A riveting new show at the Pace Gallery in Manhattan, “Ad Reinhardt: Color Out of Darkness,” has an unusual edge. It is “curated by James Turrell”, as the subtitle proclaims. The prospect of Turrell, an American master of light, who presides over a show of paintings by Reinhardt, an American master of the dark, has a special appeal, offering not only two visions for the price of one, but a glimpse of the improbable ways of inspiration .
On a recent morning I met Turrell at the gallery with plans to see his Reinhardt show. But first, he led me into a pitch-black room on street level where he had just finished installing his own piece, ‘After Effect’. We sat down on a simple wooden bench to watch. What appeared to be a giant screen framed in cherry-red light rose from the ceiling. You could see through it, to an illuminated green rectangle in the distance. As we spoke, the green yellowed to ultramarine or yellowed to chartreuse. It looked less like a three-dimensional abstract painting, a walk-in Reinhardt or rather a Rothko inhabited by planes of voluptuous color.
In reality, of course, there was nothing, not even a screen, just LED lights from a group of projectors flooding the darkness. While looking at the changing effects, Turrell said he recently had cataract surgery. “It helped me with color,” he said. “In the general population, women are more sensitive to color than men.”
Now 78, Turrell is a genius and bearish presence. He still has his trademark long white beard, although it no longer labels him a wild man and western-style renegade. He is a grandfather of four children and said he is willing to accept requests to take on the guise of Santa Claus during the Christmas season.
Turrell lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, not far from Roden Crater, an extinct volcano that has obsessed him for more than 40 years. Since buying the site in 1977, he has built a labyrinth of rooms and tunnels that aestheticize the experience of looking at the sky. Its completion has been delayed so many times that asking Turrell about an opening date prompts him to joke, “I said I’ll open the crater piece in the year 2000, and I’m sticking with it.”
When the subject turned to Reinhart, Turrell said he’d never had the pleasure of meeting him. However, he did hear him give a lecture. One evening—this was in February 1962—Turrell visited the Pasadena Museum, where Reinhardt gave a talk entitled “The Artist as Artist.” (Reinhardt’s humor tended to be perceptive and absurd).
Turrell was a 19-year-old sophomore at Pomona College at the time and remembers the shock of seeing Reinhardt’s work for the first time. A few days after the lecture, at the Virginia Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles, he admired a show of Reinhardt’s Black Paintings—those difficult, tenacious, almost monochromatic canvases that require up-close and long-term viewing. If you quickly walk past them, they seem as empty as a wall. But if you let your eyes get used to their austere palettes, blocks of subtly differentiated colors emerge from vast darkness.
“They’re not really black,” Turrell said of the paintings. “They have a brownish cast. There are other colors in it. Blue, red and brown. No green or yellow. I like the kind of art where you look for what lies beneath.”
Reinhardt and Turrell are admittedly an odd couple. They belong to different eras and opposite coasts. Reinhardt was born in Buffalo, NY, on Christmas Eve 1913, and died much prematurely of a heart attack in his Manhattan studio at the age of 53. Although he was known as an abstract expressionist, he preferred a style of geometric abstraction that stripped art to the bone. Art history, he explained, ended with his Black Paintings, which took him more than a decade to complete.
What could he share with Turrell, who was born 30 years later and is technically a sculptor, one who learned from the minimalists of the 60s to forgo table objects and embrace the grand scale of architecture. His reputation expanded overnight in 2013, when he installed his “Aten Reign” at the Guggenheim Museum, filling Frank Lloyd Wright’s chaste white spiral with concentric rings of glowing color. Many of us lay supine on the floor of the museum and partook in a ‘sleep in’ as we looked up at fades of colors and pretended the ’60s never ended.
In his own words, Turrell’s love for light is inextricably linked to his religious upbringing. He grew up in Pasadena, California, in an educated Quaker family. His maternal grandmother, he recalled, wore simple dresses and a black cap and took him on Sundays to the local Villa Street Meeting House, where they would sit quietly on a bench and try to “go in to greet the light.” ‘ as his grandmother instructed him.
Did his parents encourage his art making? “No,” he replied. “Art was a total vanity.”
“We didn’t have a television,” he recalls. “We didn’t have a toaster. That was something I found incredible.”
Instead, his mother made toast on top of the stove, on a pyramid-shaped device that rested on a burner. “It was just hot or burnt,” he said. “My mom was always scraping the toast, the black off. I would tell her, I do not wants hard toast.’ And she said, ‘It is not hard bread. It is difficult without bread! †
Turrell’s installations can be compared to the Quaker meeting house, where Friends meet in silence, in search of ‘inner light’. On the other hand, Turrell’s art externalises the light, and he can seem utterly American in offering such a literal and hedonistic version of transcendence. Seen in the context of his austere youth, his colors are defiantly sensual and opulent.
“That’s what Kanye said,” he said, referring to Kanye West, who set his IMAX movie “Jesus is King” in the Roden crater. West joked, “Basically, the reason all these hip-hop artists like your work is that you’re an artist of color.”
It was a reminder that desert mystics can have a pop following. With Covid appearing to be on the wane, Turrell has been busy flying around to various cities and countries to oversee the clearing of a backlog of so-called Skyspaces. A cross between an observatory and a pleasure dome, his Skyspaces are freestanding rooms designed to frame a rectangle of boundless blue and keep it there for your enjoyment. Since 1976, when MoMA commissioned PS 1 for the installation aptly named “Meeting,” Turrell has completed more than 85 Skyspaces, most recently at Mass MoCA, in North Adams, Massachusetts; at a Quaker meeting house in Chestnut Hill, Penn.; and comes to Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, against the side of a mountain in June.
As we left the enveloping darkness of the Pace installation and entered an empty front room overlooking a Chelsea sidewalk, the light seemed harsh and rigid. Turrell noted, “The dream leaves you the moment you wake up.”
Was that a quote from a Symbolist poem? “You can make a quote out of it,” he replied. “We are having a hard time keeping the dream. We try.”
It was now noon and I still hadn’t seen the Reinhardt show. “One of the first to provide seating for his work was Ad Reinhardt,” Turrell said expectantly as we entered the elevator. “He had benches in the Virginia Dwan Gallery, and you’re going to see benches upstairs!”
Reinhardt last caused a stir in New York in 2017, when the Zwirner Gallery collected his dreamy, unfamiliar Blue Paintings, some 28 in all.
The new show, on the other hand, is surprisingly small. It consists of just seven paintings – a combination of all-red, all-blue and all-black. Each work hangs in its own cubby-like space, a mini-chapel furnished with a bench. I was disappointed to find a wedge-shaped barrier on the floor before every job that keeps you at least five feet away. How could this happen? As any art person can tell you, you can’t get a good look at Reinhardt’s near-monochromes without taking two steps of sliding within a few inches of the canvas and noticing the increasing variations in color, then backing off at a grading distance to see the parts. see it come together.
Turrell replied that it was not his fault. The Pace Gallery, which had come to him with the idea of putting together a Reinhardt show, insisted on having barriers to prevent viewers from touching the paintings. It is true that Reinhardt’s surfaces are fragile. They bruise easily, mainly because he used peculiar materials and drained his oil pigments to obtain a non-reflective matte surface
‘This way,’ Turrell joked about the barriers, ‘you don’t touch the painting. You just bang your head against it if you fall.”
Did he design the lighting and the chapels?
“Yes,” he replied, “but I didn’t put the travel space in it!”
Turrell happens to have a particular fame with art-related accidents. At times, viewers have mistaken his veils of light for real screens or walls and have leaned against them and fell; led to several lawsuits.
The Reinhardt show is ultimately more like a show about Turrell. And banks. It’s safe to say that no great artist has incorporated benches into their installations more often or with feeling than Turrell. They are a rebuke or at least an antidote to the frenetic pace of today’s art world, where viewers routinely race through galleries and art fairs, rarely pausing long enough to go “inside” a painting, as Turrell puts it, as if the watch were standing. Similar to entering an enchanted room.
So give it a try. Sit on a bench and view Reinhardt’s paintings. From that distance, they may not offer transcendence, but it’s nice to be asked to linger.
Ad Reinhardt: Color Out of Darkness, curated by James Turrell
James Turrell: After Effect
Both through March 19 at Pace Gallery, 540 West 25 Street, Manhattan. 212-421-3292; pacegallery.com.