light for actual screens or walls and leaned against them, taking a fall; several lawsuits have resulted.

The Reinhardt show, in the end, seems more like a show about Turrell. And benches. It is safe to say that no major artist has incorporated benches into their installations more frequently or feelingly than Turrell. They stand as a rebuke or at least an antidote to the frantic pace of the current art world, where viewers routinely race through galleries and art fairs and seldom pause long enough to go “inside” a painting, as Turrell puts it, as if the act of looking was tantamount to entering an enchanted space.

So give it a try. Go sit on a bench and contemplate Reinhardt’s paintings. From that distance, they may not offer transcendence, but it’s nice to be asked to linger.

Ad Reinhardt: Color Out of Darkness, Curated by James Turrell

James Turrell: After Effect

Both through March 19 at Pace Gallery, 540 West 25 Street, Manhattan. 212-421-3292; pacegallery.com.

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