My family and I love the unique art of James Turrell. When I learned that the Guggenheim museum in Manhattan was participating in a national retrospective of Turrell’s work, and featuring a new site-specific transformational piece, I went online and bought tickets. I got tickets for both the overall museum exhibition, and for a conversation with the artist. This was on Friday, June 21st, the solstice. Here is the story of the visit:
Some ups and downs in the Turrell visit to the Guggenheim.
..on arrival, around 12:45 p.m., staff outside struggled to direct people appropriately for lines and doors. The main entrance to the Guggenheim is a single revolving door, and the space just inside is fairly small. There were several categories of visitors– members, non-members with and without tickets, pre-paid folks needing to pick up their tickets (us).
..we got our tickets quickly once inside. I had purchased tickets for the overall museum/Turrell exhibit, and tickets for the Turrell talk.
..since the talk wasn’t until 2, we went into the atrium to see the main installation, Aten Reign. There were seats around the perimeter, though the best viewing was directly in the center of the space, looking straight up. Although laying down to look up was optimal, that wasn’t allowed (too easy for distracted guests to step on the reclined and hurt them). The installation really is remarkable. As you keep looking, the spatial dimension of it seems to change. It can seem to be a tall space, with the oculus far away. Or, in typical Skyspace fashion, it can seem to be all flat and near. As I twisted my head a bit from side to side, part of the central area seemed to turn convex, appearing to bulge towards me. Quite remarkable.
..we went to get in line for the talk. The entry to the auditorium at the Guggenheim is not accessible from inside the museum proper. We were told it was around the corner. In fact, it wasn’t. It’s down a ramp just at the corner of the building. No signage again (I’m big on signage lol). We got in early, and sat in the third row center. The talk was a conversation between the director from LACMA, and Turrell. It was very casual, touched mainly on how Turrell developed certain insights in his life, and didn’t talk at all about his development of the big piece for the Guggenheim. There were slides, and after a while, the slide was an aerial view of Roden. But there was not a single question or comment about Roden, either from the host, or the audience. Interesting. In this case, my flux-y feeling had come from my own hopes and expectations not being met
.. So we had to go outside and back into the main entrance crowd a second time, to go in for the other parts of the exhibit. There were several Turrell pieces installed, on two different floors. These were all in the so-called Annex galleries, which are to the side of the round main space. We got off the tiny semi-circular elevator (only held about five people) and saw.. A huge line. In fact, the line on this floor went all the way around the entire level of the museum. There were at least 100 people in line to enter the two installations on this floor. Holy Disney! Once again, no explanations, no signs, no guidance on what was happening.
..And, oh… when we had returned to the main entrance, we got a real shocker. Of course we had both sets of tickets, and I showed my main museum stubs to get back in. The guard saw my stubs from the talk, and told us “oh, you can exchange those for tickets to the museum too.” Wtf? We went to the ticket counter (after being stopped by a guard when we wanted to pass from the atrium back to the ticket counter). At the counter, an unsympathetic and condescending young man told us “oh… Well yes, at the last minute they decided to add a perk for those buying the tickets for the talk. You could have just used those to get into the museum too.” So, uhhh…. By being an early purchaser, I got screwed? I paid you for two sets of tickets, when I only needed one? Well, yes, that was it. The guy said the museum had decided there was nothing they could, or would do for folks like me. Well. **** you very much.
..So we went back to the elevator, and squeezed in for the ride to the other floor, where a guest told us there were no lines. That was true. For some reason, the three projected light pieces on this other floor were wide open, and people just flowed through. Two pretty cool pieces with projected white light. One, a classic Turrell, appeared to create a floating solid cube of light against the corner of the gallery. The other, a wide rectangle of light that seemed to be an opening through the solid wall, into… Something Here, a docent was able to explain the line on the other floor. Apparently the installation there could only accommodate 15 people at a time. She said that visitors were supposed to be allowed five minutes to stay inside, but… She then said that “they’re not handling that very well, yet.” The docent said we could come back another day. I explained that I had come a long way to be there now… On the opening day, so we could see Turrell. The odor of indifference was as palpable as the illusory space of the art.
..Susie needed a pit stop. I waited in the gallery as she went off to find the rest room. She was gone quite a while, and when she returned, she reported that each floor of the Guggenheim appeared to have just two unisex bathrooms. Moreover, she said the bathrooms were very small. Semi-circular spaces barely bigger than airplane bathrooms. I needed a break by this time, so we walked over, and I got on the bathroom line. Well… Bigger than an airplane bathroom, but not a lot. And yes, each of these odd little bathrooms was just for one person at a time. We began to wonder about the Wright design of this iconic building.
..We never did go back to the other floor, and we never saw the other two installations. We returned to the atrium to gaze again at the shifting elliptical colors and light of Aten Reign.
..then we took the short walk to the gift shop. There was a lovely coffee table volume on Turrell. Very nice, very comprehensive. I’d have been more inclined to give them the $75 if I hadn’t spent $60 for a pair of tickets I didn’t need. We looked around, but there wasn’t a single other Turrell item that we could find. No postcards, no posters, no keychain photo-viewers as we had from the Turrell installations at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. So we asked at the counter. A nicer young man simply said, “oh… Well they haven’t made them yet. We’ll have postcards and other things later on in the run of the exhibition.” Huh? I pulled my four ticket stubs out of my shirt pocket, and said, “but WE are here TODAY.”
..we quickly caught a cab outside, and rode a mile to a tiny place I’d noted on Yelp. Pastrami Queen barely seats a dozen people. But the food would be worth a long line (there was no one eating in there when we first arrived). Exquisite corned beef and pastrami. Wonderful non-dairy knishes. We had sweet potato. A fabulous find, and an island of actual service and civility after the oddly dissatisfying Guggenheim. A little Kosher joint, run by Latinos, and deserving of the 4 1/2 Yelp stars that brought us there.
..New York itself was fine. Cabs were immediate and effective. Penn Station was bustling but effective and helpful (ahh…signage!). On the train back home, I decided to check for reviews of the Guggenheim. Ahh… Both Yelp and Trip Advisor. Both rated the place 3 1/2 stars. Both had recent visitors who were upset that the museum had failed to tell them how much was closed off for the Turrell construction, without discounting admission prices (I am SHOCKED! Shocked, I tell you!). Earlier visitors commented on the small elevators and bathrooms. One reviewer noted that “there are tons of bathrooms down in the basement level… And no lines.” And no signs to tell the unknowing.
..when I ordered the tickets, the Guggenheim site specifically noted that because of the Turrell works, the museum would be limiting admissions to the museum. That certainly did not seem to be the case on opening day. Like many other Guggenheim reviewers, we felt that there was a clear overall indifference towards the visitors. On this first day of the highly-touted Turrell exhibit, the Guggenheim staff seemed surprised at the crowds, and unprepared for the work of guiding and expediting people through the building. We love Turrell, but having visited LACMA on other occasions, I am betting they are doing a much getter job with the Turrell magic. Maybe it’s the proximity to Disneyland.