Light… Is the Revelation


James Turrell's Aten Reign in the Guggenheim Rotunda

James Turrell’s Aten Reigns in the Guggenheim Rotunda

“My art deals with light itself.  It’s not the bearer of the revelation – it is the revelation.”  James Turrell

Even people who have never visited the Guggenheim (we call them Muggles) know its trademark shape.  Frank Lloyd Wright changed art museums forever when he designed the center rotunda and surrounding ramps, which are reflected in the exterior shape of the building.  You can buy Lego Guggenheims, Guggenheim-shaped lamps, and kits to build tiny paper Guggenheims.  The Guggenheim even features in the video game Happy Street (free at the app store – highly recommended because it’s HAPPY).

James Turrell has altered everything you know about the Guggenheim.  His Aten Reigns installation walls off the ramps (which are shorn of their art anyway).  Sitting in the first floor rotunda, visitors stare straight up at the changing light show, or lie on the floor to see the ceiling oculus.  Is this a Pantheon?  It feels like a tribute to the gods – or maybe a gift from them.  Aten, after all, is the name the ancient Egyptians gave to the sun and to their first monotheistic god.

The huge crowd tries to photograph Aten Reigns, which defies capture.

There are also several smaller light installations, plus a collection of Turrell’s aquatints that  glow with light.  You may have to stand in line, but it moves quickly and is worth it.

Turrell Aquatints (photo by Youri Choi)

Turrell Aquatints
(photo by Youri Choi)

Wassily Kandinsky Courbe dominante, 1936 (Dominant Curve)

Wassily Kandinsky
Courbe dominante, 1936
(Dominant Curve)

While you’re at the museum, do yourself a favor and look at the excellent collection of Kandinskys from his Paris period.  I’m a big Kandinsky fan and especially enjoy tracing his travel from figurative to abstract work.  These paintings from the ’30s and ’40s fall on the abstract side, but just barely, which means that you can see space and identify shapes in them – just as in the best abstract art.  Kandinsky has a magical touch when it comes to combining the whimsical with the substantial.  I especially enjoy his Petits accents (below) in which small birds, other creatures, houses, and random shapes perch on what might be electrical lines, and just as well might be a musical score or lined paper.  Where do you think it belongs on the Kandinsky continuum between representational and abstract?  Does the label matter?  It is delightful.

Kandinsky's Petits accents, 1940(Small Accents)

Kandinsky’s Petits accents, 1940 (Small Accents)


Out and About

Zarina Hashmi, Blinding Light

Zarina Hashmi,
Blinding Light

I spent part of this afternoon at the Guggenheim where I was disappointed not to be able to walk the ramps because they were installing a new show in the empty middle air.  But they did have an interesting exhibition on the fourth floor by Zarina Hashmi, a New York artist who works primarily on hand-made paper (hence the show title: Paper Like Skin).

I was reprimanded only once for standing too close, which is amazing, because her work demands a literally closer look.  It’s a combination of “how did she do that?” with “what is that?”.

Zarina HashmiCage

Zarina Hashmi

She is using sawn pieces of wood to make woodcut prints (not carved wood, just natural pieces of driftwood, or fallen branches).  She has done the same with patterns of twigs and reeds.

Zarina HashmiUntitled Relief Print

Zarina Hashmi
Untitled Relief Print

A large collection of “pin paintings” is presented in which Hashmi has punctured her paper in a predictable regular manner – but the hand of the artist can still be seen. Those are in direct contrast to a thread painting, in which the thread pierces the paper in a mathematical grid, but the tail ends are left to fall randomly in an accidental pattern that is fascinating.

The deliberate allowing of chaos into an artist’s work is a difficult choice and an even more difficult plan to implement.  How, after all, to plan for chance?  It is a very fine line to walk: where to control and where to let go.  It is only when it is working that it looks easy.

Zarina HashmiUntitled (Pin Drawing)

Zarina Hashmi
Untitled (Pin Drawing)


Zarina Hashmi,Untitled (Lithograph and Thread)

Zarina Hashmi,
Untitled (Lithograph and Thread)

Hashmi’s work is quiet but intelligent and thought-provoking, at least for me.  I may have started out looking at her work and asking “how” and “what”, but I ended up asking “why”, which is a far more interesting question.