Friday, September 9, 2016

A WaPo Editorial Worth Kudos

The following editorial appeared in the Washington Post after NBC's Commander-in-Chief forum, and deserves to be commended, quoted and widely reprinted.

"The Hillary Clinton email story is out of control
 By Editorial Board

"Judging by the amount of time NBC’s Matt Lauer spent pressing Hillary Clinton on her emails during Wednesday’s national security presidential forum, one would think that her homebrew server was one of the most important issues facing the country this election. It is not. There are a thousand other substantive issues — from China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea to National Security Agency intelligence-gathering to military spending — that would have revealed more about what the candidates know and how they would govern. Instead, these did not even get mentioned in the first of 5½ precious prime-time hours the two candidates will share before Election Day, while emails took up a third of Ms. Clinton’s time.

"Sadly, Mr. Lauer’s widely panned handling of the candidate forum was not an aberration. Judging by polls showing that voters trust Mr. Trump more than Ms. Clinton, as well as other evidence, it reflects a common shorthand for this election articulated by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick last week: 'You have Donald Trump, who’s openly racist,' he said. Then, of Ms. Clinton: 'I mean, we have a presidential candidate who’s deleted emails and done things illegally and is a presidential candidate. That doesn’t make sense to me, because if that was any other person, you’d be in prison.'

"In fact, Ms. Clinton’s emails have endured much more scrutiny than an ordinary person’s would have, and the criminal case against her was so thin that charging her would have been to treat her very differently. Ironically, even as the email issue consumed so much precious airtime, several pieces of news reported Wednesday should have taken some steam out of the story. First is a memo FBI Director James B. Comey sent to his staff explaining that the decision not to recommend charging Ms. Clinton was 'not a cliff-hanger' and that people 'chest-beating' and second-guessing the FBI do not know what they are talking about. Anyone who claims that Ms. Clinton should be in prison accuses, without evidence, the FBI of corruption or flagrant incompetence.

"Second is the emergence of an email exchange between Ms. Clinton and former secretary of state Colin Powell in which he explained that he used a private computer and bypassed State Department servers while he ran the agency, even when communicating with foreign leaders and top officials. Mr. Powell attempted last month to distance himself from Ms. Clinton’s practices, which is one of the many factors that made the email story look worse. Now, it seems, Mr. Powell engaged in similar behavior.

"Last is a finding that 30 Benghazi-related emails that were recovered during the FBI email investigation and recently attracted big headlines had nothing significant in them. Only one, in fact, was previously undisclosed, and it contained nothing but a compliment from a diplomat. But the damage of the '30 deleted Benghazi emails' story has already been done.

"Ms. Clinton is hardly blameless. She treated the public’s interest in sound record-keeping cavalierly. A small amount of classified material also moved across her private server. But it was not obviously marked as such, and there is still no evidence that national security was harmed. Ms. Clinton has also admitted that using the personal server was a mistake. The story has vastly exceeded the boundaries of the facts.

"Imagine how history would judge today’s Americans if, looking back at this election, the record showed that voters empowered a dangerous man because of . . . a minor email scandal. There is no equivalence between Ms. Clinton’s wrongs and Mr. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office."

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Shocked by the Polls?

Have the post Labor Day polls shocked the New York Times, or was it Paul Krugman’s incisive September 5th column? Or have NYT news editors and reporters suddenly realized what their continuously negative coverage of Hillary may have wrought? Have they suddenly awakened to the frightening consequences of their non-stop/ non-critical attention to Trump? Do they finally understand which candidate always lies? Which candidate is the truly “corrupt” one? Whose "scandals" are the most truly scandalous?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Paul Krugman on the Campaign: Weasel Words and the Presumption of Guilt

In an excellent column (“Hillary Clinton Gets Gored,” New York Times, Op Ed, 9-5-16), Paul Krugman expresses succinctly the reasons he and many others are beginning to have a “sick, sinking feeling” about the presidential campaign. Issuing an implicit warning, Krugman notes that the widespread, continuous suggestions and/or outright attacks on Hillary Clinton as guilty of unspecified dishonesty, illegal conflicts of interest and vague “corruption” (all unsupported by facts) are painfully reminiscent of the kind of baseless insinuations that ended up destroying Al Gore’s campaign. (Krugman might also have mentioned the similar “Swiftboating” that doomed John Kerry).

 “True,” Krugman says, “there aren’t many efforts to pretend that Donald Trump is a paragon of honesty. But it’s hard to escape the impression that he’s being graded on a curve. If he manages to read from a TelePrompter without going off script, he’s being presidential. If he seems to suggest that he wouldn’t round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants right away, he’s moving into the mainstream. And many of his multiple scandals, like what appear to be clear payoffs to state attorneys general to back off investigating Trump University, get remarkably little attention.”

With media coverage of Clinton, on the other hand, the operative presumption is always that anything she does “must be corrupt,” an attitude, Krugman says, “most spectacularly illustrated by the increasingly bizarre coverage of the Clinton Foundation.” He points out that the Clinton Foundation “is, by all accounts, a big force for good in the world. For example, Charity Watch, an independent watchdog, gives it an ‘A’ rating—better than the American Red Cross.” But he also acknowledges that “any operation that raises and spends billions of dollars creates the potential for conflicts of interest…So it was right and appropriate to investigate the foundation’s operations to see if there were any improper quid pro quos. As reporters like to say, the sheer size of the foundation ‘raises questions.’ But nobody seems willing to accept the answers to those questions, which are, very clearly, ‘no.’”

Krugman urges journalists to ask whether they are reporting facts or simply engaging in innuendo, and he urges the public to read with a critical eye. “If reports about a candidate talk about how something “raises questions,” creates “shadows,” or anything similar, be aware that these are all too often weasel words used to create the impression of wrongdoing out of thin air.”

Others have also commented on the use of innuendo in the coverage of Clinton. In Vox (8-30-16), Matthew Yglesias effectively contrasted the way the media treats the Clinton Foundation with the coverage of a similar charitable foundation established by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. With the latter, the context has been a “presumption of innocence.” For Hillary, of course, the context is always the presumption that she, and anything connected to her, is bound to be “corrupt.” Even when reporters find no evidence of wrongdoing (Like Krugman, Yglesias cites examples), they insinuate otherwise, and never bother to issue corrections. “The perception that Clinton is corrupt is one of her most profound handicaps as a politician,” says Yglesias. “And what’s particularly crippling about it is that evidence of her corruption is so widespread exactly because everyone knows she’s corrupt.”

Will responsible members of the press pay attention? Will they finally realize that, at the least, their baseless insinuations wildly distort the public’s perception of Hillary Clinton? Will they understand that, at worst, their feckless reportage could hand over our country’s presidency to the most preposterous, most unqualified candidate in recent history?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

On Turrell at the Whitney 1980-81



[reprinted from Art in America, May 1981,  pp.90-99]

Perfect instances of what Emily Dickinson called "sumptuous Destitution," James Turrell's bare space and light installations demonstrate that an appeal to the senses is not incompatible with austere means. It is their extreme austerity rather than their muted sensuosity, however, that has seemed especially striking this year [1980-81] in New York, where a number of extravagant environmental exhibitions have recently been mounted. In such a context, Turrell's mini-retrospective at the Whitney and his single piece at Castelli this past winter performed once again the ritually purifying role that is one of reductivism's great strengths. Indeed, compared to Turrell's work, several of the season's most elaborate environmental shows were undone, their fashionable clutter suddenly made to seem manic, over-embellished, incurably frivolous.

Turrell's chaste New York installations were vivid reminders of the schis­matic, renunciatory mood of the late '60s, when Californians first began con­structing art out of nothing but light and space. His 1966-67 light "Projection Pieces," his 1968-69 "Shallow Space Constructions," and his 1969 "Mendota Stoppages" were among the earliest examples of one of the few really distinctive forms of advanced art to have developed independently on the West Coast during the past two decades. Sometimes referred to as "perceptual environments," these lean and parsimoniously equipped installations began making their first public appearances in Southern California just as the style called "fetish finish" (L.A.'s slick, plastically gleaming version of Minimalism) was en­tering its decline. In fact, several of the West Coast's most notable exponents of the polished object—e.g., Robert Irwin and Larry Bell—were prominent early practitioners of the perceptualist mode. Other California artists at one time or another associated with the form have been Michael Asher, Doug Wheeler, DeWain Valentine, Maria Nordman, Hap Tivey and Eric Orr.

The typical California perceptual environment of the mid-'70s was a silent and empty space, its unadorned interior inflected only by minor alterations in architecture or by subtle rearrangements in light: some unforeseen brightness fell from the upper air; a barely perceptible scrim split a room in half; a thin streak of noon leaked arclike into an otherwise darkened studio; a skimpy new wall interrupted an old, familiar vista; or perhaps an old wall, newly dismantled, revealed an unexpected view of the Venice beach. Such slight tamperings with the status quo gently marked the artist's presence. They were also meant to rivet the spectator's attention, to turn him into a super-esthete, or at least into one of James's preternaturally alert people—those intense voyeurs for whom observation is the most exquisite kind of pursuit. Addressed to the solipsistic world of the individual viewer's nervous system, the perceptual environment revealed char­acteristic aspects of the West Coast mentality of the 1970s, in particular its hyper-attentiveness to the nuances of sensory experience, its perfectionism verging on preciosity, and its oxymoronic addiction to a hedonistic brand of purity. The perceptualist mode also reflected the fortunate freedom of Californians to be profligate with the resources of natural illumination and space, a birthright which may begin to explain the unbounded West Coast adoration of light and disembodied color.

     Though there is no doubt about the uneasiness of the Southern California artist's relationship to art traditions and to traditional art materials, it is a moot point whether the innocence of history often attributed to California artists is real or feigned. The perceptual installation, for example, takes its place quite naturally within the lengthy art-historical gene­alogy of the environment form, a Gesamtkunstwerk tradition that in our own century has contained works as crammed as Schwitters's Merzbau, as clean-cut as El Lissitzky's Proun Spaces, as overdressed as Kaprow's Garage, and as labyrinthine as Duchamp's Mile of String. If the West Coast environment seems singularly emptied of history, a deprived stepchild in relation to its overprivileged antecedents—a camera rasa, as it were—it is, among other reasons, because of the intervening influence of Minimalism.

     Without the prior existence of the denuded, "situational" sculpture of Morris, Andre and Flavin, it is virtually impossible to imagine the evolution of the perceptual installation. But those precedents scarcely account for the exaggerated reductiveness—the hy­gienic purification—to which West Coast artists like Turrell and Irwin sub­jected the environment form, nor for the extremes to which they took the already popular, phenomenologically justified idea of defining art by the sen­sory experience it provided and not by the palpable forms it took. Nor does Minimalism explain the unprecedented seriousness with which the California artists high-mindedly rejected what Morris would later (1971) label the "static, portable, indoor art object."


 The intensity of the California artists’ rejection has to be remembered within a larger art-political context—the rebellious anti-object mood that swept through the international art world during the latter part of the Vietnam War years. Though in no way overtly political, perceptual installations were political in spite of themselves. The supreme West Coast version of the "de-materialization of the art object," they quintessentially symbolized the idea of art striving to detach itself both from corrupt matter and corrupt money. If some dissenters (not irrelevantly) saw the mode as yet another middle-class evasion, yet another pseudo-spiritual accommodation to temporarily exacer­bated political circumstances, percep­tual environments were nevertheless more widely read as conscientious objectors to the "consumer fetishism" of the art establishment and as non-participants in that establishment's sys­tem of distribution and validation. And during those politically charged years, the public exhibition of an unsalable room filled only with equally unmar­ketable light did indeed have a piquan­cy and a point that has become hard to recall today, when all types of concep­tual projects, environments, earth­works, performances, and other forms of non-object, "post-studio" art have long been absorbed into the system as smoothly as simple sugars.

      Nor was the seemingly fastidious disaffiliation of the perceptual installation from the "cash nexus" the only radical­ism of the mode. Without the support or presumption of a dissenting ideology, West Coast perceptualists unselfcon­sciously subverted a number of late-modernism's most tenaciously espoused theoretical premises, among them the Romantic notion of the work of art as a self-enclosed, self-referential micro­cosm and the Lessing-derived, modern­ist-endorsed dictum that the visual arts must deal in spatial, not temporal, form. The diachronic, sequential struc­ture of the experience provided by per­ceptual installations was the exact reverse of orthodoxy's construct—that autotelic form whose stable meaning grew out of synchronic relations. View­er participation and duration were essential to California environments, and a colorful mythology of slow time—perhaps ultimately based on nothing more than the sweet Angeleno preference for the laid-back life—grew up around them. It was understood that such pieces could be fully appreciated only after the passage of hours, even days. During that time, significant changes (either actual or subjectively induced) would have occurred in the light and mood of a piece, and, if he or she were properly responsive, in the psyche of the spectator. The modernist's in­stantaneous moment of apprehension was thus exchanged for the perceptualist's instant of misapprehension—a first impression that would be modified and remodified by a patient viewer who was both a participant in the piece and its beholder.

   In retrospect, it now seems obvious that the generic ambiguity of percep­tual installations constituted a direct, if finally abortive, challenge to the reign­ing orthodoxy of '60s art. Hovering indeterminately between painting and sculpture, these new works impudently bypassed late-modernism's increasingly restrictive definitions of genre as well as the rigid insistence of late-modernist critics on the integrity of traditional mediums. Yet, the issues were by no means clear at the time. For many sym­pathetic viewers, the shift from the optic emphases, the metaphorically deracinated hues, of color field and stain painting to the literally disembod­ied opticality of the light and color of perceptual environments was not diffi­cult to negotiate. "To examine a work of art," says Rene Girard, is "to attempt to discover what the work omits as much as—if not more than— what it includes." Considered as direct descendants of "optical" painting, per­ceptual environments obviously omitted the matière of paint. But since the paint of late-modernism was already so ema­ciated as to mimic incorporeality, its transubstantiation into light and air could be experienced in the late '60s less as a significant omission or a poignant sacrifice than as a subtle variation on an already familiar, if anorexic theme. From such a vantage point, the new form could be (and often was) neatly subsumed within the history of late-modernist painting as a further stage in the Greenbergian reductive process—even a conservatizing trend, given the extravagance of some more unruly manifestations of "post-studio" art—rather than interpreted as an apostatic move that questioned the principles of modernism itself.

    Viewed within the history of sculp­ture, however, the same environments revealed more readily their adversarial posture, their clearly deconstructive role. For when considered as sculpture, even as descendants of Minimalist sculpture, these works clearly omitted a great deal. No matter how bare, how stripped-down, how "primary," how exceedingly meager in surface interest Minimalist sculptures were, they still had an incontrovertible, even aggres­sive, presence. They came in wood, in steel, or in aluminum; they could be pushed or thumped; they could be shifted from one indoor site to another. Perceptual environments, on the other hand, dispensed entirely with the sine qua non of sculpture—the solid, mov­able object.

    It is not difficult to read such a dra­matic omission as a schismatic gesture, a decisive moment, in the history of modernist art. Benjamin Buchloh, for example, commenting on Michael Asher's work, sees the reduc­tive environment not only as a rejection of certain modes of sculptural produc­tion, but as a challenge to the "material and historical legitimacy" of the genre of sculpture itself; to him such works question the very validity of "sculpture as a category," and thus, presumably, sever all ties with the modernist tradi­tion. The argument is cogent only to this extent: what the perceptual envi­ronment preserved of the sculptural object's remembered presence—i.e., its architectural container and the occa­sion that the object had provided for the experience of art—was scarcely enough to link the new form to the modernist tradition, unless "sculpture" itself were radically redefined. But, of course, that is exactly what did happen during the mid-'70s. Conveniently elasticized and generously expanded to tolerate all manner of "post-studio" art, the estab­lishment definition of "sculpture" was pluralistically revised. In that recupera­tive gesture the force of tradition was upheld, the dissident content of generic ambiguity defused, and the palace revolution of non-object art was suc­cessfully aborted.


During the decade-and-a-half since their first appearances on the West Coast, a few Cal­ifornia perceptual environ­ments have journeyed east to New York, most notably those of Irwin, Bell and Asher. Now, James Turrell, in his first bid to join what Angelenos like to call "The Mainstream," has arrived. Before this season, Turrell's installa­tions were known on the East Coast only from occasional references in national publications or by those who had visited his West Coast studio, his Roden Crater project in Arizona (where the artist lived from 1976 to 1980) or by those who had seen his work in Europe.

   Yet, in the late '60s in Southern Cal­ifornia, Turrell's career began in high gear. After studying experimental psy­chology as an undergraduate at Po­mona College, he constructed his first light projection piece, Proto-Afrum (1966), while enrolled as a graduate student at the Irvine campus of the University of California. Within a year, Turrell was already being given his first one-man show at the Pasadena Mu­seum. Curated by John Coplans, whose article on the young artist appeared concurrently in Artforum, the Pasade­na show inspired Barbara Rose to label Turrell as "the most interesting artist to come out of California since Ron Davis." But, as a matter of fact, Tur­rell's work did not come out of Califor­nia for some years afterward. Though supported in the interim by a few grants and later on by important com­missions from Count Panza di Biumo and the Dia foundation, Turrell's ca­reer during the next decade developed almost exclusively within the privacy of the Southern California artists' com­munity and away from public view. Between the 1967 Pasadena show and his next one-man appearance in 1976 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Turrell's exhibition history lists only a few "formal exhibitions"—all held at his own studio, which was located in an Ocean Park building formerly known as the Mendota Hotel.

    A significant event for Turrell, though the project itself would never be realized, was Bob Irwin's invitation to the younger artist in the summer of 1968 to join him in planning a collaborative proposal for the Los Angeles County Museum's much-publicized "Art and Technology" show. Turrell is credited with having introduced Irwin to many of the perceptual concerns that the older Californian had just begun to explore at this time, and both artists were evidently much influenced by a third member of their team, the psychologist Ed Wortz. An employee of a California aerospace research company, Wortz had been instrumental in developing life support systems for manned lunar flights; he was especially familiar with experiments on the visual perception of space under highly unusual circumstances. The three collaborators devoted their attention to exploring the effects of sensory deprivation on human perception; if implemented, their project would have isolated subjects in anechoic chambers and submitted them to biofeedback techniques as well as to the dislocating experience of ganzfields. (Wortz defined the latter as visual fields in which "there are no objects you can take hold of with your eye." A ganzfield is "entirely homoge­nous in color. ... Its unique feature is that it appears to be light-filled" and that its light seems "to have sub­stance.") The team's stated goal—to create a setting in which individuals could "perceive their perceptions"— and become "conscious of their con­sciousness"—has remained central to Turrell’s own subsequent preoccupations.


All Turrell's pieces since 1966 have been concerned with light as the fabricator of illusion, or, more specifically, with the way a manipulated light source can control (and distort) a viewer's perception of a given space. Turrell works with both interior and exterior space—with enclosed rooms and with the open sky. Since his latter pieces require penetra­tion of structural walls to gain access to outside space, only interior works were constructed at the Whitney and Castelli. (An environment from the artist's "Structural Cuts and Skyspaces" series is, however, now nearing completion at P.S. 1, and the Roden Crater project, where Turrell is currently building areas for controlled viewing of the "size and the shape of the sky," was repre­sented by drawings at Castelli.) In his interior pieces, Turrell's means are the height of economy: using only the gal­lery's walls and several additional dividing partitions, he builds simple room-size environments which he coats with pristine titanium white paint. Into these spare settings, the artist introduces a variety of light sources, ranging from argon, quartz, xenon and fluorescent tubes to commonplace tungsten bulbs and ordinary daylight. Unlike Flavin and many other light artists, Turrell never treats the bulb or tube as an art object in itself. In his work such hardware is either hidden or unobtrusive. Turrell's earliest installations use bright beams of projected light to create discrete, sharply edged geometric shapes that seem to hover weightlessly in the gallery. In subsequent works, large open spaces are parti­tioned and variously illuminated, structured, and transformed by ambient or direct lighting.

    Transplanted from their native locale and shorn of their original and now almost forgotten polemical context, Turrell's environments still make their basic appeal today on the somewhat dated grounds of the perceptual experience they offer. Indeed, now that the art-political radicalism of his pieces has in effect been extinguished by several turns of art's wheel of fashion, the perceptual emphases and the sensuous appeal of Turrell's work may seem even more blatant. For the artist deals quite openly in the seductive visual appeal of luminosity. His installations do not eschew moods and atmospheric vapors, nor do they fail to exploit the inherent potential for mystery in the emptiness of a dimly lit room. His work even verges on evoking the extramundane symbolism of light. (Can any abstract Western art that takes light as its chief medium not remember all those centu­ries in which radiant energy was equated with divinity?) Illumination in Turrell's pieces can range from the diffused glare of a smoggy morning to the brilliant halo that rings an eclipsed sun. In his work, vacancy can glitter or gloom, and light is both occult substance and scientific phenomenon, both incorporeal essence and sensuous ef­fect. Predictably, Turrell's installations in New York have been interpreted as "doors to perception"—i.e., as occasions for a tremulous appreciation of exquisite light and color, as excuses for belated excursions into Zen arcana, or as opportunities for a bit of ad hoc, midday meditation. Nor are such uses of his work altogether alien to one important part of the artist's intention. (Turrell has described the experience of his environments as "analogous to entering [a] dream" while still "in the conscious, awake state.")

    At the Whitney, two installations in particular exploited the sensuosity of light and its capacity to create a hyp­notic, quasi-mystical, meditative mood. Wedgework 3 (1969), the prettiest and most narrative work of the group, con­sisted of a room containing a short dividing wall which sectioned off a small portion of the total space. The area behind that partition was hidden from view, but out of that secret corner streamed a mix of blue and pink fluo­rescent light, producing what at first seemed to be a transparent, diagonally extended, pastel-colored curtain. The effect was somehow both theatrical and intimate. There was an air of muted expectancy, an annunciatory flavor— as if that slant of light might be pro­logue to some majestic vision, some angelic arrival, though, in fact, the mood itself was the only (and suffi­cient) event.

  The City of Arhirit (1975-76) was a cooler, less ingratiating, but even more hypnotic installation. A partial ganz­field (a complete ganzfield would have enclosed the viewer on all sides), the piece consisted of an empty cubicle—a smallish room with a lowish ceiling, its five sides painted an impeccable white, and its corners gently rounded. During the day the work was illuminated by daylight filtered through a plexiglass sheet and entering the space from a window behind the spectator. At night, argon lit the room. Both made the air inside seem exotically blue-tinted, pal­pable, almost shimmering. At first the space appeared endless and its periph­eries impossible to locate. One's own equilibrium felt oddly threatened. Soon, however, the intensity of the color faded and it was possible to find an interim balance in a field of spatial uncertainty. Nevertheless, viewers lin­gered, staring passively or pensively into the emptiness, hypersensitively at­tuned to a low-level humming sound (perhaps generated by the air venting system), and waiting for some flicker of change, some nudge from the numi­nous.

    Such non-verbal pleasures and/or mystical experiences are freely avail­able in Turrell's installations, but his work has another more rigorous, even didactic, aspect to it that tends to be ignored—an aspect that points to the future, rather than the past. What for me exempts Turrell's installations from being simply exercises in pure '70s nar­cissism—from being, that is, merely spaces in which to indulge in the "vo­luptuousness of looking" or in the solipsistic calm of meditation—is their cru­cial use of the chilling art of deception. The most startling feature of his works is that they are never what they initially seem to be, and his most interesting installations are those that insist on the disjunctions and contradictions inher­ent in that disparity.


The spectator approaches all of Turrell's works as if from the wings of a stage; one feels drawn into them, feels solicited, as it were, to move about in their hushed spaces and theatrical lights, and feels lulled into believing one’s first impres­sions. "Everything looks permanent un­til its secret is known," says Emerson. The secrets of these installations are known fairly soon, in some cases abruptly. It is characteristic of Turrell's works that after initially deceiving viewers, and subsequently demystifying them, his installations finally leave viewers in possession of two irreconcilable visions—one illusory (or inauthentic) and one factually accurate (or authentic). Both visions are essential to the piece, but cannot logically be entertained at once. That the gap between the two views is impossible to bridge, is beyond healing, lends a character of irony to the experience of Turrell's work, and, furthermore, makes that experience paradigmatic of the imperfections and discon­tinuities of all visual experience.

     Let me trace, for example, the dis­continuous, diachronic, and finally ironic nature of the viewer's experience of Laar (1980), a work in Turrell's "Space Division Series." The piece one entered as one stepped off the Whitney elevator, Laar at first seemed to be simply an untenanted gallery—an open space dimly lit, impressively large, and immensely vacant. At the far end of the gallery, however, was an oddity—a wall with, apparently, a large, opaquely painted, monochromatic gray rectangle inscribed on it. Late '30s decor? A Minimalist wall painting? An austere backdrop for a performance? It was impossible to determine the rectangle's purpose until one approached the wall, at which point it suddenly and surprisingly became evident that the gray rectangle was not an opaque painting at all, but a windowlike aperture cut into a very thin dividing wall—an opening that gave onto an inaccessible small inner space, an unexpected interior room in which the atmosphere was dense, grainy, foggy, almost tangible. (Turrell constantly frustrates the em­pirical, literalist side of us that, like Wallace Stevens's Nabob of bones, wants "imperceptible air," wants "the eye to see/And not be touched by blue.") It soon became apparent that the interior room was also initially deceptive—that there was no fog, but only the illusion of fog, that the empty inner space was atmospherically mys­terious only because of reflections from the gallery lights outside. And, stepping back, one was amazed to discover that, in spite of what one now knew, the illusion of opacity was perfectly recoverable.

     Laar (and its sibling "Space Division" piece at Castelli) elucidates the pitfalls of trusting our normal sensory responses to a given set of conventional­ly interpreted spatial cues. Unlike our attitude towards the illusions invoked by perspectival drawing (illusions which we in Western culture accept without feeling deceived, even though we realize that such distorted drawings can be ambiguous and may, in Gombrich's words, represent "an infinite number of possible, if improbable, configurations"), we rarely expect such ambiguities to occur in our experience of real space. We assume that, as Gombrich says, "our eyes are eminently suited to guide us." But it is precisely that easy and unquestioned assumption that Turrell's installations refute. As we move about his rooms, our eyes seem constantly to deceive us, and we learn a new language of spatial tentativeness, a new doubt, a new feeling of distance about our immediate sensory reactions. In short, we encounter an experience that leads either to anxiety or—more acceptably—to irony.

    In an art context, the latter reaction lends itself more profitably to investiga­tion. At the moment when Turrell's work demystifies us, when it becomes clear that we were formerly deceived and that we are now undeceived, at that disjunctive moment we experience a curiously vivid feeling of self-aware­ness, a condition that Turrell and Irwin would no doubt describe as being "con­scious of consciousness." Baudelaire's label for that state was dédoublement, which he identified as an eerie sense of self-duplication, of detachment, that occurred when the subject of an experience simultaneously became its observer, a double who watched himself in the act of responding to a surprising event. The "other" who watches is inevitably an ironist ("Irony," says Paul de Man, "divides the flow of temporal experience into a past that is pure mystification and a future that remains harassed forever by a relapse within the inauthentic"),  a viewer whose mode of response significantly alters the experiential tone of the work.

    Although tempered by the sensuousness with which light is treated in indi­vidual installations, that same sense of ironic distance is produced in varying degrees by all of Turrell's works. In Afrum (1967), one of his earliest light "Projection Pieces," a high-intensity beam of light emitted from a quartz-halogen projector is directed into a corner. The light creates the illusion of a three-dimensional object (it could be a floating Larry Bell cube) somehow attached to the two walls it touches. As we approach the cube, however, its three-dimensionality dissolves, and we know it for what it actually is—a beam of light. Turrell describes his piece as seeming "to objectify and make physically present light as tangible material." But for the viewer, the decisive point is the moment when seemingly solid matter becomes intangible; at that point, we become aware of our own processes of perception and move into an ironic mode.

    Turrell's canny manipulations of illusory trompe-l'oeil effects and his incorporation of disjunctive perception into the fabric of his works finally provoke the viewer to question the way visual art in general is experienced. By demystifying the illusions his installations create, Turrell provides a paradigm for the viewer to deconstruct all visual experience, which is now seen to be a matter of fragmentary, unreliable sensory impressions and thus subject to doubt. Furthermore, Turrell's environments also introduce the disconcerting possibility that discontinuity rather than unity characterizes art itself as well as the viewer's experience of that art. Modernist esthetics has alway insisted on the organic unity of the individual work—on the healing wholeness in art that somehow compensates for the self-evident lack of integritas in life.  Parting company with that nostalgic vision, Turrell's work pits radiance against wholeness and harmony, and makes art, too, a matter of disjunction and contradictions.

     Admittedly, such an interpretation of Turrell's perceptual environments is less amiable than the artist's own poetic, though not necessarily privileged, reading of his work as a magical union of dream and reality. Seen in their disjunctive aspect, however, Turrell's installations have a compelling contemporaneity. They talk to us in the present, and not from their Western past .

["James Turrell: Light and Space" was curated by Barbara Haskell and exhibited at the Whitney Museum from October 22, 1980 to January 1, 1981. The catalogue contained an essay by Melinda Wortz and commentaries by Turrell on his own work.]