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The Art Story Homepage Artists James Turrell
James Turrell Photo

James Turrell

American Sculptor

Movements and Styles: Light and Space, Earth Art, Installation Art, The Sublime in Art

Born: May 6, 1943 - Los Angeles

James Turrell Timeline

"There is a rich tradition in painting of work about light, but it is not light - it is the record of seeing. My material is light, and it is responsive to your seeing - it is nonvicarious."

James Turrell Signature

Summary of James Turrell

A fighter pilot with a degree in psychology, Turrell's earliest installations used a slide projector to beam light onto the surface of the walls of an empty room. The effect owed much to the work of Color Field painters (Rothko in particular), and expanded the definition of art to include light-filled spaces. Over the years, Turrell's work has evolved along with advancements in light-based technology, but it remains focused on the viewer's perception of light. His installation at the Guggenheim in 2014 filled the space with colored light that shifted from hue to hue in a timed sequence, eventually covering the full spectrum. His magnum opus, begun in 1977, is a volcanic crater in central Arizona, replete with apertures and tunnels that will eventually afford us glimpses of light from other galaxies. As Turrell himself puts it, the material of light is "nonvicarious" (i.e. you can't experience it without being there). In doing away with the material art object in favor of a perceptual experience, Turrell is pushing the boundaries of the definition of art.

Key Ideas

Turrell's work lies at the intersection of two ideas: that art can be made with non-traditional materials, and that an artwork might be an idea or an experience, as opposed to a thing. Turrell transforms light into art by manipulating the viewer's experience of it, testing the limits of these two ideas, both of which are fundamental to Conceptual art.
While his work is in a class by itself, Turrell's art is aligned with the Minimalist project to transform the viewer's experience of the object (or in this case, not an object at all, but a light-filled space).
Deeply informed by the psychology of perception, Turrell's work aims to reveal how vision intersects with the brain. Optical illusions and/or perceptual uncertainty are a vital dimension of his work - yet another reason you have to be there to experience it.
Part of the excitement of Turrell's work is its mixture of old and new. He consistently uses the latest available computer and light-based technology to intensify and control his optical effects. At the same time, the work is site-specific, linking it with prehistoric art and astrology. Sites such as Stonehenge (the massive prehistoric stone formations in Wiltshire England), and other prehistoric spaces used light to manipulate the viewer's experience of the environment. These are the early ancestors of Turrell's Skyspaces.
Turrell's focus on the nature of perception, as opposed to the environment, separates him from the Land art movement. While Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty and Walter de la Maria's Lightning Field are important precedents for the ambitious scale of his work, he is "not an 'earthwork' artist." As he puts it, "I'm totally involved in the sky."
James Turrel's <i>Space That Sees</i> in the Israel Museum Jerusalem
James Turrel's Space That Sees in the Israel Museum Jerusalem

Turrell was born into a Quaker family in Los Angeles in 1943. He tells a story of sitting in the Quaker meeting house with his grandmother when he was five or six years old. When everyone closed their eyes at the beginning of the meeting, he asked his grandmother what they were supposed to be doing. She told him: "Just wait, we're going inside to greet the light.'" Arguably this episode greatly influenced his early fascination with light. Turrell got his pilot's license at 16 years old, following in the footsteps of his late father, who had been an aeronautical engineer. Because of his Quaker background, he was not a good candidate for service in the Vietnam War, but while still in his teens he was sent for alternative service to Laos. He flew U2 planes, legendary single-jet engine, ultra-high altitude aircraft developed by the U.S. Air Force for reconnaissance. Flying these secret missions over Tibet and the Himalayas exposed him to changes in vision at high altitude. This attuned him to extraordinary meteorological phenomena.

Important Art by James Turrell Important Art and Analysis

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 Google 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 Google 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 - Museum of Modern Art - PS1, New York

Apani (2011)
Artwork Images Google 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

More James Turrell Artwork and Analysis:

Roden Crater Project (1979-present) Light Reignfall (2011) Twilight Epiphany (2012)

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
James Turrell
Interactive chart with James Turrell's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart
Show influences

Artists

J.M.W. TurnerJ.M.W. Turner
John ConstableJohn Constable
Mark RothkoMark Rothko

Personal Contacts

Robert IrwinRobert Irwin
Douglas WheelerDouglas Wheeler

Movements

Light and SpaceLight and Space
Earth ArtEarth Art
Influences on Artist
Influences on Artist
James Turrell
James Turrell
Years Worked: 1965 - present
Influenced by Artist
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Olafur EliassonOlafur Eliasson

Personal Contacts

Movements

Light and SpaceLight and Space
Earth ArtEarth Art
Installation ArtInstallation Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Linnea West

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Linnea West
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein
Available from:
First published on 21 Jan 2016. Updated and modified regularly. Information
[Accessed ]