|James Turrell: A Retrospective. Through April 6, 2014.|
|David Hockney: Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos, 2011. Through January 20, 2014.|
|The Los Angeles County Museum of Art,|
5905 Wilshire Boulevard Los Angeles; 323 857-6000
|Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections. Through January 5, 2014.|
|Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E Union St, Pasadena, California; (626) 568-3665.|
I have to confess to mixed feelings about Turrell's work. I was fascinated, years ago, when someone described to me a piece he'd made for the legendary Baron Panza: a special telescope tracked the full moon, sending its image down a polished Lucite tube which split into four tubes, each leading to a disc in a rectangular network of discs in a ceiling, above which, in a dining room, a table stood, each of its polished Lucite legs carrying the image to the table's surface, where the four full moons then appeared as optical inlays in the glass surface.
Astounding! A work of art worthy of Raymond Roussel. Of course I don't know if it ever actually existed; but it hardly matters; one can see it perfectly in one's mind. And it is just so that I "see" Turrell's magnum opus, Roden Crater, an ancient volcanic crater north of Flagstaff, Arizona, where over the last thirty years or so the artist has been perfecting and installing a network of galleries, tunnels, windows and openings all of which are designed to mediate the viewer and the cosmos.
I visited Roden Crater a number of years ago, shortly after Turrell had bought it and begun the preliminary work of "perfecting" its contours. At the time this seemed to me a shame: one had only to walk to the rim, then down the pumicey surface of the extinct crater toward its center, to understand man's relationship to cosmos. The Arizona desert can have a magic reddish-ochre glow; the ineffable blue of the sky overhead becomes solid, forbidding, magisterial; and space, color, light, and one's physicality — one's posture and breathing — all merge into a contemplation and an awareness of infinite space, form, and weight.
To finance his work Turrell took to making prints of his working drawings, and a number of them are on view in the LACMA exhibition. More importantly, he has made a number of installation pieces. I liked a number of the corner pieces, in which geometrical shapes seem to be projected onto the adjacent walls in a corner, their single, blinding color fields tricking the eye into seeing dimensionality that isn't really physically there.
Other pieces are huge expanses of a single color, generally unarticulated but in at least one case subtly mottled. We sat on a bench to contemplate a few of them for several minutes: gradually you wear out your eye's receptors to that particular color, and it fades, going a curious lavender grey, but also lifting away from the plane it physically occupies and coming nearer the viewer.
There are two particularly important pieces here, but we skipped them: one involves entering a sphere in which one's completely shut off from external reality, as if in an MRI chamber, in order to be overwhelmed by Turrell's optical magic. This seemed just a bit too claustrophobic to us; besides,participation in it was sold out for the remainder of the exhibition.
The other was a large piece, a room really, which one enters in one's stocking feet, to contemplate light and color at the edge, it seems, of a yawning abyss which suggests the Cosmos itself. This does in fact work quite dramatically and viscerally, but we'd seen it at the Venice Biennale a couple of years ago, and didn't want to repeat the experience on this visit.
ALSO AT LACMA we were able to take in a a number of David Hockne'y's Cubist videos, odd films made with an array of eight or nine cameras mounted to a rack fixed to a car driven slowly through the English countryside Hockney's visited in the last few years to record the changing seasons — not only in video: also in paint, drawing, and printmaking.
If Turrell's work and vision seems touchingly Sublime-yet-innocent, Hockney's, to me, seems touchingly aspirational-for-historical-importance. Both artists seem consumed with staking a place in history, and being remembered for their discoveries and their work. Both are undoubtedly disciplined, gifted, and productive; but ultimately each seems to have been laboring at something that's obvious, that need only be mentioned for its conceptual effect to be made known. They remind me again of something Gertrude Stein once said: "If it can be done, why do it." Once the discovery is revealed, why repeat the demonstration.
Sam Francis, Sketch for Chase Manhattan Bank Mural [Study for Chase Mural][Untitled Sketch], 1959. Gouache on paper, 21 x 99 1/4 inches. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Gift of the artist and the Sam Francis Art Museum, Inc. 93.29. Artwork © Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
IN PASADENA WE SAW a retrospective of paintings by Sam Francis, and it was immediately obvious that he foreshadowed, in these canvases full of space and brilliant color, the effects Hockney and Turrell have worked at. But Francis was of an earlier generation, content merely to paint. He was introduced to painting as a therapy, while he was flat on his back for months at a time, suffering from spinal tuberculosis, looking at the white ceiling of a hospital room. I've always thought the threads of color streaking across his often otherwise empty canvases had something to do with the spots and threads you see behind your closed eyelids.
In Francis, as in Turrell, the effects of light and color seem internal as much as external; and when things really work — as they nearly always do in Turrell, but only perhaps half the time in these paintings of Francis's — internal and external merge. Or, perhaps, the distinction between them is transcended. In any case the viewer loses his sense of individuality; ego dissolves; the fact and awareness of one's individual being is dissolved in a sudden realization that it's the light and color that surround one that contains the energy and life in which, submerged, we're allowed to participate.
But Sam Francis was an Abstract Expressionist, and his best canvases have a darting, pulsing, almost violent energy that animates them with a muscularity quite lacking in Turrell and Hockney. One contemplates Hockney. and meditates in front of Turrell; one dances with Francis. There's nothing like looking at one of these big, vibrant paintings with one eye, quickly walking backward away from it at an angle, then crossing in front of it, always with the eye fixed on the painting. You're engaged by these things, they call and sing. To see the three exhibitions on adjacent days is a rare opportunity to experience an immense range of visual pleasure, but also to understand, intellectually, the inevitable 20th-century process leading from the art of painting to the art of pure light.