MovementsArtistsTimelinesIdeasBlog
About us
James Turrell Photo

James Turrell

American Sculptor

Movements and Styles: Light and Space, Earth Art

Born: May 6, 1943 - Los Angeles

James Turrell Timeline

Important Art by James Turrell

The below artworks are the most important by James Turrell - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Afrum I (White), (1967)
Artwork Images

Afrum I (White), (1967)

Artwork description & Analysis: In the 1960s, Turrell began using a high-intensity projector (cutting-edge technology for the 1960s) to beam light onto the walls and corners of empty rooms. The artist was essentially painting (or sculpting) with light. Inspired by the glow from a reproduction of a Rothko canvas in the context of a slide lecture (a glow he later discovered they did not have when he experienced them in person), the work is derived from Turrell's knowledge of Color Field painting, but takes it into the third dimension.

Here, a brilliant white cube seems to float in midair. If we walk from side to side, it appears three-dimensional. Upon closer inspection, we discover that two intersecting beams of light create that illusion. Because of the intensity of the beam and the darkened conditions of the room, light appears as a visual presence, and the reflection of the beams off the walls makes it appear as if the cube itself were the source of light. The projection can be read multiple ways: if it is a 3-dimensional object, does it advance or recede from the viewer? It can also be viewed as a flat, uneven hexagon. Deeply rooted in the psychology of perception, Turrell's work calls our attention to an array of geometric possibilities, making us aware that seeing is an unstable process, as dependent on the brain as on the eye.

Projected light - Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Meeting (1980)
Artwork Images

Meeting (1980)

Artwork description & Analysis: Enter what at first seems to be an ordinary room and sit down on one of the wooden benches along its walls. The eye is soon drawn upward toward a large rectangular aperture cut directly into the square ceiling. Here, artificial orange light and natural light mingle, guiding the senses and suggesting the color of the sky. The effects are particularly noticeable close to sunset. Turrell's Skyspaces, permanent, site-specific installations meant to facilitate visitors' experiences of the effects of light changing slowly over time are the artist's best-known works. The objective is to join inside with outside, eliminating the ceiling, and connecting the individual directly with the sky.

These installations can be found in autonomous structures or rooms within other buildings. In all cases, Turrell carefully studies the position of the space in relation to the sun. Since these spaces are designed to mediate the flow of light from outside, the boundaries of the work (i.e. where they begin and end) is not always clear. The work is an experience, arranged and modified by the artist, and the viewer's response is an integral part of it.

Site-specific light installation - MoMA PS1

Apani (2011)
Artwork Images

Apani (2011)

Artwork description & Analysis: The complete loss of depth perception (as in a white-out) the so-called "Ganzfeld effect" was discovered by a German psychologist in the 1930s and sparked the idea for a similarly disorienting series of pieces using light to mimic the effect. In this work for the 2011 Venice Biennale, visitors entering the space at first perceived a flat projection, only to discover that the wall of color was a light-filled room they could enter. The experience of being engulfed in a sea of color, programmed to shift from hue to hue, created a sense of motion, like swimming in light. In this way, Turrell's work is part of a broader shift in art, away from the expression of the artist's consciousness (as in Abstract Expressionism) and towards the viewer's experience. Like Richard Serra's monumental steel sculptures, Fred Sandback's lengths of colored yarn stretching across rooms, or Carston Holler's eerie indoor theme parks, Turrell's pieces are designed to guide our experience of the work, without predetermining the outcome.

Site-specific light installation - Collection of Artist

Roden Crater Project (1979-present)
Artwork Images

Roden Crater Project (1979-present)

Artwork description & Analysis: Rising out of the vast desert outside Flagstaff, Roden Crater is the site of Turrell's most ambitious project to date. He has reworked this huge depression in the earth, altering its contours to change the visitor's perception of the horizon and sky, and left a cluster of spaces and walkways inside, with apertures leading into each compartment that filter various degrees of light from the cosmos. Turrell originally discovered the site by plane. The visitor approaches like a pilgrim, walking over two miles in a tightening spiral that allows his or her mindset to adjust to the ancient natural site and its changing appearance, depending on light and weather. Upon arriving at the extinct volcano, one makes one's way through a long tunnel into the Crater Bowl, a natural concavity 5,500 above sea level. During the day, one appears to see a literal curving of the earth. At night, it is as if the stars are right on top of you. For example, the Alpha Tunnel focuses images onto a large stone in the Sun and Moon Chamber every 18.61 years to mark the Major Lunar Standstill. The experience of the work is intended to attune us to the presence of geologic time and celestial movement. Though grander in scale than anything else the artist has done, the Roden Crater project is entirely consistent with the rest of the artist's work, and might even be considered a kind of summary of his objective: modifying perception, and ultimately consciousness itself, through the use of light.

Extinct volcano, site-specific installation - Northern Arizona

Light Reignfall (2011)
Artwork Images

Light Reignfall (2011)

Artwork description & Analysis: Turrell's Perceptual Cells series are enclosed, autonomous spheres built to expand an individual's perception of space through the use of light. These works are a good example of why Turrell is not a Land Art artist. His focus is on the nature of perception, as opposed to the environment itself. Light Reignfall is a 15-foot diameter spherical structure held in place by metal scaffolding. It holds one person at a time, and essentially blocks out the outside world. The viewer chooses between a "hard" experience of flashing lights and "soft" experience of slowly-morphing colors, and is then tucked into a white vinyl cot and slipped into this spaceship-like contraption for a computerized light show of kaleidoscope patterns. The light causes one to lose all sense of depth, and even to question whether one's eyes are open or closed as the light appears bright even through closed lids. Alone in the small enclosure, one sees not only the literal light changing but also a corresponding nerve stimulation in the brain that causes you to see patterns that are not there. The bright, pulsating light is so intense and the feeling of enclosure so complete that the viewer has to sign a waiver confirming that he or she does not have epilepsy, claustrophobia, or other health conditions that might be triggered. This, as you might imagine, created huge lines at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's popular 2013 retrospective of the artist's work.

Fiberglass, metal, programmed light - Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Twilight Epiphany (2012)
Artwork Images

Twilight Epiphany (2012)

Artwork description & Analysis: Colleges have a history of commissioning monumental works by important artists. Designed to enhance one's perception of the natural light present at twilight, this Skyspace, built on Rice University Campus, is a contemplative spot to experience the beauty of the sunset. Rather than painting the sunset, Turrell's homage to this time-honored theme in art is a guided experience of the event itself. The crisp outline of a square roof illuminated in pink or blue catches the viewer's attention from a distance, and seems to float over a grass complex in a pyramidal shape. Entering through the white-walled entrances and finding a seat inside at dawn or dusk, the visitor can watch a LED light program designed to enhance the changing light. Twilight Epiphany is simultaneously an experiential work of art of the Skyspace variety that Turrell has created all over the world and a functional performance space featuring careful acoustical engineering. Turrell designed the two-level pyramidal structure to host musical performances and seat up to 120 people. With its focus on acoustics, this work exemplifies his interest in guiding the viewer into a more holistic perception of art and experience.

Grass, concrete, composite steel, granite, plaster, paint, and programmed LED lighting - Rice University, Houston, TX



By submitting the above you agree to The Art Story privacy policy.

James Turrell Photo

Related Art and Artists

The Lightning Field (1977)
Artwork Images

The Lightning Field (1977)

Artist: Walter de Maria

Artwork description & Analysis: This may be De Maria's most famous work. It is an expansive installation of 400 stainless steel poles placed in a one-mile by one-kilometer grid. The rods are each two inches in diameter but extend upwards at varying heights ranging from 15 feet to 26 feet nine inches, in order to create a perfectly horizontal plane where their pointed tips stop.

This work is a significant piece of the Land art movement of the late 1960's, which began in the Southwestern United States. This piece lives in an obscure desert plain near Quemado, New Mexico, specially selected for its frequent lightning storms and isolation. The work incorporates the natural environment into art in a meaningful way, seeing the land as a critical aspect of the work, not merely a site for it. The locale was scouted precisely for its distance from other signs of human development and its ability to reflect the enormity of the landscape. The work communicates a variety of experiences of being in the landscape, and simultaneously asks individual visitors to meditate on the moment, while contemplating shifts in light and perceptions of time and space in their changing vastness.

The poles were placed outside, rather than in a museum or gallery so the work reveals the significance of the setting, beyond the built, sculptural aspect. The title calls attention to the tantalizing possibility of highly ephemeral illumination from irregularly occurring natural lighting strikes, potentially drawn down from the sky into the field by the rods. It also calls for awareness of the surrounding landscape, and the relationship between art and nature. The earth is an integral part of the artwork and acts as a canvas while also drawing attention to the sky as part of the larger environment, and our relationship to it. Visitors must travel to this remote location in order to view the work, therefore incorporating the journey away from the everyday as part of the experience of the piece, which initiates a total immersion of the senses while creating an unusual degree of intimate encounter with a liberating spirit.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812)

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812)

Artist: Joseph Mallord William Turner

Artwork description & Analysis: In this painting, Turner depicts Hannibal's soldiers in their struggle to cross the Alps in 218BC. There is a curved arch of black storm clouds hovering over the soldiers with a golden sun peeking through the grayness. In the foreground, the soldiers are fighting local tribes in the murky darkness, while ahead in the distance the plains of Italy are bathed in sunlight. At the right is an avalanche of snow descending down the mountain. Hannibal's location is not clear, but he may be riding the elephant barely visible in the distance. Turner created this painting during the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France. He saw parallels between Hannibal and Napoleon, and this painting is his response to Jacques-Louis David's portrait of Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801-1805). This work is the first painting where Turner uses a swirling vortex of wind, rain, snow and clouds that he returned to often in later works, such as Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842). His ongoing investigations of light and atmosphere greatly influenced future Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, such as Monet and Pissarro.

Oil on Canvas - Tate Britain, London

Spiral Jetty (1970)
Artwork Images

Spiral Jetty (1970)

Artist: Robert Smithson

Artwork description & Analysis: The northern section of the Great Salt Lake, where Smithson chose to site Spiral Jetty, was cut off from fresh water supplies when a nearby causeway was constructed by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1959. This encouraged the water's unique red-violet coloration, because it produced a concentration of salt-tolerant bacteria and algae. Smithson particularly liked the combination of colors because it evoked a ruined and polluted sci-fi landscape. And, by inserting the Jetty into this damaged section, and using entirely natural materials native to the area, Smithson called attention to environmental blight. Nevertheless, he also sought to reference the importance of time in eroding and transforming our environment. The coiling structure of the piece was inspired by the growth patterns of crystals, yet it also resembles a primeval symbol, making the landscape seem ancient, even while it also looks futuristic.

Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water coil - Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah

If you see an error or typo, please:
tell us
Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Linnea West

Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Linnea West
Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein
Available from:
[Accessed ]