James Turrell

Artworks increasingly have to compete for our already divided attention. Pause for a moment in any gallery to observe the other visitors and you will see that most media don’t manage to hold us for very long. A painting might receive a few seconds of looking – more for the caption, if there is one – before the viewer moves on to the next thing. The static medium of painting could be accused these days of not trying hard enough to get and hold our attention. Time-based media has it easier. The expectation that something might happen next may, if the artwork is fortunate, be enough to hold its viewer for a bit longer. But even then, narrative forms can struggle in a gallery environment.

In this respect, the work of James Turrell sits somewhere between painting and video. The materiality of painting is dissolved into pure light and colour. Planes of colour float in recesses at an indeterminate distance. Curious onlookers will peer around the edges to see the workings, but they are concealed from view. There may be a glass screen, the light may be projected, but what and how is withheld.

The immateriality of the work contrasts with Dan Flavin’s pieces currently on show at Tate Modern. Flavin’s signature fluorescent tubes are out in the open and become sculptural. The various arrangements of tubes against the wall is as much part of the work as the various colours of light employed. With Turrell, there is more mystery. The press release might mention sheets of glass and LED light sources, but all we can see is coloured light. And unlike the harshness of an uncovered fluorescent, Turrell’s light is both inviting and potentially absorbing of our attention.

A glance at one of these pieces might suggest that it is a static projection, however subtle. But all four installations are gradually modulating themselves, so the reward is only fully gained by remaining for a while. One colour dissolves into a haze. Another appears at the edges. A horizontal band appears, only to dissolve again. As one waits more subtle changes emerge, as do questions. How much of our experience is in the piece, and how much the retinal effects? Occasional interference patterns seem to emerge, some transitions seem more abrupt than others. Suddenly – or it seems so, once one has settled into the pace of change of each piece – there may be a flood of a brand new colour. If one remains long enough, one might start to wonder if there is repetition in the sequence or endless variation. With so little in the way of visual anchors, it is hard to say.

The nearest natural phenomena that works like this evoke is the gradual change from light to dark at sunrise and sunset. But that process is a linear one, whereas these just keep going apparently without end.

If there is a criticism to be made of this show, it is in the arrangement of the ground floor gallery, where the viewing bays have a busy atrium through the entrance doors behind them. This disrupts the opportunity for contemplation on offer. A single work upstairs is more sealed off and has somewhere to sit. It is here, in the darkened room, that you can allow the full richness of these works to unfold.

Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes

Mark Rothko’s paintings at their best are richly coloured, glowing and with a mysterious depth. Paint handling was at the service of conjuring up this sense of undefined forms floating in a pictorial space – think of the feathered edges of the forms in the Tate’s Seagram murals. Late in his life he chose a palette, materials and paint handling quite different from what had gone before. The paintings at London’s new outpost of the Pace Gallery are in acrylics not oils, and with most of the colour drained out of them. Blacks, greys and dark browns dominate, with one exception in a pinkish mauve and blue combination that provides light relief from the darkness elsewhere in the gallery.

Instead of forms apparently floating in a larger colour field, here the image is divided horizontally into two areas which extend to the edges. Black or brown is above and grey below, occasionally with a rough division between. There is little sense of depth. The black tends to be even and matt, the grey and brown brushed rapidly on with many broad marks. The dominant sense is of a dull flatness; that feeling is enhanced by the loosely taped edges that leave a slightly ragged white border around many of the works. It’s hard to separate the works, painted in the last year of the artist’s life, from the biography. These works are bleak and desolate, as Rothko’s life may well have become before he committed suicide in 1970.

It’s a relief, then, that these paintings are shown in juxtaposition with a selection of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s large-scale seascape photographs. While there are certainly formal affinities between the two sets of work, the contrasts are stark. While the height of Rothko’s ‘horizon’ varies from work to work, Sugimoto places his dead centre every time. The seascapes draw you in, the prolonged exposures softening detail and blurring the horizon – an affinity with Rothko’s feathered brushwork. Looking at an empty sea and sky, an infinite horizon, we are invited into a void and a sense of expansion. But there’s a contrasting force at work, the build-up of light over a long exposure, the light radiating from some of the photographs with the force of a painting by Turner. In one of the two images entitled Bay of Sagami, Atami, the light bulges over the horizon as if breaking through a boundary. At the other end of the scale, a sequence of three images of the Tyyrhenian Sea goes from a pale grey to a deep, satin black. The horizon is invisible and the only differentiation in tone is a subtle darkening at the corners. We have to take it on trust that there was anything in front of the camera, and I’m reminded of Wolfgang Tillmans’ abstract photographs – these too are experiments in light, not depictions in the usual sense. Sugimoto’s greys are smooth and subtly detailed, such as the soft ripples of water visible in Lake Superior, Cascade River. Rothko’s greys seem rather dull by comparison, but the most appealing of the canvases has striations that echo the water that fills Sugimoto’s images.

The radiance and softness of many of the photographs is a direct contrast to the dull blankness of Rothko’s late paintings. Sugimoto is opening up the world; for Rothko it was closing down.