James Turrell at the Guggenheim Museum; Paul McCarthy’s WS at the Park Avenue Armory


There are two major installation shows that opened in NYC this past week:  Paul McCarthy’s WS at the Park Avenue Armory, on 19 June Wednesday; and James Turrell at the Guggenheim Museum, on 20 June Thursday. Although both are huge installations, both take up the entire space of the giant buildings that house them, both are immensely innovative, and both extremely creative, the two shows could not be more different:  the Turrell show is quietly beautiful in the profound serenity of its minimalism, and an entrancing treat for viewers of all ages; the McCarthy show, on the other hand, is provocatively jarring and disorienting in the creative depth of its disconcerting excesses, and admission wisely has  been limited to those over the age of 17—and it is not for everyone!


Those of you in the Los Angeles or Houston areas will want to know that the Guggenheim’s James Turrell show is being shown in conjunction with major exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (entitled James Turrell: A Retrospective) and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (entitled James Turrell: The Light Inside).  If you are near either of these places, don’t miss them.  (You can check on those links [underlined and in color] for information about each of these shows.)


But, first-


James Turrell


From 21 June – 25 September 2013, the entire Guggenheim Museum will be given over to a single show:  James Turrell.  This is the largest temporary installation Turrell has ever done—or that the Guggenheim has ever mounted.  Nancy and I attended the opening reception for the exhibition on 20 June Thursday, and we can tell you that this is a show you will want to see—and to which you will want to bring your kids.


In the past week, the NY Times has published several great articles related to the show.  There were articles about Turrell himself: one in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, “Lights, Action: The alternate realities of James Turrell,” by Wil S. Hylton; the cover of that edition of the NY Times Magazine featured a wonderful 20 x 24 Polaroid photograph of Turrell by Chuck Close (below); and, on 20 June, the Times even had an article, “Three Venerable Names From the Art World: Chuck Close, James Turrell and Polaroid Film,” by Kathy Ryan about that photograph (the photograph was done with the same 20 x 24 camera that the Film Society of Lincoln Center uses to photograph the filmmakers that the Film Society works with—and the one Chuck Close actually used to photograph Clint Eastwood for the very first in the Film Society’s series of them; many of these photographs can be seen on display in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center). There was also a review of the James Turrell show at the Guggenheim, published the day of the opening —Roberta Smith’s “New Light Fixture for a Famous Rotunda: James Turrell Plays With Color at the Guggenheim,”




At the heart of the exhibition is the entrancingly beautiful Aten Reign,” a 79 foot high tower of light that completely takes over the entire central rotunda space of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic building.  (Architecture lovers, N.B.:  this installation also actually completely obscures one’s ability to get any view of the marvelous interior space of Wright’s building—so this is not the time to plan a visit to enjoy the architecture!)  Turrell has designed an enclosure within the vast space of the rotunda, extending all the way to the skylight at the top of the museum, which curtains off the interior rotunda space from the spiraling gallery balconies that usually define the outer edge of this internal space.  Within the enclosure, Turrell has created five levels of elliptical horizontal openings:  metal rings, 11 feet apart, the elliptical openings of each are covered with a translucent scrim; and these horizontal zones are illuminated by computerized colored lighting.  There is an hour-long cycle during which the colors, intensities, saturations, and brightness of the levels gradually change (at varying rates, in different directions); and the complexity of the pattern is increased by the changing effect of the light from the outside, natural world that enters the system from the skylight at the very top of the enclosure.


One views “Aten Reign” by looking upward into the enclosed volume within the rotunda from below, from the entry level to the museum. At this entry floor level, Turrell has created seating in an elliptical ring around the base of the enclosure within the rotunda—with that ring of bench seating having sharply outwardly-sloping backs, which allow the viewer to recline comfortably and watch the changing pattern in the space above.    One can also view the work by looking upward while standing at any point in the central area of the floor of the rotunda.  As the ellipses are off-center, where one sits or stands substantially changes the experience, as well.  Below are two photographs, from two different positions (the former from a standing position near the center of the rotunda, and the latter from a seated position, nearly aligned with the longitudinal axis of the elliptical openings—which we found to be ideal [as apparently does Turrell himself, as this was the spot he kept shepherding his friends toward at the opening reception on Thursday], at two very different chromatic moments in the cycle:






And two others which demonstrate something of the enormous chromatic range of the cycle:






The experience of viewing Aten Reign” is profoundly satisfying:  it is at once stimulating and serene, mesmerizing and senses-heightening.  I had not expected to like this installation all that much, and instead I was transfixed and thrilled by it.   There are times that the intensity of the colored light floods the entire viewing space, and times when it seems to have a far less effect; there are times when the gradations are extremely subtle, and others when they are incredibly sharp; there are times when things seem at a standstill, and times when changes happen relatively quickly.  At every moment, though, one is thoroughly drawn into the evolving experience that Turrell has orchestrated.


There are several other earlier works by Turrell, all from the Guggenheim’s permanent collection, that are on display in the upper galleries as part of this show.


On the Guggenheim’s 5th floor level, there is Turrell’s unusual and extremely subtle 1976 work, “Iltar” (shown here for clarity in a much more brightly-illuminated room than would work for the piece):




In fact, the piece works its subtle, nearly imperceptible magic because it is in a room that is nearly dark, save for the slight illumination from two incandescent, downward-facing lamps near the top of each side wall, and which slightly illuminate those side walls.  According to the Museum’s website, “Iltar” is described by Nat Trotman (who, along with Carmen Giménez, curated James Turrell for the Guggenheim) and Nancy Spector as


one of earliest examples of the works he calls Space Division Constructions… Like all Space Division Constructions, these installations feature a bifurcated room; visitors peer into what the artist calls a “sensing space” through a large opening in the partition wall. This aperture bears a knife-sharp edge, and the light fixtures that flank it create blushes of electrical light in the viewing space. Turrell has compared the effect of these lights on the viewer to that of standing on a theatrical stage: under spotlights the audience disappears into an inky void, but outside the light a performer can see again. In the Space Division Constructions, this state of partial blindness contributes to the impression that the opening is actually a solid plane of color on the wall. Unlike some later works, Iltar features light sources only in the viewing space; the work’s gray-green tone is thus produced solely by ambient, reflected light


The effects of Iltar” are totally entrancing, but it takes some time and concentration to appreciate them.


There are two light sculptures (and a series of prints of the forms produced by some of his light sculptures) in another of the upper galleries.   In the 1967 piece, “Afrum I (White),” Turrell creates what appears to be a white cube suspended in the corner of a room:




In fact, it is actually just the projection of a square of intensely white light onto the intersection of the two gray walls, and its apparent three-dimensional intrusion into the space of the room is an optical illusion—but a very appealing one, as one’s mind begins to analyze the sensory data more exactingly.  Nancy Spector, on the Guggenheim’s website, describes this form of his work in the following way:


Manipulating light as a sculptor would mold clay, James Turrell creates works that amplify perception. Unlike pictorial art that replicates visual experience through mimetic illusion, Turrell’s light works—one cannot call these shimmering events “objects” or “images”—give form to perception. Each installation activates a heightened sensory awareness that promotes discovery: what seems to be a lustrous, suspended cube is actually the conjunction of two flat panels of projected light… With such effects, Turrell hopes to coax the viewer into a state of self-reflexivity in which one can see oneself seeing.


Turrell has consistently utilized the sparest formal means to perpetuate the consciousness of perception. As demonstrated by the projected geometric “cube” of Afrum I, in which light creates the illusion of volume, the artist’s work derives its power from simplicity. Turrell’s early inquiries into the psychological implications of perception involved sensory deprivation. In 1968 he participated…[w]ith scientist Edward Wortz, who was investigating the perceptual alterations encountered in space travel, he studied the visual indeterminacy of the Ganzfeld—an optical phenomenon in which there is nothing for the eye to focus on—with the goal of observing his own retinal activity.


Such phenomena are manifest in works involving structural cuts into existing architecture that allow outside light to penetrate and inhabit interior realms. … These and all of Turrell’s skyspaces harken back to ancient building techniques that deployed natural light—and the cycles of the cosmos—to create symbolic architecture. In other spatial interventions, such as Night Passage, Turrell uses wall partitions with rectangular windows opening onto contiguous areas filled with pure, colored light. Standing in what Turrell has called the “sensing space,” the viewer encounters a Ganzfeld, the volume of colored light on the other side of the partition collapsing into what appears to be a floating, luminous plane with no surface or depth. The illusion is destabilizing yet mesmerizing; it is a tangible example of the artist’s endeavor to produce sensations that are essentially prelingual, to create a transformative experience of wordless thought.


This description accurately captures some essential aspects of Turrell’s work:  most importantly, the work does make one aware of the very process of one’s own perception—although it does so in a completely unpressured way that is not separate from the actual enjoyment of the experience.  One feels this awareness much more than one is drawn to intellectualize about it—although extensive intellectual processes are secondarily evoked, and they then proceed to alternate with the emotional reactions to the work.  (By the way, the “Ganzfeld [from the German, “whole field”] effect” refers to the disorientation produced by the experience of unmodulated fields of color; and it comes from the studies done on sensory deprivation that showed that it could produce various forms of disorientation—even, when in the extreme, hallucinations.


Nancy and I first saw one of these forms of Turrell’s work at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.  It was his wonderful piece from the 1970s, “Tending (Blue)”; but it is no more: Turrell has declared Tending, (Blue) “destroyed,” because the Museum Tower which was built near the Nasher restricted the clear view of the sky necessary for the piece to function as intended.


In “Prado (White),” also from 1967, a rectangle is projected onto a flat wall just off the room’s corner:




In the High Gallery is the 1968 “Ronin,” a work in which Turrell has removed a vertically-elongated rectangle from the corner of a somewhat darkened room, and filled it with florescent white light (projected from behind in a way that fills the rectangle with light—but which, by the way, is recessed behind the surface of the wall to the left, and not level with it):



James Turrell will be at the Guggenheim until 25 September.  During the show, the Museum will be open only for this exhibition; the hours being 10:00 AM – 5:45 PM daily except Thursdays (when the Museum is closed).  The Guggenheim Museum is located on Fifth Avenue, between 88th and 89th Streets.


It is crucial to be aware of the warning issued by the Guggenheim about this show (for totally different reasons from that of the warning at the Park Avenue Armory):  Due to the nature of the James Turrell installation, museum capacity is reduced and wait times are expected.  The waits may end up being very long, indeed—but it will be worth it!  James Turrell is a wonderful exhibition.


James Turrell is being shown in conjunction with major exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (entitled James Turrell: A Retrospective) and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (entitled James Turrell: The Light Inside).  If you are near either of these places, don’t miss them.



Paul McCarthy’s WS




Fairy tales (e.g., the famous 1812 German ones from the Brothers Grimm, Kinder- und Haus-Märchen, usually referred to in English as Grimm’s Fairy Tales) have always traditionally had an extremely dark side, even when they have been specifically directed toward enjoyment by children (which was not always the case).  They are full of very raw violence, primitive themes, and sexual content—though this last element is usually more latent and repressed than manifest and open.  Most Americans, however, know fairy tales only in watered down, “nicer” versions, in which the more primitive themes have been made less scary and more palatable—and the extreme of this trend is the Walt Disney version of fairy tales.  (Any comparison of the Peter Pan of the Scottish author J. M. Barrie and that of the 1953 Disney film quickly shows how different and mild the Disney versions are.)


In WS, at the marvelously renovated Park Avenue Armory, Paul McCarthy specifically reverses this direction:  he takes the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White[—“SW”?], and turns it completely around into WS—“White Snow” (which, by the way, is the title of the poem [q.v., below] by McCarthy in the “House Program” for the show); and he takes the completely de-instinctualized 1937 animated Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (an exceedingly pale copy of the original Snow White of Grimm’s Fairy Tales—which had been replete with juicy themes like cannibalism, and in which the villain was Snow White’s own jealous mother), and turns it back in totally the opposite direction, creating a completely unbridled orgy of instinctual excess of every imaginable kind—with the ultimate sarcastic twist being that one of the central characters in the piece is “Walt Paul,” played in the film by Paul McCarthy himself, but made up to look like Walt Disney!  In addition to Walt Paul (who, by the way, in his tuxedo-clad grubbiness, seems like the appropriate host for a drunken, déclassé, suburban bacchanal), the cast features nine (as opposed to seven) dwarves  (N.B.: the Germanic spelling of the plural McCarthy employs, perhaps to emphasize the more raw, primitive version of the creature as opposed to the Anglicized “dwarfs”; J. R. R. Tolkien made the same decision), grotesque, mostly bearded, creatures with bulbous noses (four of whom are clad in yellow, UCLA-branded sweat shirts, which may be a nod to the fact that McCarthy was on the faculty there from 1984-2003; and another four of whom are clad in Yale-branded T-shirts and sweatshirts—the specific for reasons for that choice not  being apparent to me, although it did provide a few shades of blue in the mix with the red hats), and WS, who originally appears dressed in the Disney-version yellow, blue, and red silk gown (the combination of which primes yields, of course, white), but who, early in the proceedings, is deconstructed into three separate WS’es (one in yellow, one in blue, and in in red)—who, in their girlish “innocence,” often serve as “proper” party hostesses (in long white gloves and their primary-colored, strapless, taffeta gowns—at least while they are still in those gowns) in the midst of the madness of the parties that ensue—serving drinks and crudité (a visual pun, perhaps?) throughout the orgies of excess.


McCarthy created a series of movie sets in Los Angeles for this project: an enormous (8,800 square foot), surreal and eerie fairy tale forest, with a suburban-looking house (modeled after McCarthy’s own canary yellow ranch house childhood home in Salt Lake City) within its dark, tangled vegetation (the photograph [by Stephen Wilkes] below, taken from Randy Kennedy’s excellent article [q.v., the NY Times, 10 May, “The Demented Imagineer”] shows the cast assembled in the forest set, in front of the yellow house);




and a separate set of rooms for the interiors of that house—in good movie set fashion, separate from the forest setting of the exterior of the house.  Over the course of the past winter, McCarthy shot some 30 hours of film of himself and his cast on these sets.  He then had the sets torn down and later painstakingly reassembled within the vastness of the Park Avenue Armory’s 55,000 square foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, with two horizontal arrays of four gigantic screens—one set across each end of the hall, onto which are simultaneously projected a seven-hour long film record of his “caricature and parody” of Disney’s Snow White.  At times the four screens show four different portions of the story; at times there are two pairs of the same images.  At times one of the screens is ahead or behind the others in its chronological position in the story—sometimes slightly displaced in time, sometimes seriously displaced; at times they are different perspectives on the identical moment in time.  Every day in the exhibition, the film is projected in the same seven-hour progression.  The time sequences keep moving back and forth in the overall chronology—there are scenes shown fairly early on that are from a point hours later in the chronology; but there is a general progression forward throughout the seven-hour sequence—from the opening “WS Alone in the Forest,” though “WS Meets the Dwarves,” a series of three “Parties” [“Kids,” “Dinner,” and “Dancing”], to “The Death of WS,” and ultimately “The Prince Comes”).  There are viewing areas throughout the Drill Hall, including access to the balconies high above the floor from which one can both view the video presentations and look down onto the forest and other sets.  Outside of the Drill Hall, there are several other rooms that contain parts of the exhibition:  a two-hour, two screen video presentation, “White Snow Mammoth,” in a room which also contains some costumes and props from the filming; a video interview with Paul McCarthy; and even a “Walt Paul Gift Shop.”


McCarthy’s  2013 poem, “White Snow,” provides much insight into his intentions and the programmatic basis for his  WS:


The set, the forest, the interior is a device, a machine

Desire device

Dream device

Pretend device


The cult of the pretend

The genre of the pretend

The playground of the pretend, regression


Expression of repression

A form of repression’


Los Angeles

The device activated

Operating machine

Action occurs the performance occurs

The pretense of delirium


New York

Relocation, the gift

The device held in static state

A state of presentation

on the Disney carpet


Outside the exterior of my childhood home

Within the interior of the artificial forest


Inside the interior of my childhood home

On the outside edge of the artificial forest


Walt Paul, controlled

White snow, Red, Yellow, Blue: muse juice machines, juice producers

Nine dwarves: gang of boys

Prince: comes, enters the forest


The prince has sex, fornication with an inanimate object, a fabrication

Sex, fornication with the sculpture


The obsession

The self,



Let me be completely clear:  this video presentation is deeply disturbing and shocking—although the level of the dementedness progressively grows during the seven hours.  (We came in and viewed the video at three different points in the progression: the first about two hours in, the second about four hours in, and by the third, 4½ hours or so in, it was simply too grotesque and distressing for us to want to see any further in the progression.)  There are moments of depravity early in the earlier parts of the presentation—mostly, we realized as we checked back in at later points, flash-forwards to later points in the chronology; but there are also some eerily entrancing, beautiful moments (as when WS wandering through this “enchanted forest”).  The excesses—of eating and drinking, excreting and vomiting, and also of sexual interactions of various sorts—become increasingly extreme.  Eventually—and this is shockingly clear from the scenes with plastic body doubles that inhabit some of the interior sets—the violence also becomes extreme, although we mostly spared ourselves that end of things.  There is a great deal of total nudity, which also increases as the sequence progresses; and while it is also at times explicitly sexual, one should be made aware that it is not in any way particularly sexy.  The sex and nudity in this presentation no more raise one’s sexual titillation that than does the eating and drinking heighten one’s appetite: instead, it rather engenders disgust and revulsion.


In the end, we felt ourselves to have been inside what simultaneously on the one hand was a wild exaggeration of the dark, instinct-riddled side of a fairy tale (of which the Disney versions represent the mirror image exaggeration in the opposite direction); but, on the other hand, was an exaggerated presentation of the dark side of the culture that has produced those unrealistically upbeat, “American fairy tale” views: the excessive consumption in American (and LA?) culture—the alcoholism, the overeating, the lifeless sexuality, and the mindless violence.  Inside the middle-American ranch house of this “fairy tale” world, the drunken, meaningless excesses are progressively all that remain as the weak traces of civilization evaporate.


WS is masterfully done; WS is extremely interesting; WS is provocative and evocative.  Nevertheless, WS is enormously difficult and viscerally upsetting.  Is it worth it? Is it art?  It’s not a simple question…  The Park Avenue Armory deserves great credit, however, for having the courage to mount this most interesting show.  And admission is free for Armory members, so this is a very good time to consider joining this wonderful institution.  (click: to become a member)  I’d suggest joining, and, when you do, also book tickets for the Park Avenue Armory show coming in December which is certain to be both wonderful (as we have reason to believe from friends who have seen it in Madrid have told us) and sold out (once people become aware of it):  The Life and Death of Marina Abramović (with Marina Abramović and Willem Dafoe), 12 – 21 December 2013.


Paul McCarthy’s WS


Park Avenue Armory

(Park Avenue between 66th and 67th Streets)


19 June – 4 August.



Tuesday – Thursday: 1:00pm – 8:00pm
Friday: 1:00pm – 10:00pm (there is a special bar that serves libations until 11:00pm)
Saturday – Sunday: 12:00pm – 7:00pm



$15 General Admission
$12 Students (with ID), Seniors (65+), Groups (8 or more)

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