Essay by Lynn Herbert
James Turrell’s artistic medium is light—not paintings that depict light, nor sculpture that incorporates light, but simply light itself. Turrell taps into the light that greets us when we flip an electrical switch or turn on a television, the light from headlights and neon signs all around us at night, the light that each day rises in the east and sets in the west, and the light that glimmers in faraway stars. He is particularly gifted at offering us the opportunity to have a unique and intimate experience with light and to appreciate its transcendent power.
Just where does that transcendence lead us? Words like “grace,” “revelation,” “rapture,” “numinous,” “primordial,” “empyrean,” and “sublime” have all been applied to Turrell’s work. As the grandness of such words implies, Turrell’s work explores our connection to the universe. He takes us to an intense and lofty realm in a confoundingly simple way: he allows us to see ourselves seeing.
Turrell was born in 1943 in Los Angeles, California. He received a BA in psychology from Pomona College in 1965, and during the 1960s he was linked with a number of Southern Californian artists who were exploring light and perception. These “light and space” artists were offered an opportunity to pursue ambitious ideas when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art launched an art and technology program that paired artists with preeminent scientists. Along with artist Robert Irwin, Turrell collaborated with Dr. Edward Wortz, a perceptual psychologist at Garrett Aerospace Corporation. At the time, Dr. Wortz was investigating the perceptual consequences of space travel for NASA. Though nothing concrete materialized from their collaboration, Turrell, who had studied perceptual psychology in school, emerged with a refined mission and a set of ideas that he has been exploring ever since.
Turrell received an MA in art from Claremont Graduate University in 1973. His work is often linked with that of Minimalist artists, and it was in graduate school that he studied with John McCracken and Tony DeLap, who, like Donald Judd and Robert Morris, were engaged in making Minimalist sculpture. Those artists, however, were dealing with substantive and unyielding mass, whereas Turrell’s perceptual volumes are immaterial. But, Turrell would remain an admirer of the direct style and clarity of Minimalism.
Turrell’s parents were Quakers, and his work is influenced by the Quaker practice of going inside to greet the light of revelation as well as the belief that spirituality flourishes in simple settings. Plainness and economy of means, along with a straightforward, strict presentation of the sublime, are considered Quaker virtues—characteristics that go hand in hand with Turrell’s work, which is pared down, direct, and quiet.
Turrell’s father was a trained aeronautical engineer and educator, and James himself became a pilot at the early age of sixteen. His knowledge of aeronautics and his multifaceted experiences as a pilot also inform his work, leading to an engagement with natural light, sunrises, sunsets, and even the stars and planets. For years he flew around the American west in search of a natural site that would allow him to pursue the lifelong dream of creating a multichambered naked-eye observatory. He found such a site in 1977, when he purchased the extinct volcanic Roden Crater in Flagstaff, Arizona. Two years later, he moved to Flagstaff, where he currently practices his art, works on the Roden Crater, and runs a cattle ranch on the property.
Turrell’s interest in perception and working with light has led to the creation of a series of distinct but interconnected installation works. He developed the ideas for most of those works early in his career, and he continues to revisit some of them from time to time, creating new works in a given series. More often than not, the installations require an investment of time on the part of the viewer, as they are best experienced after the eyes have had time to adjust to different light levels and environments.
During the mid-1960s, Turrell rented the former Mendota Hotel in Santa Monica, California, turning it into a studio and exhibition space. He closed off entire rooms to create a variety of installations, some of which allowed light from the outside to venture inside via room-sized pinhole cameras. With those works, Turrell was able to “apprehend the light so as to be physically present within the space” (Govan and Kim, eds, James Turrell, 43).
During that time, Turrell also began a series of “projection pieces” in which he uses a modified halogen projector to create “three-dimensional forms” (for example, a pyramid or cube) that appear to float in front of walls. He uses a similar technique for the “shallow spaces” (for example, The Light Inside, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1999), except that an actual space, rather than a hypothetical one, is activated. In those works, the walls seem to float as the physical architecture enables light to emanate from a cavity. In the “wedgeworks,” Turrell uses florescent light sources from behind partition walls to create the appearance of a transparent light screen. Rooms filled with a soft, misty light sometimes have vibrant color combinations that are heightened as your eyes adjust to the darkened rooms. “Veils” are a variation on the wedgeworks in which the seemingly magical light emanates from above rather than from the side. In the “dark spaces,” viewers sit in an unlit chamber while their eyes adjust and seek color within the darkness. As Turrell describes the experience: It is similar to the act of meditating, but in one of his dark spaces, the viewer does so with their eyes open and while actively seeking. The “Ganzfeld pieces” are similarly disorienting in that the viewer is surrounded by light but looks into an uncertain space with no information or clues as to where it goes or ends. Turrell has created analogous conditions on a smaller scale in his “perceptual cells“—freestanding structures similar to telephone booths that allow you to enter and experience a Ganzfeld or complete field.
The space division constructions, which Turrell began in 1976, present the viewer with a different kind of experience. Upon entering a dark room, one sees what appears to be a two-dimensional canvas of light. But as the eyes adjust, the canvas of luminous color actually turns out to be an aperture or hole cut out of a vertical wall, revealing an indeterminate space beyond that is filled with light. The colorful light has an almost tactile quality that seems to fill the space—people have been known to reach out in an attempt to touch the light. Turrell has also created space division constructions for use as theatrical sets in which dancers wearing special costumes and make-up move within the light.
In the Mendota Hotel, Turrell did pioneering works in which he cut away parts of the walls to reveal the sky. The “structural cuts” would later appear as lunettes, skylights, and other architectural elements in settings specifically designed to house them. The cuts in turn lead to what have become known as “Skyspaces,” rooms with sharp-edged apertures in the ceiling that open to the sky. The enclosed spaces are empty save for benches placed along the walls. Just as the space division constructions appear to fill a room with light right up to a two-dimensional plane, the skypaces seem to bring the sky down to the opening in the ceiling, almost within reach.
Turrell also has engaged the heavens with a series of “landworks.” The works range from a relatively simple craterlike bowl in which the viewer can experience celestial vaulting (the perceptual phenomena of the sky bending around to surround you as if you are in a bubble) to the lifelong project of almost unimaginable ambition, Roden Crater. An observatory created in an extinct volcano, Roden is approximately seventy-eight stories tall. It will ultimately be filled with tunnels and chambers from which to observe various solar, lunar, and celestial phenomena. Phase I is complete and work has begun on Phases II and III. The chambers will allow viewers to experience a variety of events from a setting that is respectful of and steeped in geologic time. No telescopes are required, as it is an observatory for the naked eye. Like Turrell’s Skyspaces, Roden Crater allows the viewer to connect with the sky above, but it goes even further by offering engagement with stars and planets that are light years away. Because he is an artist working in the American West, many consider Roden Crater to be the climax of the earthwork movement. However, unlike earthworks by artists like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, Turrell’s alteration of the terrain is barely perceptible, and while many of those artists’ works are intentionally ephemeral, Turrell’s act of forging a direct and unforgettable link through the sky to the greater universe beyond is timeless.
In many ways, it is a fool’s errand to list or capture James Turrell’s output as an artist. In addition to the above-mentioned installation works, he has also produced suites of prints, holograms, architectural models, photographs, and even a line of ceramics— Lapsed Quaker Ware —that are inspired by Josiah Wedgewood. It is no wonder that he has received prestigious awards from the Guggenheim, Lannan, and MacArthur foundations.
The Color Inside, 2013
Before the new Student Activity Center was designed for The University of Texas at Austin, the student body was surveyed as to their preferences for the center. A place for quiet reflection was on that wish list, and James Turrell’s The Color Inside is just such a place.
Turrell sited the work on the rooftop, just within the campus height restrictions so that nothing will obstruct its view. As such, it is somewhat hidden from visitors who enter the center from the street; thus, one must make a pilgrimage of sorts in order to find it. It is a strategy Turrell has engaged many times before: by making his works difficult to find, anticipation is heightened, enhancing the overall experience of the work upon its discovery.
Turrell’s second Skyspace is hidden in an upper-floor classroom of what was once P.S. 1 in Long Island, New York (it is now a part of the Museum of Modern Art campus). For Meeting (1978), the viewer ascends multiple staircases and walks down long corridors filled with classroom doors to a particular door that opens to the sky. In yet another Skyspace, Heavy Water (1991), in Poitiers, France, the magic of the work is only revealed to those who don a 1920’s-style black-and-white striped bathing suit, dive into a pool, and swim under a wall to enter a space in which light appears to come out of the water.
At the Student Activity Center, elevators or stairs take visitors to a corridor that leads to The Color Inside. At the end of a corridor, a glass door opens onto a rooftop garden. As a boardwalk leads you through the garden, you become aware of a graceful and seductively curvalinear building resting within the garden. Only those willing to seek the entrance to the building will find the Skyspace. A thin band of glass tile rings the base of the building, and as you follow it around, an open vestibule presents itself. Stepping over the glass tile into the space is similar to crossing a liminal threshold: you are leaving the center and entering a different kind of place—there, in the midst of a dense, urban environment is a seductively gentle, open, and airy chamber in which to lose oneself for a time.
While Turrell is known for reducing his architectural spaces down to the fundamentals, there is always a simple elegance that makes them particularly inviting. In The Color Inside, he created an elliptical space with honed black basalt seating (with radiant heat) and tiled flooring, the design of which reminds one of an ancient fossil. Like two hands coming together to embrace you, the gentle curves of the elliptical building invite you to come in and sit. Above is an elliptically shaped oculus. In other Skyspaces, Turrell created circular, square, and rectangular openings, and as his architectural models and realized Skyspaces reveal, he is interested in a variety of cultures and approaches to spirituality. For example, the Pantheon in Rome, which was built for the gods, is perhaps the best-known architectural structure with an oculus. As viewed through the oculus in the lofty dome of the Pantheon, the heavens seem remote and faraway, whereas Turrell’s Skyspaces bring the sky down to us. And in The Color Inside, the more gentle and lyrical lines of the ellipse and the human scale of the building somehow make our meditative departure—our spiritual journey—that much more possible.
The Skyspace can be experienced and enjoyed at any time of day, but sunrise and sunset are the most dramatic times, when the sky itself undergoes conspicuous changes and when the art can be experiences as Turrell intends. It is best to settle in before the sky begins to change and remain until the changes are complete. During those times, Turrell enhances the experience by providing a specialized light program within the space (hidden above the seating). In a Turrell Skyspace, the sky reveals itself in an altogether new guise. You forget that you are looking at the sky as the color changes unimaginably, becoming rich, deep, and intense. Reality might break in occasionally in the form of a bird flying overhead or a cloud floating by, but your reverie quickly engulfs you again. As the sky gets darker, it becomes velvety in a way that invites you to reach up and touch. And as you sit quietly, you discover what it is to see yourself seeing. It is wondrous whether you experience it alone or together with friends. Such a work truly needs to be experienced first hand; a photographic reproduction cannot adequately convey the perceptual awakenings that occur during such a viewing.
Turrell’s seemingly magical illusions are created with familiar materials—here by cutting a hole in the ceiling and adding some LED lights. But in Turrell’s hands, such simple gestures are so ingeniously and precisely presented that they allow us to see the sky as we have never seen it before. While through their work many contemporary artists’ seek to be a part of the time and moment in which they are creating, Turrell aims for a purity of form and timelessness. Because the evolution of human intelligence is primarily based on information that we have gathered through vision, light has come to mean illumination and enlightenment, or a possession of the mind. Turrell understands that premise and also that not only does light reveal what is around us, but it also makes known that which is inside us.
Lynn Herbert is a former senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (CAMH). She organized the exhibition James Turrell: Spirit and Light and has written extensively about his work.