james turrell

a sculptor of light


From his early years, James Turrell (° 1943, Los Angeles) has been fascinated with light. His mother made it clear to him what to do in a Quaker meeting with the ominous words: 'Go inside and greet the light.' But also his father, an aeronautical engineer, gave him a boost: at sixteen, he conquered the skies as a pilot where he could admire the light of dawn and dusk and other mirages, UFOs included, that will continue to fascinate him during his later life.Decisive for his further career were his studies in perceptual psychology and art, during which he discovered that he preferred the luminosity of slides - especially those of Barnet Newman and Mark Rothko - above the original paintings. Soon, James Turrell gets to work himself together with artists like Robert Irwin and Maria Nordman in an informal group 'Light and Space artists'.

Making art with light, it was in the air. Already in the fifties, Yves Klein worked with fire and gas, and form the sixties onwards, Op Artists began to use optical illusions, but soon also real light, such as the neon tubes of Dan Flavin.

To create really transparent Rothkos, James Turrell initially wanted to use fire or gas, like Yves Klein, but he soon prefers light from lamps. Otherwise than the 'Atlantic' Dan Flavin, who, from 1963 onwards, combined the light of his neon tubes with the reflection on the wall, the 'Pacific' James Turrell concentrates on the coloured light projected from a hidden source. He thereby creates the illusion that the two-dimensional lighted surfaces are a three-dimensional object that seems to float in the corner of the room - the <'Projection series' with works like Afrum-proto (1966) and Decker (1967). In other works, the illusion goes the other way round, as in the 'Shallow Space Constructions' (1968-1970) and in works like Danae (1983): what appears to be a two-dimensional surface, turns out to be a space filled with light. A similar effect is obtained with natural light in 'Meeting' (1986) in P.S.1 New York, where an opening in the ceiling discloses the sky. In the nineties, Turrell replaces projected light with computer-controlled neon tubes and LED lamps, as in the 'Tall Glass series' or in his 'Motel Art' (1997) for the luxurious 'Mondrian Hotel' in Los Angeles (designed by Philippe Starck). In a late echo of Nam June Paik's tv-scapes, James Turrell has a rectangle of light on each floor of the hotel change in colour and intensityaccording to the TV programs they are tuned on.

Because the illusion only works when seen from a certain angle and after adjustment of the eyes - and also to bring the visitors in the appropriate mood - Turrell soon integrates the architectural setting in his concepts. In works like 'Pleiades' (1983) and 'Danae' (1983), the visitor has to enter the gallery through a dark, inclined corridor before entering the room where the light is projected.


The integration of the surrounding architecture only facilitated the obvious shift from light objects to light spaces, a step also made by Dan Flavin - just think of his Richmond Hall(1996).

In a first variant (the 'Perceptual cells'), Turrell surrounds the head ('Alien exam', 1991, and Soft Cell', 1992) or the entire body ('Gasworks', 1993) with a sphere, lighted from within like a 'Ganzfeld'. In a second variant, Turrell proceeds to the real light environments of the'Ganzfeld Series' and ''Wedgework Series'. In 'Frontal Passage' (1994), the visitor passes through a darkened entryway into a chamber, that is divided diagonally by a radiant wall of red light. In 'Rise' (2005) the visitor contemplates a subtly changing light which emanates from the edges of a block seemingly suspended in space. 'City of Anhirit' ((1976) consists of a sequence of four rooms where the afterimage of the preceding room influences the perception of the colour in the next. One thing and another culminates in the widely praised and successful 'Ganzfeld: Tight End'(2006) installed in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park: a space entirely flooded by blue light.


Meanwhile, James Turrell is heading into still another direction. When making his light objects, he was revolting against the notion that art is a commodity. Immaterial objects cannot be sold - as is also the case with happenings. And with land-art, launched in 1968 in the Dwan Gallery with figures like Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Richard Long,Robert Morris, Robert Smithson and soon also Andy Goldsworthy. Nearer home, Michael Heizer was carving his 'Double Negative' in the Nevada desert in 1969, and Robert Smithson was building his 'Spiral Jetty' in the Great Salt Lake in Utah in 1970

The new trend certainly inspiredJames Turrell to transform an extinct volcano into a kind of observatory: his famous>'Roden Crater project' in Flagstaff, Arizona, initiated in1972. 400.000 cubic yards of cinder have been moved to give the rim, which approximates a perfect circle, a uniform height. Through a tunnel, the visitor is guided into an oval, roofless chamber that seems to transform the sky into a dome. Tunnels are so aligned that they capture the light of the setting sun at the winter solstice and other celestial events, like in Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids. In another space in the crater's secondary vent, there is a warm bath that also acts like an apochromatic lens. An ingenious apparatus makes the radio sources of the stars, sun, Jupiter or the quasars audible. From the merger with light to union with the cosmos or cosmic radiance.

'Roden Crater' is a long-term project. In expectance, James Turrell erected by now some 36 more modest 'sky-spaces', many of them in private 'cottages' of the better endowed of this world, like the billionaire James Goldstein. Let us mention 'Blue Blood' (1988) in Santa Fe, New Mexico: a pyramidal structure reminding of the constructions of Egyptians, Maya and Celts. 'Space that Sees' (1992) is a square chamber, carved into a hillside at Jerusalem's Israel museum. Kielder Skyspace (1996) at the Kielder Forest Park in Northumberland is a buried cylindrical chamber entered through a tunnel and capped by a roof with a opening in its centre. For the solstice on August 11 in 1999, Turrell designed the 'The Elliptic Ecliptic' onSt. Michael's Mount (England, UK). In 'House of Light' (2000) in Naoshima (Japan) is conceived as a guesthouse for meditation where you can stay before contemplating the sunset. In 2003, Turrell presents an elliptical space 'Light Reign' in de 'Henry Art Gallery' . At night, the exterior is lit in gradually changing colours by thousands of LED. lamps embedded in glass panels. Three Gems is un underground installation in the shape of a stupa. The interior is lit by LED lamps adapted to the changing light and colour of the sky, that is visible through an opening in the ceiling. One of the most recent sky spaces is 'Deer Shelter' (2005) in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park: a corridor ending up in a white cube above which the sky expands.

Apart from Roden Crater in Arizona, there is another more ambitious project, this time in Celtic surroundings: 'Irish Sky Garden' (1992), comprising an elliptical crater, a softly rounded hill, a pyramid and a yard-like space around. James Turrell was also responsible for the lighting in the Millennium-Dome’s Chill-Out-Zone, and the uncompleted and now abandoned Thames Light Project, an integrated lighting scheme installed in the water, under bridges, and on tops of buildings on both banks of the river. He also dreams of projects that are even more ambitious and Roden Crater: a sky space on Mars.

Let us take a broader historical perspective to better understand the creations of Turrells work. Light art is not an invention of Turrell or Dan Flavin. To begin with, there are the countless colour organs that have been developed in the wake of Louis-Bertrand Castel ever since 1725, the already more sophisticated machines designed in the Wchutemas and the Bauhaus, the many abstract films form the twenties onwards, projects like Ivan Vyshnegradsky's 'Temple of Light', Skriabin's 'Prometheus' (1911), Kandinsky's 'Yellow sound', Schönberg's 'Glückliche Hand' (1913), the 'Phillips Pavillion' (1958) with Varèse and Xenakis and Luigi Nono's initial concept for the 'Prometeo' (1984. the 'spectaculars' with light bulbs from the thirties onwards, the neon-architecture like in the former Las Vegas,not to mention the lightshows in the contemporary dance temples, especially the sophisticated creations of figures like Carsten Nicolai.

The examples above remind us of the fact that Turrell - as opposed to comparable figures like Adams in his 'Colour Organ' (2005) - is not out at integrating light and music into a 'Gesamtkunstwerk'. Rather does he conceive his works as visual music. Often, he compares the gradual evolution of his colours with musical variations: a late echo of an idea that, from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, lies at the roots of the development of abstract (or non- literary) painting. In that respect, Turrell's saying that 'We're doing much better with sound and with music than with light'(Whittaker) seems a little bitoutdated.

Let us also remark - with some amazement - that Turrell does not flirt with the idea of synaesthesia. If it is mentioned at all, there is rather talk of the tangibility of light than of the audibility of sound: 'The eyes feel, like touch, like when you look into the eyes of a lover and experience that intensity of touch with the eyes.' (Vicky Lindner*)


Initially, Turrell understands his preference for transparent light in purely artistic terms - in terms of medium - as the counterpart to the reflecting light of traditional painting, sculpture and architecture. But, increasingly, he is talking about the union with light, if not with the cosmos. In the beginning, he comes to refer to the neurological and psychological aspects of seeing. Gradually, Turrell stresses the fascinating character of the transparent light, especially that of fire and the blue sky of sunsets. These phenomena borrow their appeal from the fact that they seem to release us from the customary visual world, where we are surrounded by limited, tangible and material objects which mercilessly confine us in the equally limited, tangible and physical body in which we so unwillingly descended (see: The infant in the mirror). Our last resort is the construction of an inner world behind the surface of our skin, where we hope to find refuge as a soul or a spiritual being. The sight of transparent worlds seems to dissolve that material envelope, so that our immaterial body seems to expand and submerge in an outer-worldly ether, where we seem to be released, not only form disease, decay and death, but above all from the role that our individuated body has to play amongst the countless malicious or indifferent and scarce benevolent players in the sublunary theatre below.

Like most mortals, Turrells prefers another approach. We hear about another state of being induced by staring into transparent light and about the transparent light in lucid dreams and near dead experiences. Katy Beinart even refers to Shamsoddin Lahiji, a 15th-century Sufi. And finally, Turrell is talking of feelings of transcendence and the Divine, and of disclosing a new, spiritual dimension of existence. This trend is sealed with the exhibition in Berlin 2001: 'On the Sublime: Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, James Turrell'. This approach has its bearings on the display of the works: they often are disposed like altars in a church (with benches in front of it).

Let us remark that, at first glance, Turrell's 'spiritual awakening' is in line with the 'Go inside and greet the light' of the Quakers. Away from any established creed, the Quakers live by individual religious beliefs and inner revelations. No wonder, then, that Turrell designed the Live Oaks Meeting House with an opening or skyhole in the roof for the Quaker Society of Friends. The question remains, however, whether the 'Turrell experience' is not rather part of the far more superficial idiosyncratic cocktail of exotic religions and astrology that many people prepare since the emptying of the churches in our Western World. Also Roden Crater itself is not more than a private, self-declared version of Stonehenge or the Pyramids in the Old and New World. We cannot but be reminded of that other - although totally opposite - private religion concocted by another artist turned into a high priest: Hermann Nitsch' 'Orgien Mysterien Theater' in Prinzendorf (Austra).


We have landed in the world of religion and mysticism. Time to ask ourselves some questions about the relation of Turrell's work with art.

For Turrell himself, there is no doubt. He understands himself as an artist, and found his way through extrapolating some tendencies in op art and land art. But Turrell has his roots reach even further in the history of art. In aninterview met Vicki Lindner*, he compares his works with Monet's haystacks - without haystacks: 'You'd be looking at your seeing. This is direct experience, as opposed to interpreted experience. On occasion of his Kielder skyspace, Turrell refers to the skies of Constable and Turner. Only through inscribing himself in the history of painting, and not in the history of 'visual music' as described above, can he assert: 'We are a primitive culture in terms of light. We are just beginning. So I have to make the instruments, as well as to make the symphony with it.' (Whittaker*)

Not only Turrell himself situates himself in the tradition of painting, also the art market and its acolytes all too willingly assist him in this endeavour. To begin with, there are the countless phrasings like: 'using the sky as a canvas' , 'painting with light' or 'sculpting with light' ,just like with figures like Dan Flavin. But also the titles of exhibitions speak volumes. In "On the Sublime: Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, James Turrell" (Berlin 2001), Yves Klein and James Turrell are considered to be heirs to the painter Rothko.

Such assimilation overlooks the fact that the step from Rothko (or from Constable and Turner) to Turrell is a step from conjuring up imaginary light spaces on a two-dimensional plane, to the creation of really three-dimensional creations with real transparent light. And that step seals the transition from an conjured up world (art) to a real world, equally created by man, and hence to design (see: 'Art en mimesis'). To be sure, initially, there is an echo of mimesis in the works where three-dimensional objects are conjured up through two-dimensional light on the wall. But this is a form of 'trompe-l'oeil' - mimesis that annihilates itself through becoming deception (see 'Mimesis and deception'): witness the incident in the Whitney museum where visitors broke their wrists because they wanted to lean on one of Turrell's 'walls'. In his later works, also this last remnant of mimesis dwindles away: we are dealing with plain three-dimensional lighting forms which - thanks to the widening of the pupil in dark spaces - make the light almost tangible. Turrell himself resists a mimetic approach of his work: 'I strenuously object to the idea that this work is an illusion. These works allude to what they really are - a space occupied by a different kind of light.' (Vickie Lindner*). In that sense, Turrell is not an artist, but, not otherwise than Yves Klein, a designer.

That goes also for Turrell's light spaces. Certainly, Turrell's special light often lends a quasi tactile quality to space, but that goes also for the incense in Gothic cathedrals, where the light coloured through the windows creates an equally mystic atmosphere, that is nevertheless equally real. And that, Turrell has in common with other artists like Pieter Vermeersch, who also paints his spaces with (albeit reflecting) and thus turns out to be a spatial designer.

Also the sky spaces, finally, are mimetic - with the same reserves for the trompe-l'oeil as above - in so far as for instance Roden Crater creates the illusion that the sky is a starred dome and not and endless, deep space. In so far as they function as a window on celestial phenomena like eclipses, or on dusk and dawn, we are dealing with architectural 'pedestals' for displayed reality, comparable to Stonehenge or Egyptian temples and pyramids. The bath in Roden Crater where cosmic radiation becomes audible, on the other hand, is pure design, nearly distinguishable form the comparable commercial 'installation' in the contemporary wellness centres, the religious/mystical legitimation included.

Thus, James Turrell, turns out to be the umpteenth example of an artist, who, in the guise of a further development of art, is only transgressing the boundaries of art and proceeds to displaying reality or creating real objects and real spaces: (spatial) design. The anti-mimetic fervour that lies at the roots of this move, is all too apparent form the fact that James Turrell repeatedly stresses that his works are 'abstract': ' I don't use light as a carrier of content, as a movie does'... Or: 'My art deals with light itself. It's not the bearer of revelation - it is the revelation.'


"James Turrell's work is perhaps the nearest some of us will ever get to heaven'.
Susan Young

That is probably why James Turrell's work is so incredibly popular, just like that of Donald Judd. Not to mention that of Andreas Gursky, although, at first sight, it is totally opposite. But Gursky and Turrell do not more than releasing the poor mortals from the horrors of existence: Gursky through having them submerge in an abundance of details, Turrell through having them submerge in their own inner light, totally in accordance with the gradual transformation of museums in amusement parks: just think of the equally enormously popular slides of Carsten Höller in the Tate...

Granted, the fact that a billionaire like James F. Goldstein makes a daily pilgrimage to his private Turrell chapel - a skyspace in his 'modest cottage' in Hollywood - should raise some doubts about the real nature of Turrell 'spiritual awakening'....

© Stefan Beyst, April 2007

* Some references:

BEINART, Katy: 'Power of Light', Resurgence, 2006, Issue 237.
CRAIG, Adcock: The Other Horizon. An overview of Turrell's development from 1967 to 2001'. (ISBN 3-7757-9062-4)
CRAIG ADCOCK: 'James Turrell : the art of light and space by Craig Adcock'. (ISBN 0-520-06728-2)
GEHRING, Ulrike: 'Bilder Aus Licht: James Turrell Im Kontext der Amerikanischen Kunst Nach 1945, Powell, 2007.
GONZALES, Valérie: 'The Comares Hall in the Alhambra; Space that Sees by James Turrell'
LAAKSONEN, Esa: 'Interview with James Turrell', Reprinted from ARK The Finnish Architectural Review.
LINDNER, Vicki: 'James Turrell - artist - Interview', Omni, Winter 1995
MEURIS, Jacques: 'James Turrell. La perception est le medium', La Lettre Volée, Bruxelles 1995.
SHTERENBERG, Marina: 'Unnlimited-Continuous-Finite-Faraway and Contiguous'
WHITTAKER, Richard: 'Greeting the Light. an Interview with James Turrell'

Arquitectura de interiores
Steven Coppens
Paul Borsboom

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