Seeing God in the Museum

"We're going inside to greet the light." -James Turrell's grandmother

This week, as summer turns to autumn and sunlight grows sparse, the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan will close its blockbuster show, "James Turrell." Turrell's work, as you'll read in the many reviews of the exhibition, presents its viewers with light in myriad dazzling forms. His colorful artworks challenge our perceptions, our sense of space, and our place within that strangely lit environment. Things are not what they appear. As we get our bearings, God comes into focus.

The oval void at the heart of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim has been used in many creative ways over the years, though arguably never to so spectacular effect as in Turrell's massive, site-specific work, Aten Reign. The space unfolds in a continual state of flux as hues delicately drift, colors tumble after each other, flooding the stark white walls of the rotunda with violet, aqua blue, orange, grey, neon pink, lemon yellow. Viewers enter at the bottom, find places of rest along reclined seats and platforms, and quietly gaze up at the constantly shifting light show above. The space can evoke a sense of calm and contemplation, though for some that's not quite enough: One woman sat down near me, stared up for no more than 15 seconds, and said, "Is anything supposed to happen?" Well, yes and no.

Turrell's title conjures the Aten, a Creator deity in Ancient Egypt, 3,400 years ago. In the midst of a mostly polytheistic environment the Pharoah Ahkenaten and his Queen Nefertiti drummed up support for a monotheistic religious practice devoted solely to the Aten. This was a sun god with no consort, no offspring, no equal. In inscriptions, the Aten was generally represented by a sun disk, and the oval color layers that cascade down into the empty space of the Guggenheim's rotunda are probably as close as humans have ever got to making an adequate shrine for the Egyptian High God. The museum, in ways that would have delighted Frank Lloyd Wright, becomes a temple. And God is placed there at its peak.

But did God ever leave the museum?

The Romantics of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had grown tired of their traditional religious structures, and the rationalism of the Enlightenment didn't offer all that tempting of an alternative. They weren't quite ready to give up on some divine presence, or on many of the key ethical systems of Western religions, but rarely did they grace the doors of churches. Instead, if their words reflect any reality, they seemed to roam the countryside, reading and writing poetry, and looking at art. Luckily for them, the first art museums open to the public were just being created. The German poet Goethe tells of his first visit to the Dresden gallery:

the well-waxed parquetry, the profound silence that reigned, created a solemn and unique impression, akin to the emotion experienced upon entering a House of God, and it deepened as one looked at the ornaments on exhibition which, as much as the temple that housed them, were objects of adoration in that place consecrated to the holy ends of art.

Fast forward two centuries, and we find John Updike, writing in the New Yorker upon the opening of the renovated Museum of Modern Art in 2004:

The art museums, once haunted by a few experts, students, and idlers, have become the temples of the Ideal, of the Other, of the something else that, if only for a peaceful moment, redeems our daily getting and spending. . . . The cathedral stands ready for the faithful.

With Aten Reign, Turrell assumes the museum-as-temple, adding his own objects of adoration, and offering a place for redemption. Only here, the object is light itself. Turrell's influences are his contemporaries, modern artists like Robert Irwin and Dan Flavin, as well as historical figures such as Caravaggio, Vermeer, Goya, and Velasquez.

But Turrell's key precursor is the Christian tradition of stained glass, especially from the medieval period. Physical and invisible at the same time, light became a key focus for theologians and artists to bring people into houses of God, by making higher ceilings to let in more light. Among the more mystical accounts, God was light, the universe a luminous sphere. One aim of architecture was to flood every corner with the light, thus creating a near-direct connection with God.

One block up from the Guggenheim, on Fifth Avenue, is the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, with beautiful Arts & Crafts stained-glass windows and high ceilings that bring light into the worship space. People come in, sit, and feel the light pour down. And one wonders if the church might have become a museum. And whether the museum has done a better job of letting the light in than the church.

As a child, Turrell's grandmother brought him to the Quaker meeting house where, in strict Quaker fashion, they would sit and wait for the spirit to move them. He didn't understand this then, but his grandmother would tell him to "go inside to greet the light," and then wait awhile. Years later he says he still doesn't know what she meant. But the Guggenheim's atrium is a pretty good hunch.