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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.

Accomplishments

  • 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."

Biography of James Turrell

James Turrel's <i>Space That Sees</i> 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.



Progression of Art

1967

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

1980

Meeting

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

2011

Apani

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)
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

2011

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

2012

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


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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
Available from:
First published on 21 Jan 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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