James Turrell’s Meeting at MoMA PS1

James Turrell, Meeting, 1980-86/2016

“Wordless thought” is how American artist James Turrell has described the experience he seeks to create, suggesting a kind of perceptual knowledge discovered as much through the body as through the mind. This goal underlies even very early works, from light experiments in California in the 1960s to the breakthrough 1980s ‘skyspace’ Meeting that Turrell recently worked closely with MoMA PS1 to renovate. Meeting was the second skyspace that Turrell constructed and the first in the United States. He  has continued to work with similar types of ceiling cut outs in the subsequent decades. Turrell worked on Meeting for roughly 6 years, cutting out the original ceiling to make way for the sky and then adapting the room to increase the viewer’s perception of the space until the sky seems to rest directly on top of it. The title and the simple wooden bench that runs around the walls recalls Turrell’s Quaker upbringing. In its original incarnation, Meeting was a simple opening to the sky with modest lighting to create a kind of glowing inner chamber that subtly allowed you to become aware of the changing light and sky. The renovation, unveiled a few months ago, includes a multi-colored LED lighting program that adds a mind-bending flair to the work.

Before, the viewer who was in the room at sunrise or sunset would notice the changing sky as it hung suspended like a flat surface on top of them. Now, a lighting program synchronized with the sunrise and sunset dramatizes such subtle perceptual shifts in sky and interior colors, dramatically changing the color of the sky from pale to dark and warm to cool, through the use of intense LED lights. It feels like a trick of the mind to watch what you know to be the same patch of sky shift through gradations of color. At the same time, it is so subtle that you can’t pinpoint the moment when the color slips from one hue to the next. The incredibly crisp edge where building meets sky and lack of depth markers create the flat appearance of what could be an exercise in geometric abstract painting. The fresh air and the changing colors–whether artificial or in the passing of clouds over the sky–constantly remind your thinking mind that that is not the case.

It’s an experience that is impossible to capture in an image, although many people tried while I was there recently. It’s literally impossible because the room is wider than any one field of vision, but also because the art is located in what feels like a living space that extends out from you into a much bigger world. It requires patience. Around dawn and dusk, an approximately 40-minute light show enhances the changing natural light, ushering in the transition from day to night and night to day. But it requires patience not just to sit through a quiet show of changing lights and marvel at the effects of the sky, but to open yourself up to the experience of looking. Relaxing into the experience and allowing your vision to adjust to it, you become immersed in changing fields of color. Lacking depth perception, the sky which you know to go up and up into space seems to jut into the room like a 3-dimensional shape, or the shaping mechanism of the square cut out seems to shift dynamically into a diamond the recedes or comes forward. The eye tells you that such things are possible even though the mind knows they are not. Such an exchange of perceptual and mental knowledge is perhaps what wordless thought is like: not judging as your perception becomes unlinked from reality and wondering if there isn’t a special kind of knowledge in that.

Meeting is on permanent view at MoMA PS1, weather permitting.


Chris Ofili at the New Museum


An immersive, powerful experience of large-scale colorful canvases sounds like a step back in time to the New York City of the 1950s and ’60s, when color field artists like Mark Rothko were trying to paint a sublime experience. This retrospective at the New Museum of Chris Ofili, the British-born, 46 year-old painter, is neither abstract nor transcendental, but in new ways it suggests similar values of color and painterliness. The three floors of the museum feature works from throughout the artist’s career in this decadent and lush exhibition on view through January 25.



P1160073P1160080The artist’s early provocative works with elephant dung, paintings from his installation at the British Pavilion done in the red, green, and black of the Pan-African flag, as well as a wall of watercolor portraits and a few choice (and for me surprising) sculptures are displayed roughly chronologically. These are all visually lush, intricately made, and well-worth a long look. What I enjoy very much about all the works in the exhibition is their merging of the figurative with the decorative in a way that, rather than eroding the content of the work, rather displaces it into a narrative realm of story and symbol. That is, rather than loosing content through the decorative and abstract–all highlighted by the colorful, wrought surfaces–new possibilities are opened up by it.


Certainly, that’s something in itself. But what I most enjoyed was the artist-designed staging of the paintings on the third and fourth floors of the museum. I have some pictures of the fourth floor, a room of recent paintings from 2007 to 2014 displayed on a surprise of violet patterned walls that look like blown-up gouache by Gaugin. While the pictures hardly do it justice, you can at least get a sense of the overall effect: how the walls encase the paintings like velvet in a jewelry box and how the patterned surfaces play against one another in such a sensuous manner that the figurative elements within it remains slippery and suggestive rather than didactic.

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But for me the third floor held the most interesting experience. It’s also the most difficult to photograph. My photos of it, no flash allowed and taken in low light, all came out black, but I found one (below). Ofili designed a deep blue circular room to hang nine of his “The Blue Rider” paintings in. The paintings in this series, its name taken from the early Modernist journal in which Kandinsky preached his spiritual abstractions, are composed in deep shades of blue, apparently inspired by the colors of twilight and culture of Trinidad where the artist now lives.

Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW via the New Museum's tumblr

Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW via the New Museum’s tumblr

Between the low light and dark colors it is difficult to see the paintings–but to great effect. Your vision adjusts to some degree. Only in walking around the paintings, however, was I able to make out the shapes as the light shifted on the surface. These paintings seem like spiritual and formal exercises in perception and the meaning of color on one hand, but, like all Ofili’s works, were not without content. Houses, people, landscape all glimmered out of the dusky twilight. The subject matter reference films, biblical stories, and scenes from everyday life in Trinidad as well as Ofili’s imagination. The difficult perceptual experience was highly rewarding as it forces the viewer to actively pursue the suggested narrative while moving around it. Rather than being distracting, it was provocative and elusive. And very beautiful.

Little Grand Canyon Yellow: Earth Pigments from Places


Called Little Grand Canyon Yellow, this 1964 painting by Howard Thomas is hung next to a vitrine of small, re-purposed glass jars at the Georgia Museum of Art. The title of the work was intended literally. The artist made the yellow pigment from earth from the Grand Canyon. Perhaps it is not coincidental this painting preceded the earthworks of Robert Smithson and Ana Mendieta of the 1970s.  Although still on canvas, Thomas engages with site through the locally sourced pigment that are referenced in the title. The style of the work, however, rather than being a fragmented areal view, seems to me more like formalist play because of the  centered shapes bounded by the canvas, suggesting no expansive horizon, and the disjointed layerings that creates a tone-on-tone sense of motion or depth.


The glass jars showing Thomas’s pigments have fascinating labels, like the one below labelled “Frat House.” What kind of painting might that have been used in versus the one above, I wonder.