A Brief Sketch of James Turrell

Light and Space in the Hands of a Master


It’s hard to know where to start with James Turrell. 77 and still working propulsively on a magnum opus which is also an extinct volcano, almost a biennial of work and a hell of a bio sheet behind him, a collector of airplanes and a ranch-owner, there’s no clear entry point to this artist.

So, naturally, let’s start with Ye. The striking setting of West’s Jesus is King film: Turrell’s Rodon Crater. J.I.K. was an unprecedented walkthrough of Turrell’s greatest undertaking, which has yet to open for public access.

It’s not all that surprising Turrell let Kanye use the space - there was a ten million dollar donation involved - but it was somewhat artistically incongruous. For one, Turrell comes from a conservative Quaker background. His family’s asceticism, skepticism of the arts and appliances, and hyper-sensitivity to vanity is in pretty stark contrast to Kanye’s hyper-commodified and vocal take on the Christianity thing.

A figure beneath on of Rodon's main craters / Kanye West / Youtube

More than that though, for anyone who knows Turrell, overloading his work with another sensory mode feels almost desecratory. Turrell pieces are precisely curated experiences. Often immersive and demanding, it’s hard to imagine that the crater Turrell is decades into fine-tuning was optimized with a frenetic musical performance at its center.

Which isn’t to say one couldn’t appreciate the crater’s aesthetic brilliance in the film. Roden Crater, as is definitive of Turrell’s oeuvre, exhibits an attention to detail that bewilders. But to see a Turrell once-removed is a far cry from the real deal. As Guggienheim curator and Turrel staff member Nat Trotman puts it, “Turrell calls his art non-vicarious art because it can only truly be experienced first hand,” and therefore all reportings, even videographic ones, “are somehow less than the real experience of the work.”

If you've seen J.I.K. this might look familiar / photo by Florian Holzherr / Via James Turrell's site

The experience Turrell strives to create is deeply identified with the life he’s lived. It’s been, in part, a life in the sky. Turrell’s father was a pilot and aureological engineer; Turrell obtained his own pilot’s license at age 16. During Vietnam, an objector to the war effort, Turrell shuttled monks in and out of then chinese-controlled Tibet. It’s unclear who exactly asked him to do this. It might have been the CIA.

Turrell spent several years of his middle age flying around the country. Today he owns eight planes which he repairs himself. This isn’t all hobby, either. “I do some of my best observing in the plane,” Turrell has said. He was airborne when he spotted Roden Crater, which speaks to the vantage he hopes to create there: a bringing down of the sky to the crater, a unity of the earthly and the celestial.

Years spent at altitude have given Turrell a masterclass in perspective. He studied perceptual psychology and math in college, and it wasn’t until grad school (which Turrell was kicked out of when arrested for coaching potential draftees in draft avoidance) that he threw himself into artistic craft. He can speak intelligibly about visual-perceptual phenomenon and optical physiology in low light, but ultimately Turrell seeks to produce an experience that need not be mediated by concept. It’s transcendental, and, paradoxically, immediate and subjective.

If perspective is one pillar of Turrell’s work, light is the other. Light defines his conception of art history. “If you look at the history of art,” Turrel said in an Arts Insight interview, “there is this dealing with light. So this fits right into it.” But “instead of using paint to depict light I actually use the light.”

Though Turrell’s products demand inordinate planning and structure, his process is experimental and freewheeling. In grad school, while screwing around with a projector in a dark room, Turrell made optical discovery that would birth his “Corner Shallow Spaces” series: by projecting light into a corner of an empty room at just the right angle, the beam’s signature on the wall produced a shape that appeared to occupy physical space.

A corner shallow space / Kent Wang / CC BY-SA 2.0

Many of Turrell’s works play this game, producing within the eye what is not there, or erasing from perception what is. His “Wedgeworks,” and “Veils” erect and obscure walls; “Windows” and “Shallow Space Constructions” play with depth and openings; “Ganzfelds'' aim for total sensory dismoorment. These effects can be powerful to a fault - Turrell has caught a few lawsuits from folks who were under the impression they had found a wall to lean on and ended up in the ER.

Turrell’s light works, though experientially visceral, require hyper-precise design, programming, and installation. Each work is an on-site construction, tailored to the geometry of the space, requiring augmentation and troubleshooting. Potholes abound. While preparing for a 2013 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for instance, a computer containing vital programming arrived on-site wiped.

A Turrell Skyspace / Photo by Cam / Unsplash

Turrell’s process questions norms of artistic creation. Usually, visual artistic products are crafted once and static once generated. A painting might take months to complete, but once it is, it can be hung and rehung, cross borders and oceans, and still be (barring a storage or shipping blunder) basically the same aesthetic object.

Turrell’s installations don’t work like this. Whenever they move they must be re-created in the new space. When you walk into a Turrel installation you aren’t just walking into an artwork, but an artsite.

A Ganzfeld (translated: complete field) from 2013 entitled "Breathing Light" / photo by Florian Holzherr via James Turrell's site

The nature of his installations implicats Turrell’s legacy, and authorship. When he passes, what will become of his non-permanent installations? If, for example, a long-time colleague used data from past installations to recreate a Shallow Space Construction after Turrell dies, is the product a Turrell?

Enclosed spaces with meticulously controlled and artificially produced light are only part of Turrell’s oeuvre. Following his optical discovery with the projector, he began experimenting with natural light. Apart from the increased technical complexity using a dynamic and uncontrolled source, with natural light Turrell completely removed mechanization from his process.

Photo by stewf / CC BY-SA 2.0

Ultimately, though, the gallery environment itself was too limiting. He could curate the type, shape, and color of the light, and some galleries even allowed him to make significant alterations to the physical space (such as excising blocks of their ceilings for his Skylight series), but most didn’t allow Turrell to determine their geometry.

Skyspaces gave Turrell more spatial autonomy. Defined as “a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky,” Turrell’s Skyspaces represent perhaps the most robust and diverse folder in his catalogue. The effect, at its most general, is put well by art critic Jori Finkel, who wrote that the sky appears to be “stretched like a canvas across an opening in the ceiling.” Depth is erased, and the vastly distant is brought to the ceiling itself.

That canvas-like stretch on display / photo via James Turrell Studio files

Some Skyspaces are relatively plain and rectangular. Others, like his open air pavilion completed in 2007 at Pomona, incorporate the environment into the experience, with a reflecting pool and granite seating area surrounded by trees. The roofs of Turrell’s skyspaces have a precise curvature and opening, creating that “stretched canvas” optical illusion. Light can be projected onto the roof, and when it’s shades and tones change, so too does the perceived tone and shade of the sky.

One of Turrell's freestanding, wall-less skyspaces / Photo by Cam / Unsplash

“We think we receive everything we perceive, but in fact, we actually give the sky its color,” Turrell has said. His Skyspaces make this argument compellingly.

Given Turrell’s present prominence in the zeitgeist (apart from Jesus is King you can find reference to Turrell and his work anywhere from Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video to Kendall Jenner’s AD Open Door) his years of relative obscurity are easily forgotten. “Relative” is operative here - he won a Guggienheim grant in the 70s, was a MacArthur Fellow as early as 1984 - but Turrell’s cachet reached current levels only with his 2013 retrospective montage.

Photo by fabioomero / CC BY-SA 2.0

His path reminds us Turrell is no prodigy. He applied to art school after seeing an ad in the back of Artforum. His Quaker family didn’t encourage his aesthetic precocity. He approaches his craft with a different lens, one informed by his scientific background, sure, but that is also decidedly unpretentious.

Similarly, Turrell isn’t obsessed with his own auteurship. “My work is more about your seeing than my seeing” is a maxim he favors. You can find it on his website, or in any number of interviews where he was cornered into answering a question about himself. Wil Hylton described Turrell in his 2013 profile as “startlingly uninterested in himself.” He is quicker to speak about mechanism and viewer effect than he is about theme or creative intent.

As Chuck Close puts it, Turrell is “an orchestrator of experience, not a creator of cheap effects. And every artist knows how cheap an effect is, and how revolutionary an experience.” Revolutionary, and human. The experiences Turrell creates need not be mediated by any local thematic vocabulary or shared cultural subtext. The commonality of his art has global appeal. Take a look at his website for cartographic layout - Turrell has work all over the planet.

The entrance to 'Second Wind' located in southern Spain / FlickrDelusions / CC BY-SA 2.0

Turrell’s work asks questions about the viewer vis-a-vis the artist. David Houston, the Director of Curatorial at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, argues that Turrell’s technique is a reversal of the conventional viewer-artist relationship. In the past, artists took what they saw and represented it for the viewer. With modernism, what could be represented broadened to an artist's subjective experience. In both cases, the artist's own feeling or seeing was on display.

With Turrell, argues Houston, the world and experience of the viewer, rather than the artist, is primary. When we step into a Turrel, it is our own eye at question, the trick of our own brain, the misapprehension of our own optical apparatus. It is not a re-experiencing of what Turrell once saw or felt, but a first experience of our own.

Solomon R. Guggienheim Foundation /CC BY 2.0

At the moment, though, you’re more likely to find Turrell tending cattle than philosophizing. Rodon Crater has become more than the volcano. Originally, Turrell convinced a Texas-based foundation to purchase it for him, but when they promptly fell on financial hard times, Turrell was forced to take up ownership - an ownership he couldn’t afford. The bank was only interested in loaning him money if the land could generate revenue as a ranch. As it sat, what the foundation had purchased was financially untenable. But, the bank explained, if Turrell bought more land (like three times more) it could work.

Turrell and his crater / via his site

Long story short, Turrell (who knew exactly nothing about ranching) ended up with Rodon Crater, 155 square miles of Arizonian desert, a loan and a divorce. The ranch has grown over the years - it’s closer to 220 square miles now - and is home to over 2,000 black angus.

The initial formation of the crater bowl to Turrell’s specifications required the movement of over 1.3 million cubic yards of earth. Past that, though, Turrell’s work has been surprisingly accommodating to the natural landscape. Most of this work has occurred under the volcano’s surface, fashioning tunnels and apertures that allow viewing of the sky and the entrance of light into space. It combines his practice of bringing light in and observing light without.

The crater bowl / photo by Florian Holzherr via James Turrell's site

To hear Turrell tell it, the Crater isn’t “finished.” Bullish deadlines collided with reality, and currently there is no date set for ribbon-cutting. (You can donate to the effort on his site.) Initially, this uncertainty was hard for Turrell to swallow. But he has come to terms with its potential unfinishability. He has “realized that maybe this would be it. Maybe it wouldn’t go any further.” And maybe that’s enough.