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Turrell's astonishing art: illusions made solely of light

Astonishment was definitely what I experienced upon viewing James Turrell's six environmental structures created entirely with light, and occupying the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum here. Although I had seen photographs and read accounts of Turrell's attempts to create art out of light itself, I had not previously seen any of his actual installations.

Their effect on me was immediate and total, and completely satisfying. Without any sense of being forced or seduced, I felt that what I was experiencing was quite simply an extension, a broadening of my perceptions, and that what Turrell was doing was true and inevitable.

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But because my initial reaction to the show was so strong, I decided to let a few days pass between first seeing it and writing about it. I also wanted to take a long second look.

A week has passed, I've had my second look -- and my reaction now is just as strong and favorable as it was at first.

Even the layout of the exhibition is unusual.

We step out of the museum elevator and approach a world totally redesigned in the light of Turrell's ideas. Rather than entering one huge gallery, we are led in and out of various corridors, angles, nooks, and rooms -- and discover each of the six light structures as we proceed.

All the structures are large, two are actually huge, but it is not their size that distinguishes them -- it is their visual ambiguity, as well as the novel spaces they activate.

Turrell's earliest works, the Projection Pieces of 1966- 68, utilize high-intensity light projected directly onto wall surfaces to create simply articulated, luminous images whose volume and surface -- and very existence -- appear both actual and elusive.

In his Shallow Space Constructions of 1968 and 1969, partitions are constructed in front of existing walls to make shallow spaces filled with light that dissolves boundaries and fills the rooms with an ethereal glow.

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In the Space Division Constructions of the 1970s, light is reflected from one space to another room-size area, into which the viewer may peer but not enter. By carefully controlling the quality of light -- fluorescent, tungsten, and daylight in various combinations -- Turrell sets up the illusion of a visual screen through which we see into an undefined area.

But these words give only the barest hint of what viewing these pieces is actually like.

I had already seen five of them during my first visit, and was walking along a short inner corridor when I came upon No. 6. It was on my left, and consisted of a moderate- size, luminous rectangle of blue light. I studied it for a moment, stepped back, and noticed that it faced a blank wall that appeared to be covered with either glass or a clear plastic. I reached out to touch the surface to determine what it was. As my finger reached the point where the surface should have been, I realized with a jolt that there wasm no surface, that I was actually looking into a sharply perspective room area that was illuminated by reflected light.

The effect was truly astonishing, and very similar to the marvelous feeling one has when confronted with a new insight.

The danger with that kind of effect, of course, is that it only works once. I was concerned about that, and made a point of viewing each piece several times during both of my visits to the show. Even knowing what to expect, the effect every time was deeply satisfying.

The reason for that, of course, is that Turrell is an artist and not a trickster, that he works hand in hand with principles of physics, psychology, perception, and aesthetics -- all to the end of creating an experience that symbolically presents us with new ways to perceive physical reality.

As Melinda Wortz writes in her introduction to the exhibition's catalog: "When Turrell presents light without the context of an object, he allows us more direct access to understanding the illusory nature of perception. . . . If we reach into the recessed space in an attempt to touch the substance that we see within, we immediately realize that in a physical sense nothing is there. Yet the visual experience is vividly real. How can we reconcile what we are seeing -- density, substance, fullness -- with what our intellect tells us, that the space is empty, not full?"

Whatever our specific answers to the many issues and questions raised by Turrell's light structures may be, there can be no doubt that this is an exhilarating exhibition, and one bound to convince many viewers that art, old as it is, is still in its infancy.

Anyone who has not yet seen the Edward Hopper retrospective on the lower floors of this museum should do so if he is viewing the Turrell exhibition. Hopper, the artist who painted light, and Turrell, the artist who creates withm light, are particularly interesting when seen in tandem.

Last but not least, the latest of the Whitney's mini-series of exhibitions honoring American artists is devoted to the art of Charles Sheeler. It's a gem of a show.

The Turrell's exhibition runs through Jan. 1, the Hopper through Jan. 18, and the Sheeler through Dec. 7.

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