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James Turrell Photo

James Turrell

American Sculptor

Born: May 6, 1943 - Los Angeles
"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."
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James Turrell Signature
"My work is about space and the light that inhabits it. It is about how you confront that space and plumb it. It is about your seeing. How you come to it is important. The qualities of the space must be seen, and the architecture of the form must be dominant. I am really interested in the qualities of one space sensing another. It is like looking at someone looking. Objectivity is gained by being once removed. As you plumb a space with vision, it is possible to 'see yourself see'. This seeing, this plumbing, imbues space with consciousness. By how you decide to see it and where you are in relation to it, you create its reality. The piece can change as you move to it or within it. It can also change as the light source that enters it changes."
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James Turrell Signature
"I have an interest in the invisible light, the light perceptible only in the mind. A light which seems to be undimmed by the entering of the senses. I want to address the light that we see in dreams and make spaces that seem to come from those dreams and which are familiar to those who inhabit those places. Light has a regular power for me. What takes place in the viewer is wordless thought. It's not as though it's thinking and unthinking without intelligence; it's that it has a different return than words."
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James Turrell Signature
"His work is not about light, or a record of light; it is light - the physical presence of light made manifest in sensory form."
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New Yorker critic Calvin Tompkins
"... the art finally exists within a viewer's eye, rather than outside it. Looking at an artwork gives way to being immersed within its perceptual gymnastics and, finally, seeing oneself see. Light, the essential ingredient for sight, is Turrell's principal medium. Spiritual perception is his art's aim. The ancient metaphor of light as the engine of enlightenment is conjured in a modern way."
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LA Times art critic Christopher Knight
"Turrell is an orchestrator of experience."
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Chuck Close Signature
"Turrell is the last great American romantic artist, giving the viewer rhapsodic encounters with nature and the mystery of light. He proves that artists can still look at nature afresh."
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Art Critic Jonathan Jones

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.


  • 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."

Important Art by James Turrell

Progression of Art

Afrum I (White),

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



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



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)

Roden Crater Project

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

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

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

Biography of James Turrell

Childhood and Education

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.

Early Period

According to Turrell, his career as an artist began with a visual misperception. As a psychology major at Pomona College in 1965, he enjoyed art history, and especially the works of art by Mark Rothko he saw during his art history lectures. He was later disappointed on a trip to New York when he saw his first canvas by Rothko, which lacked the glow it appeared to have when shown via slide projector. The fact that a projected image of a Rothko might possess a glow that exceeded the original (a conceptually heretical idea akin to Duchamp's pinning a moustache on the Mona Lisa) was Turrell's initial impetus for becoming a light-based artist.

Turrell went on to pursue studio art at the University of California, Irvine, and upon graduating in 1966, he rented a large space in the abandoned Santa Monica Hotel that would serve as his studio for the next eight years. In it he conducted laboratory-like explorations using the architecture, exterior light, and projectors to mold light as if it were a material substance that could be shaped. Some of his first light-based works were Projection Pieces - so-called because the projector beams created the hologram of a geometric shape, further adapted through structural cuts in the building itself. In this way, the changing light of the outside environment - be it a gradual turn to dusk or passing headlights - also impacted the viewer's perception. In 1967, the Pasadena Art Museum held Turrell's first solo exhibition, displaying some of these Projection Pieces. This exhibition established his reputation.

Turrell was part of a generation accustomed to enormous advancements in technology and the excitement of the space race. In 1968 and 1969, he, along with artist Robert Irwin, worked on the Art and Technology program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with Ed Wortz, a scientist at a Southern California aerospace firm. Turrell was considered a member of the Light and Space Movement, a Southern California art movement of the last 60s and 70s. Although this group was only loosely affiliated in terms of the art being produced, Turrell maintained friendships with his artist peers such as Irwin, bonding over an interest in light and technology that was largely unexplored among East Coast artists at the time. Turrell received an MFA from the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California in 1973.

Mature Period

The massive and ambitious Roden Crater Project has been Turrell's main work since 1977, when, with the help of the DIA foundation, he purchased the site of an extinct volcano in northwestern Arizona near Flagstaff. For years he had searched for a large site that was isolated from the lights of civilization and raised above the surrounding land. Always an avid aviator and independent spirit, he flew six days a week for seven months between the Western foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast, sleeping under the wing of his plane. Finally, he found Roden Crater. He wanted to create a site where the visitor could experience "celestial vaulting," which Roden Crater, at approximately 5,500 above sea level and with a natural concave bowl, was well suited for. This phenomena, in which space seems to curve at the edges of your perception, was something Turrell had experienced while flying close to ground. Roden Crater is also a perfect site because nearby Flagstaff was one of the first places in the United States to create light pollution laws, enabling the visitor an undisturbed view of the heavens.

Construction began in 1979, starting and stopping as funds allowed and plans became more complex. Turrell has completed multiple spaces and observatories as part of his grand plan to link visitors with the celestial movements of the planets, stars, and distant galaxies. He has contoured the crater bowl and cut a complex and precise series of chambers, tunnels, and apertures within the volcano with the aid of construction crews and dump trucks as well as astronomers. The crater bowl has been shaped to change the visitor's perception of the horizon, seemingly bringing one closer to the sky and the experience of being inside space. The interior chambers and tunnels enhance or enable the perception of specific celestial events, such as lunar eclipses and winter and summer solstices. Turrell has a long-standing interest in the ancient art of astronomy as it might have been practiced in Babylon or Ancient Egypt, uniquely combining ancient knowledge with the study of cutting-edge science, with regard to the psychological and neurological nature of perception and astrophysics.

In 1984, at age 41, Turrell was the first artist to become a MacArthur Fellow, the so-called "genius" award. He spent the award on the Roden Crater project, bought surrounding land and started a cattle ranch to fund the Crater project. His career has been further supported by the sale of drawings and plans of the crater site and by his light installations, giving him a reputation as a sculptor of light. In addition to Projection Pieces, Shallow Space Constructions and Wedgeworks were pioneered in the Mendota rooms and honed later in different installations in museums and galleries. From 1976 to today, Turrell has used Space Division Constructions to create the illusion of a seemingly infinite room through an aperture. Also since 1976, the artist has created Ganzfelds in order to create an experience of light that gets rid of all depth for the viewer so that they are engulfed in light. Perceptual Cells, a series begun in 1989, are enclosed chambers designed for an individual in which the intense experience of light is only partially physical - the rest of the light effect is created in the stimulated brain. These light installations have been exhibited successfully internationally, but bringing the cosmos closer through Roden Crater remains his obsession. In that sense, these other works are like preliminary sketches or experiments, by which he learns more about the nature of light so that he can apply it to his magnum opus. Regarding Roden Crater's total cost, the artist has said: "People often ask me how much this crater costs. It cost me two marriages and a relationship." The artist has one daughter from an early marriage.

Later Period

To this day, Turrell remains an avid aviator and a cattle rancher as well as an artist. The Roden Crater, though unfinished, has already been transformed over the past thirty years into a celestial observatory that intertwines art, architecture, and astronomy. When completed, the project will contain 21 viewing spaces and six tunnels. While this project is not yet open to the public, several smaller projects of independent architectural spaces (Skyspaces) emulate chambers in the Roden Crater. Over 100 Skyspaces can be viewed in museums and countries across the world.

While long denying any religious significance to his works with light, the artist has since returned to his Quaker roots. Recent scholarship has drawn connections between the artist's work and ancient and modern science, from Mayan and Egyptian pyramids to the neurologic basis of perception. Associations between spirituality and light are longstanding, existing in many different cultures. In Turrell's work, we can make the connection if we like, but it is not necessary in order to appreciate the work.

The Legacy of James Turrell

Turrell's light-filled spaces have proliferated across the country and around the world. Like a number of other artists whose monumental works are produced on a vast scale (Christo and Jean-Claude, and Claes Oldenburg come to mind) over many years, Turrell has sold drawings and prints of work in progress to fund installations and start new projects. The Guggenheim show in 2014 resulted in an especially glorious series of monochromatic prints based on views of the ceiling. His installations have influenced a generation of Contemporary artists who focus on light-based work and perception. The most successful of these is Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, whose recent work with colored light is deeply indebted to Turrell's own.

Turrell's legacy will ultimately rest on The Roden Crater, one of the most ambitious ongoing art projects in history, and on a scale comparable to Spiral Jetty (Robert Smithson) Lightning Field (Walter de la Maria) and other celebrated monuments of Conceptual art. Turrell, who is now in his 70s, keeps pushing back the completion of the Roden Crater - originally scheduled for 2002. Is it the magnitude of such a project (and its inevitable comparison with other great works of comparable scale) that keeps him from finishing, or the implied finality of such a project, as the crowning achievement (and thus the end) of his lifetime? He first had the idea for the Roden Crater around the time that his daughter was born. Since then she has gone to university, become a doctor, and gotten married while he is still not finished with the Crater, so he maybe needs to, as he put it: "get along here and get this thing done."

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
James Turrell
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Robert Irwin
    Robert Irwin
  • Douglas Wheeler
    Douglas Wheeler
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Linnea West

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein

"James Turrell Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Linnea West
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein
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First published on 21 Jan 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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