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James Turrell Photo

James Turrell Artworks

American Sculptor

Born: May 6, 1943 - Los Angeles

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

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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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