On James Turrell

I went to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston to see the James Turrell exhibit. I had never heard of James Turrell. It seems almost impossible, in hindsight, that I had never heard of James Turrell. Ever since I can remember, I thought I was exposed to art, informed. My sister worked at Pace Wildenstein; she and I owned an art gallery together at one point. I’ve been to Marfa. So how did I miss this huge, beautiful, ART in the middle of the road. It was like, well, it was like nothing. It was entirely its own thing.

I didn’t even bother buying the book because there would be no point in a James Turreell coffee table book. No visual point, I guess. I would love to read more about his interests in astronomy and topography and the man himself. The love of mathematics and physics that led to a love of the visual arts. The words Visual Arts. Vision. Perception. Your actual eyeball. Looking at his work, being in his work, actually transforms your own experience with your eyeballs.

I think I travelled through the exhibit (typically, for me) in a backward fashion. I parked on the east side of the museum complex, then walked through the permanent installation (the tunnel) first. In fact, I thought that was the entire exhibit. I went through the tunnel, hung out in that tunnel, asked the museum guy in the tunnel all sorts of inquisitive, probing questions about the tunnel, because This Was It and I thought I’d better get to the bottom of it.

When I emerged from the tunnel I texted my sister and said, “Is the tunnel the exhibit in its entirety?” She texted me back, quickly, from Florida. “No. Go through to the next building and upstairs.” Insanity and Peace are warring inside me.

I was in Houston for terrible life-threatening reasons, watching human beings suffer miserably in their heroic attempts to irradiate themselves and poison themselves to combat a disease. I was in Houston to fall in love with James Turrell and have the best food of my life at Liberty Kitchen and spend lengthy amounts of joyous, unscripted time with family members I rarely get to see. The cancer that is destroying one of us is also binding all of us back together.

So I walk up the stairs and feel a little lost and alone, probably the way Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Louis I. Kahn or whichever genius put those I-beams and tender one-inch iron balustrades into the warped vast spaces of the main building of the Museum of Fine Arts intended me to feel. And I realize when I get to the top of the stairs that I have accidentally missed my scheduled time of 3:00 because I spent 45 minutes in the tunnel, thinking that was where I was supposed to be at 3:00. No matter.

One of the many kind attendants handed me a badge marked “:30” to wear around my neck. It felt like a VIP pass. The space was open and felt like a gym or a college hall where you might register for classes (probably having overslept and missed out on all the easy afternoon classes and then you end up with an 8:00 am Italian class five days a week instead, because “Hey, why not become fluent in Italian?”)
Into the first room I went. Very prescribed. Very kindly directed with “ENTER” and “EXIT” painted neatly on the white walls. Very nicely gestured in and monitored by one of the many, many attendants who are there to guide you around and through the exhibit (but also to monitor you and make sure you don’t, you know, do anything to the art.) The first room is empty when I walk in. The light is door-shaped and has an oblong vertical O shape that fades in and out. It feels figurative and I am mildly disappointed. It feels like an altar, the way there is a bench in the middle of the viewing space, instead of benches along the back of the wall, or God forbid, no benches, so lazy people could stand for once.

I lean against the back wall and hope I will remain alone. Someone immediately walks in. Then two more people. Then a teenage boy who walks in and stands about 16 inches in front of me. I squeak my totally-the-wrong-shoes-to-wear-to-the-James-Turrell-exhibit flip-flops to let him know I exist and he has interfered with my humanity. He looks bodily apologetic and moves slightly to the right. The first woman who came in sits on the floor in a yoga pose (criss-cross-applesauce) and begins rustling through her satchel. Pulls out her bottle of water. Undoes the top. Annoys me. I realize I am no longer in the James Turrell exhibit at all. I leave that room and move into the next.

The next one was blue and enormous, in a similar space, but with the benches built into the back wall. Safer somehow. I shrunk myself into one of the dark corners and tried to understand whether it was the wall or the perimeter that created the light. I tried to understand if there was even a wall or if the wall had been removed and the blue edge created the idea of a wall. I started to unwind. The center rectangle began to have that wonderful vibrating Rothko effect. My eyes were relaxing. I was relaxing. A few people came in. It didn’t matter. The blue and gray and white and all of it. Just perfect. Pure. Nothing. I took a deep breath and left that one.

I walked behind a wall of aquatint studies and looked out the windows. The sheers over the floor-to-ceiling glass and I-beams reminded me of our apartment at 880 North Lake Short Drive. I really wanted to know if this was a Mies van der Rohe building. I wanted to feel like I knew things.

I read the description of the Ganzfeld exhibit on the wall. Germans being Germanic, was my first snide impression. Trying to trick the eye to reach some psychotic nirvana or some shit. When I walked in, one of the (myriad) attendants approached me like a kind monk at one of those places in Thailand I went when I was backpacking (as if that gerund made it a legitimate occupation) in 1989. Places that were still sacred, but felt less so because you had to pay admission and be guided around them.

Anyway, the young hipster museum guard version of that monk approached me and said, “The exhibit requires you remove your shoes.” Awesome! I love removing my shoes. I slid off the squeaky flip-flops that were totally detracting from my enjoyment of the whole experience and slipped on the white disposable footies. They reminded me of this place we went to in Russia, in 2001, when we visited St. Petersburg and we went to a little palace, not one of the huge ones, just this little summer palace, and we had to put felty boiled wool shoe covers over our shoes so we didn’t destroy the priceless parquet floors. (Of course, at the time, I pictured communists and Germans and every other brutal soldier storming around on those floors in classist or martial spite and wondered what the rubber soles of my Tevas could do by comparison, but as usual, I complied.)

So changing shoes for art made me think of all that. Then, still in religious-supplicant mode, I walked up the rather steep black-carpeted stairs, maybe eight or nine, that started wide at the base and became increasingly (diminishingly?) narrow as I neared the ovoid entrance to the Ganzfeld deprivation chamber, or whatever it was called. Something strange and beautiful happened in there. There are no edges to the room; I wanted to lean into the non-existent wall. I wanted support. One of the two uniformed museum attendants inside the seemingly endless room, let me hold onto his arm when I got too curious about the edge…I just had to see.

The light source opposite the entrance was a grayish white when I first entered. I asked how deep it was, how far back the far end of it was. The attendant answered. Two metres. Eight feet. Six feet. Five feet. His answer varied when different people came and went and asked him. (I stayed in there a pretty long time. I think I did, but it was timeless and shapeless in there so it was hard to tell.) I wondered if it helped him pass the time to give a different answer every time, or if Turrell had asked that the attendants give a different answer every time, because there was no point in a right answer. Stupid right answers. Stupid people who think a right answer is any kind of real answer.

And then the Ganzfeld tracers and throbbing beating hearts of my eyeballs started, against that gray-white nothing everything-ness and I was finally present. Finally speechless. The yammering finally stopped. Utterly ceased. Just that field of color and blessed nothingness. At last. It was the nothingness of death, I guess. But a pleasant one. A really soothing joyful one, a culmination. A proper finish, like with a good wine.

I’m surrounded by death lately. If I was into the personification of death I would say He is stalking me. But I’m not. I just feel it all around me like a slow burbling sink that’s backing up…will it explode and destroy in some fantastic fashion or just burble along, reminding you constantly of its omnipresence? The threat of death. People in cancer wards trying so hard to live but…they’re not. They’re dying. I used to buy into the whole we’re-dying-from-the-moment-we’re-born thing. But I don’t. Like with all living and growing things, there’s a rising up, a building, a peak, and a gradual (or abrupt) decline. Civilizations, individuals, whatever.

So I stuck with the chamber for a while. It went pink, lovely and romantic, blushy salmon around the edges, such a relief from that cold, cold gray white, and then the entrance looked green, but the attendant said that light never changed, it just looked like it was changing. That’s when I started to feel the tingles. Like the tingles I felt at the Matisse show in New York where I started crying for no apparent reason, other than…Matisse’s palm tree…with the darkness…and you just knew he was going to die..that it was over…and you had the feeling that he STILL didn’t know if it was enough, to show the world how he saw the world.

But in the Ganzfeld room, at the time, I felt none of that, thought none of that. Just color and curiosity. Experience. When I emerged I needed more help from one of the outside museum guards, to help me down the steep stairs. I sat on the long bench and removed my disposable footies and slid my feet back into my cheap flip flops. I felt vertiginous, and a little sad. I wanted to go back in. But there was more of the exhibit to see, or to experience. There are seven altogether and I still had more to go. Plus the aquatints. And the topography stuff. And the reading table. And it was getting late.

So I went into the other rooms. The blue pyramid that felt like a trick. The green cube of light in the corner. The bright white lights that projected my shadow when I walked in close. And then the dark room. The important place (for me). The convergence. I think that’s what it was. Or confluence. The paragraph neatly painted on the wall said the artist was also an aviator. “Of course he is!” the romance-hero-heat-seeking-missle in my brain cried. Artist! Mathematician! Aviator! Quaker! James Turrell IS Buckaroo Bonzai in the 21st century. Of course he is.

So I entered the dark room and it had the bench at the back, tucked into the corner, so there was none of that being-in-the-middle-of-the-room awkwardness that had bothered me in the first room way back when. I don’t know if this was the right order, if I went through the rooms in the right order, but it was MY right order. Because I sat down and breathed in that dark room with a wall of angular lights designed to look like doors or passages or even a book or a folded piece of the universe or something. It was transitional. Something you could get through. And the thought of that getting-through brought all the tears.

All the tears that I guess I had been unwittingly holding for the past few months or years. Because I am not a cryer. But even that, when we say things about ourselves like “I am stubborn” or “I am ambitious”…that all changes all the time, in an instant or over many instances. Friends I haven’t seen for ten years, who used to be mellow or angry are now angry or mellow instead. We are all changing and converging and going through all that. Through weather systems and clouds that either change us or maybe just show us things about ourselves that were always there but laid dormant or undiscovered.

So now, I am a cryer. I have cried every day for the past week about one thing or another. I cried in that dark room. It was quiet and safe and I felt like I could leave all my sadness in there and the room could take it. They were slow gentle tears, nothing obscene or racking. I wasn’t wailing. And it felt so good, to just sit there and let it come and be fine with how much sadness there is in the world. Even typing that now, in the coffee shop here in Florida while my daughter does her homework for summer school a few inches away, I feel the press of tears, of the memory of all the flow. I have to be a certain way for a lot of hours of the day…I can’t very well take the six-year-old boy to his play date with tears streaming down my face. I mean, I could. I have. But on a regular basis it’s just too much drama. So it felt good to look death in the face and say, “I see you. Friend.”

Because Death is also a Quaker, I think.

1 thought on “On James Turrell

  1. I’ve had your post open in a tab in my browser since almost the very moment you tweeted it and just now finally read it. I think you’re right. We have our own weather systems that roll through us, leave us changed. Sometimes just a cold front that leaves the air you breathe in crisp. Sometimes a huge storm that renders the world unrecognizable and you have to dig your way back out to find a new normal.

    All the hugs through the tears.

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