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Turrell’s Magical Light; Hopper’s Freak Flag: Review

James Turrell
"Aten Reign" (2013) by James Turrell. Turrell's site-specific light sculpture cycles through the color spectrum in about an hour. Photographer: David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation via Bloomberg

Since the late 1970s, James Turrell has been converting an extinct volcano near northern Arizona’s Painted Desert into a work of art.

Influenced by ancient, naked-eye observatories such as the Egyptian Pyramids, Turrell’s monumental “Roden Crater” contains chambers that open into skyspaces. These are apertures cut in the ceilings of enclosed rooms.

One of his similarly plainspoken, meditative artworks, “Meeting” (1986), is at MoMA PS 1 in Long Island City, Queens. It is one of the few places within the five boroughs where you can feel that you have actually escaped New York.

Visitors may have a similar experience at Manhattan’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where Turrell, with the site-specific work “Aten Reign,” has transformed the inner core of Frank Lloyd Wright’s vertical rotunda into a transcendent, luminous environment.

Turrell’s dramatic, columnar “Aten Reign” combines natural and colored light. Progressing exquisitely, seamlessly through the chromatic spectrum for about 60 minutes, it fills the gallery with liquid-rich hues.

You sit on curved benches enveloped in color, looking up six stories at the Guggenheim’s filtered skylight, as the ocular space shifts from white to gray to green and then from yellow to orange to pink to violet.

Fiery Hues

I was there at high noon: Deepening blues suggested twilight, while fiery hues were as intense as Caribbean sunsets.

“Aten Reign” is by far the largest and most impressive among 18 pieces comprising the Guggenheim’s spare yet affecting retrospective.

In other artworks, Turrell’s projected and indirect light sources create geometric forms that hover and glow in the darkness. They flit mysteriously between volume and void, between magician’s illusion and spiritual portal.

Turrell sculpts sweetly and seductively with light, which he makes tangible yet elusive. Certainly, the Guggenheim’s show is magical. But there has been a tremendous trade-off.

An architectural and logistical failure, this show has turned the museum (a great work of sculpture) into a series of crowded, bottlenecked hallways, a dingy-white desert of long queues and barren, art-starved bays.

Wright’s light-filled masterpiece -- disengaged -- is now a series of dim passageways between Turrell’s oases of light.

New Harmony

Much more varied and cohesive is the Guggenheim’s crystalline summer gem featuring abstractions by Calder, Leger, Mondrian and Torres-Garcia.

Rarely seen masterworks from the museum’s stellar storeroom include the show’s namesake “New Harmony” -- Klee’s ebullient exploration of symmetry -- and Kandinsky’s “Striped (Raye),” in which the oddball elements of creation appear to be organizing themselves into rank and file.

“James Turrell” runs through Sept. 25 and “New Harmony: Abstraction Between the Wars, 1919-1939” runs through Sept. 8 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-423-3500;

You can search and view 200+ artworks at Turrell’s new official website:

Hopper Drawing

In the Whitney Museum of American Art’s enlightening retrospective of more than 200 Edward Hopper drawings, mostly preparatory studies for the exhibit’s two-dozen key paintings, he is most convincing when he lets his freak flag fly.

As a draftsman, Hopper sometimes approaches art-making like a reporter. A collector of specimens, he dutifully jots down the color of a gas pump, a salt shaker or its shadow.

When Hopper paints torpedo-breasted women alongside frustrated men in erotically charged office settings, a lonely usher in a darkened movie theater and female nudes illuminated by the stark light of open windows, he genuinely transcends his communal allegory of American alienation.

“Hopper Drawing” runs through Oct. 6 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. Information: +1-212-570-3600;

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on gadgets.

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