‘It’s Not About Light—It Is Light’

Three major museum shows provide an unprecedented chance to assess the optical, intangible, and mesmerizing art of James Turrell

Currently, in an unusual and unprecedented tribute to a single living American artist, three major U.S. art museums in three distinct cities have simultaneous large-scale exhibitions dedicated to the work of James Turrell. This concurrence not only represents a celebration of the American artist, but also reflects the histories and agendas of three very different institutions—the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.


James Turrell.


LACMA has mounted the largest exhibition, a retrospective of the artist’s work from 1966 to 2013, which includes prints, drawings, models, and Turrell’s elusive, hallucinatory installations constructed entirely from white and colored light. A section of the show is devoted to the artist’s Roden Crater project, on which he has worked since 1974, converting a 400,000-year-old dormant volcano near Flagstaff, Arizona, into a naked-eye astronomical observatory and a series of spaces designed to capture celestial phenomena.

Born in Los Angeles, Turrell is welcomed at LACMA as a homeboy and major player in the 1960s Los Angeles arts community celebrated in “Pacific Standard Time,” the 2011–12 exhibitions and performances documenting the culture of postwar Los Angeles. Turrell participated in LACMA’s ambitious “Art and Technology” program of the late ’60s, investigating the phenomenology of perception and the effects of sensory deprivation. The LACMA retrospective alludes to these experiments by presenting one of Turrell’s recent “Perceptual Cells,” a freestanding structure designed to offer viewers, one at a time, a profoundly intense and sensual encounter with saturated light. The cell, which resembles an antique diving bell bisected by an MRI tunnel, can be reserved for 12-minute sessions of hallucinatory “behind-the-eye seeing.” Tickets, priced at $45 per session, sold out months in advance.

The LACMA exhibition makes a convincing case for the idiosyncrasy of Turrell’s production. His work is routinely grouped with that of his former L.A. colleague, Robert Irwin, but this survey illustrates an inversion of their artistic strategies. Irwin has used light to dematerialize various substances, while Turrell materializes light into fields and visual surfaces. Irwin’s installations respond to the specific qualities of illumination in various indoor and outdoor terrestrial settings, while the radiance in Turrell’s lighted spaces recalls his visual experiences as the pilot of a small plane flying high above the earth. The ambiance of upper-atmospheric diffusion is especially palpable in such installations from the 1990s as St. Elmo’s Breath (1992), and in a recent series of wide and tall glass panels animated with dissolving waves of color.

The Turrell survey at the MFAH is largely based on gifts to the museum from the artist’s local patrons. Houston collectors and philanthropists are among Turrell’s major supporters, and the MFAH owns the largest museum collection of his work in the United States. The holdings include prints, light-based installations and The Light Inside (1999), a permanent 118-foot passageway that connects the museum’s two gallery buildings. Pedestrians pass through this space on a raised walkway as if gliding on a stream of color, enclosed by an almost-tangible field of illumination that slowly shifts from blue to crimson to magenta. This installation is often ranked in polls as Houston’s favorite artwork, says the museum’s curator of contemporary art, Alison de Lima Greene, who organized the show. “Turrell is appreciated here as an accessible populist as well as a cutting-edge contemporary artist and technological wizard,” she points out.

Adjacent to the museum, Twilight Epiphany, a $5 million Turrell Skyspace, recently opened on the Rice University campus. It was gifted to Rice by a local patron. Skyspaces—enclosures with apertures at the top that have been strategically crafted to reveal the local qualities of atmospheric light—have become Turrell’s signature compositions: to date he has created 82 Skyspaces in 26 countries and 21 in the United States. “In my dreams,” the artist says. “At some point it will always be sunrise or sunset at a Turrell Skyspace somewhere on the globe.” The Rice Skyspace, one of the most accessible to the public, can accommodate 120 viewers and features LED lighting programmed to modulate the glow of sunrise and sunset, transforming the sky into planes of color.

In the ’70s, Turrell’s first Skyspaces involved simple cuts in walls or ceilings of existing buildings that display the sky above the horizon line. Many of the artist’s more recent constructions are freestanding hybrid structures that include water features or domestic accommodations such as dining or screening rooms. Twilight Epiphany is acoustically engineered for musical performances. Turrell’s sophisticated command of LED technology facilitates the more elaborate visual effects in the newer Skyspaces, providing astute lessons about how light obfuscates as well as illuminates what we can see. For those who have followed the evolution of these works, however, productions such as Twilight Epiphany may provoke nostalgia for the technical simplicity of the artist’s earlier designs, such as his 1986 Skyspace at MoMA PS1, which can provide an especially affecting encounter with the sky because the staging is both mysterious and apparently very literal.

Turrell distinguishes between his own “architecture of space”—areas inhabited entirely by light—and the architecture of form, the actual walls, floors, and ceilings erected to create buildings. The exhibition in New York City conjoins both types of architecture, offering an entirely new encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright’s famously eccentric design for the Guggenheim Museum. In the largest installation Turrell has ever mounted—titled Aten Reign, after an Egyptian sun god—the Guggenheim’s central rotunda is visible only from below, and becomes a five-tiered volume of elliptical space suffused with a range of sunset hues or the gray tones of a cloudy day. At the apex of the tower of ellipses is Wright’s skylight, filtered by a scrim. Turrell veiled the skylight’s outer rim to concentrate the daylight, which intermingles with LED lights lining the rings. As the colors gradually meld into one another, the tiers may appear convex, concave, or even as a series of flat concentric rings, as if the light were heavier or lighter in different registers of the space.

Many critics classify Turrell’s oeuvre as a California variant of East Coast Minimalism, especially compared to the work of Dan Flavin. In 1992, Flavin was also commissioned by the Guggenheim to create an installation for the museum’s rotunda, and Flavin’s solution illustrates the perils of identifying Turrell with Minimalism. Flavin installed a centered column of fluorescent tubing that extended from the ground floor up to the skylight. This radiant sculptural tower illuminated the inner surfaces of Wright’s spiral ramps, which were also washed with a range of colors from fluorescent tubing attached to the outer walls.

Flavin’s work was about glowing sculptural shapes made from industrial materials and about seeing through Wright’s architectural forms. Turrell’s installation is about looking at light itself. As did his East Coast colleagues, Flavin created sculptural forms that were reconfigured as individual viewers moved through a specific physical context. Turrell, in contrast, offers a set of elusive optical conditions to be experienced collectively from the floor of the rotunda. Both artists intensified Wright’s architecture with color and light, but the logic of viewer engagement in each case was founded on a different range of artistic ambitions.

Executing a 99,000-square-foot suite of simultaneous, complementary exhibitions is a notable accomplishment for the three museums, not to mention what it represents for an individual artist. “The last person on Earth most people imagine to be precisely on time, delivering what he or she has promised, is the artist,” Turrell says. “But when invitations are sent out for an opening at an art museum or gallery, what you see when you arrive is what the artist will be judged on. In this case, we opened three major exhibitions within a span of 28 days. I had wonderful support, but often the greatest thing about such big exhibitions is getting through the openings at the end.”

Art historians and critics have often been divided between those who dismiss Turrell’s work as a New Age techno-spectacle and those who regard his command of optical sciences and artistic practice as a powerful vehicle for raising questions about constructions of “the real.” These three exhibitions offer an unprecedented opportunity to line up assessments of Turrell’s achievements with an almost-comprehensive range of his work, but the audiences will inevitably be handicapped by what is absent—Roden Crater, Turrell’s magnum opus and the audacious center of his life’s work.

Documents and models relating to Roden Crater are on display in the MFAH and LACMA exhibitions, but the most informative overview of the crater project was an exhibition held in conjunction with the LACMA show at Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery, a new Los Angeles gallery designed in part by Turrell.

Richard Andrews, a former director of the Visual Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts and president of Skystone Foundation, which raises funds to support the crater’s development, curated the show. Andrews’s presentation recalled Robert Smithson’s “Site/ Non-Site” installations of the late 1960s, in which the artist assembled a variety of maps, social documents, and physical materials to create a rapport between a distant outdoor site and its representation in a gallery. Andrews not only gathered together texts, models, drawings, site plans, and photographs of Roden Crater, but also Turrell’s mapping devices—his aerial camera, surveying table, compass, and portable theodolite, which measures horizontal and vertical angles.

The show suggested a more traditional art-historical backdrop for Turrell’s work as well. An artist who also worked with optical devices and is not often cited as a historical mentor for Turrell, Marcel Duchamp is remembered here with a three-dimensional model of Roden Crater in a wooden box. Turrell’s container, which includes a drawer filled with Roden Crater prints, pays sly homage to Duchamp’s Box in a Valise, which Duchamp packed with miniature replicas of his paintings and sculptures.

Most of the nearly 50 works in the LACMA retrospective can be related directly or indirectly to the crater project, beginning with Afrum (White), 1966, and Juke (Green), 1968, glowing, three-dimensional forms constructed entirely from projected light and ending chronologically with Breathing Light (2013), a Ganzfeld (complete field) environment of homogeneous illumination. As with the crater, in which the sky appears to viewers as a bounded circular dome within the volcano’s bowl, these compositions are crafted to demonstrate the “thingness” of light and to blur the distinctions between internally and externally generated visual experiences.

Although smaller in scope, the 22,000-square-foot Houston exhibition offers a more cogent survey of Turrell’s light installations. The sequencing and construction of his environments within the museum’s Mies van der Rohe–designed glass pavilion track a progression from sculptural forms to more painterly and spatially complex compositions, such as Caper (Salmon-White), 2000 — an evolution that is not as legible in Los Angeles. End Around, the 2006 Ganzfeld on view in Houston, was especially well executed. To enter a Turrell Ganzfeld is to enter an apparently boundless illuminated arena without the focal points we typically use to situate the body in space. Moving forward in these uniform fields is disorienting—and, for some viewers, simply overwhelming.

Caper (Salmon-White), 2000, composed of LED and fluorescent light,  is installed in Houston’s Mies van der Rohe–designed glass pavilion. THOMAS DUBROCK/©JAMES TURRELL/MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON, GIFT OF THE ESTATE OF ISABEL B. WILSON IN MEMORY OF PETER C. MARZIO

Caper (Salmon-White), 2000, composed of LED and fluorescent light, is installed in Houston’s Mies van der Rohe–designed glass pavilion.


Rarely shown in photographs, however, is the view from within a Ganzfeld of the space where one enters or exits the field. In Turrell’s recent work this opening appears as a solid plane of color, surrounded by a geometric boundary of LED lighting. The splendid effect is very much like discovering a Josef Albers painting within “the ambiguous world of the undetermined,” as the Symbolist painter Odilon Redon described his own vaporous dreamscapes, a prototype Turrell admires.

Turrell’s Ganzfelds, like his other light installations, offer no representational images or stories, although they are not abstract. “My work is very literal and in that sense very American,” he says. “It’s not about light—it is light.” In the last two decades, however, Turrell has often used allusive titles for his work, such as the reference to the Egyptian god Aten, and many of his Skyspaces emulate ritual architecture such as stupas and pyramids. These allusions, together with his descriptions of Roden Crater as a site created to connect viewers with the movements of planets, stars, and distant galaxies, have heightened critics’ suspicions about Turrell’s sympathies with New Age cultures such as those famously headquartered in Sedona, Arizona, not far from Roden Crater.

“I am interested in the dynamics of inner vision and religious traditions dealing with light, including the Quaker faith I grew up with,” he admits. “But I’m mostly interested in what I know. It’s not that I keep a lid on what I believe, but I want to have my believing kept very close to the knowing. I think most of us recognize that light filling a void can be a very powerful experience—a reminder that segregating the literal and what we call the ‘spiritual’ can sometimes be a meaningless distinction.”

Turrell’s place in contemporary art history will probably remain unsettled until Roden Crater is open to the public, although the project has already established his mystique. Fundraising continues for a second series of installations within the volcano and Turrell’s supporters worldwide are hoping the triple-crown exhibitions will ultimately validate the title Richard Andrews invented for Turrell’s gallery exhibition in L.A., “Sooner than Later, Roden Crater.”

Roden Crater (Blue Sky), 2009, a color-carbon print of the volcano near Flagstaff, Arizona. It is still not open to the public. ©JAMES TURRELL/COURTESY PACE GALLERY

Roden Crater (Blue Sky), 2009, a color-carbon print of the volcano near Flagstaff, Arizona. It is still not open to the public.


The Turrell exhibitions are on view in Houston until September 22, in New York until September 25, and in Los Angeles until April 16, 2014.

Patricia Failing is a professor of art history at the University of Washington in Seattle and an ARTnews contributing editor.

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