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A LEGENDARY LIGHT AND SPACE MAN

A gallery at Temporary Contemporary is bare save a square of ghostly electric blue light hanging in a corner. At first it looks like a glowing window opening on a summer’s day that is unnaturally bright even for Southern California. Then it transmogrifies and appears as a hovering cube that might be a high-tech Lucite light fixture, except that it clearly has no real physical substance and is thus most likely a celestial pod that will momentarily materialize as an angel of the Lord.

In the next gallery a tall slit of white light runs from floor to ceiling touching a corner. It creates the impression that the wall is sliding aside, hangar-fashion and that soon an airstrip will be revealed, supporting an invisible spacecraft belonging to benign extra-terrestrials who will whisk us away to a better world to the accompaniment of galactic music.

They are astonishing works by any measure, these light-beam pieces by James Turrell, but what is liable to most surprise the casually cultivated art amateur is that they date from 1967. Unless one’s gallery-crawling days stretch back to ancient times when the long-vanished Pasadena Museum of Modern Art lived in a Chinese building on Los Robles Avenue, the works will be a revelation of the first kind.

At 42, James Turrell is a legendary figure. Most devotees have read that he has received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” flies his own airplane and spends the shank of his time working at an extinct volcano in Arizona--Roden Crater--that he is slowly transforming into an artwork. Models and photos on view suggest the dimensions and general demeanor of pyramid temples in Giza or Yucatan blended with a more stark, more atavistic character suggesting a lunar Stonehenge.

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Along with Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler and others, Turrell ranks as a pathfinder in what has come to be known as “California Light and Space Art,” a highly original artistic formulation that locates the art experience in perception and phenomenological nature. Wise people believe this innovation represents California’s best shot at contemporary immortality. Since almost nobody is a prophet on his own block, it seems almost natural that Turrell and the others have gotten their greatest recognition elsewhere, most notably in the daring collection of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biuomo of Milan. Panza made California light art the centerpiece of a collection that is unique in focusing on large room installations and his holdings in the area are certainly the best in private hands.

For a year Panza has been negotiating with MOCA and other Southland institutions to try to find a way to return this cache of California patrimony back here en bloc. Panza said Italian law forbids him to donate art outside country, so it has to be sold back, thus bringing a highly spiritual matter nose-to-nose with obdurate reality. Thus far, nobody has been able to muster the necessary wherewithal. The matter hangs fire.

Even though the Turrell exhibition is, I think, a clouded demonstration of the artist’s aesthetic, it certainly offers ample proof that this kind of art belongs here on significant and permanent view. Clearly Los Angeles will miss a crucial opportunity if it fails to acquire the Panza collection.

Viewers are also liable to feel something already has been lost by allowing 18 years to pass between local museum exhibitions of Turrell’s art. For one thing, the times have to some extent overtaken Turrell, so that the work does not appear quite as fresh as of yore. Intimations of science fiction and movie special effects nibble away at its edges and it requires a slight effort of mind to remember that it was the research and development done by Turrell and others that set the stage for its popular dilution and not vice-versa.

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The other problem is that the exhibition (on view to Feb. 9) muddles about and blurs the essence of this art. That essence is purity. This was amply clear in an exhibition at Manhattan’s Whitney Museum a few years back. It consisted simply of light pieces and was a stunning revelation, ethereal and self-contained.

Billed as a retrospective, the present exercise was organized by Julia Brown Turrell, who recently married the artist and also resigned her post as MOCA’s chief curator. Her formulation moves through three kinds of light works and on into models and photos of Roden Crater as well as a model of a winery Turrell helped design in Northern California. The inclusion of these projects that cannot be directly experienced as works of art lends an odd twist to the show.

One begins to experience Turrell as an artist-impresario along the lines of Christo. Whereas Turrell always has kept his personality markedly distanced from his art, the Roden crater “documentation” calls attention to his metaphorical role as wizard, shaman and chief cook and bottle washer manipulating the strings and pulleys that make the whole thing happen. Some aerial photos of Roden Crater are displayed with binocular contraptions that make them appear three dimensional. Peeking in, one has the sensation of being in a literal-minded science museum. When you mix mysticism and mechanics you get Metaphysikitsch.

In spite of these wafting distractions, Turrell continues to come across as an artist of great stature and originality, although perhaps one more clearly a member of a particular generation and sensibility. The spiritual idealism of the late ‘60s is ever present. His latest installation pieces trade revelations of light for the mysteries of darkness. They are pitch-black rooms. Two are penetrated by negotiating along a handrail and sitting in a chair. They are so dark that what one sees with eyes open is almost indistinguishable from the swirls, light-blips and color patterns one experiences with eyes closed in normal darkness. These works demand so much subjective input from the viewer and seem so heavy handed in their neo-yoga insistence on the importance of spiritual meditation and Alpha state that they create an impression of both redundancy and preachiness.

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Not so the black room called “Jaditos Night.” One walks here untethered and the blackness suggests being lost in a vast desert. This sensation of space is something new in Turrell’s art and casts a mantle of calm awe that is like standing in Death Valley.

Works in his now-classic style are more familiar but nonetheless effective. “Laar” and “Arela” are both large window-like openings in a gallery wall where there is more light behind the opening than in the room where we stand. “Laar” looks at first like a crosshatched painting in grisaille. “Arela” resembles a particularly vibrant early Jules Olitski turned sideways. On approach their “solid” surfaces dissolve and we are looking into a little light-filled room where edges of walls seem to blur and portions in line with the opening suggest expanses of utterly clear liquids and floating powders.

Like the painting of Mark Rothko, which Turrell admired early on, his own work never grows tiresome in its endless variation on the theme of Pure Enlightenment. When Temporary Contemporary is no longer provisional there surely must be such work permanently available to allow the tired pilgrim frequent refreshment. This stuff is the ethereal equivalent of a great splashy fountain.


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