James Turrell at PaceWildenstein and Tony Cragg at Marian Goodman Gallery
“James Turrell” at PaceWildenstein, 534 West 25th Street, New York, through January 10, 2004
“Tony Cragg” at Marian Goodman Gallery, W 57th Street, New York, through January 17, 2004
Like his chosen medium – light – James Turrell’s reputation is untouchable. The notion of an artist who makes the way the viewer sees the essential component of his work has a purity of intention that is ennobling in its very conception: You feel good just thinking about it. Thus has the Californian anointed himself the shaman of minimalism.
Mr. Turrell creates elaborately simple structures within which to experience light and space in new ways. His *gesamtkunstwerk*, an inverted Babel being constructed within Roden Crater, a dormant Arizona volcano, is currently due for completion in 2006. A multimillion dollar earthwork of tunnels, elliptical chambers, and a perfected rim, it is designed for enhanced contemplation of the heavens – a kind of natural telescope that will use the laws of perception in lieu of lenses.
Back on earth (just!) Mr. Turrell has created two new installations at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea. One must be ascended as if it were a temple, the other stumbled into as if it were a movie theater. In the first you are obliged, as befits the religiosity of the experience, to remove your shoes; in the second you are free to stub your toe in your own choice of footwear.
“First Moment” (2003) is the latest in a series of *ganzfeld* experiments in which the artist immerses the viewer in artificial colored light with the intention of forcing perceptual shifts. Inside a large chamber, blue light is projected onto white surfaces from a “goal post” of florescent strips that flank the entry.
For admittance to this ethereal holy of holies, one must stand in line, shoes removed and feet clod instead in little plastic sacks. To ensure that only four visitors at a time subject themselves to the experience, the gallery employs security guards. It might seem churlish to recount these mundane administrative details, but the fact that visitors must literally be policed in order to become fully and properly subject to perception control seems of symbolic coincidence.
Perhaps it put me in the wrong mood, and perhaps I should have researched my subject before visiting, but beyond a generalized pleasant buzz that can only but arise when you are swathed in blue light, I didn’t find my view of the universe shifted much. After I had seated myself outside the shrine and begun to replace my shoes, however, I happened to catch another view of the entrance to “First Moment.” Momentarily unpopulated, it had become a sheer, disembodied, floating rectangle of light.
I guess you don’t get to choose a moment of epiphany.
Tony Cragg, the British sculptor who is based in Wuppertal, Germany, is the subject of an exhibition of new works at Marian Goodman that confirms him as one of the most protean forces in sculpture today.
Back in the 1980s, Mr. Cragg was part of a “new generation” that included Richard Deacon, Bill Woodrow, and the slightly younger Anish Kapoor – artists characterized by slight means, jolly forms, and low-octane Duchampian wit. Mr. Cragg, in particular, looked to Arte Povera, the Italian post-minimal movement, subtly transforming detritus in a way that had a distinctly political edge.
From beginnings in trash, Mr. Cragg has graduated to a richer vein of sculptural thought. His sculpture seems informed, in an unbookish, cogently visual way, by genetics (science has often informed the look, if not the content, of Mr. Cragg’s work).
One of the only significant British sculptors to be influenced positively by Henry Moore, Mr. Cragg arrives at his own brand of biomporphism from an opposite direction. Moore abstracted from a synthesis of observed natural forms to achieve a generalized notion of growth. Mr. Cragg generates new forms from appropriated man-made objects that he subjects to specific processes of variation, repetition, or distortion.
What unites the visions of these two men is the intuitive balance they achieve of the familiar and the other. Where Moore was biased toward a primal sensation of the familiar, Mr. Cragg is in thrall to “the forms of things unknown,” to use Shakespeare’s phrase. The passing resemblance of some of his works to early modern sculptors extends this mix.
“Round the Block” (2003), a weird, six-legged beast, is made from tin-patinated bronze that at once recalls futurist sculpture and machine-age ornaments in its staggered lines and pewter-like finish. A similar sense of the robotic meeting the genetically engineered gives a disturbing beauty to the deconstructed vessel forms of “Declinations” and to “Green Early Forms” (both 2003).
But ultimate otherness is reserved for “Distant Cousin” (2003), a fiberglass-and-lacquer mutant at once comical and threatening, kinky and commanding.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, January 8, 2004