Light & Space – The Best of James Turrell

March 20th, 2013 | Space

James Turrell

See! Colour! – 2011 – Järna, Sweden

James Turrell is a master of perception, light, color, and space and for the past 40 years, he has created breathtaking installations at sites around the world.  He began his career back in the 1960’s in California at a time when the Light and Space group of artists in Los Angeles was coming into prominence.  Here’s a short description of the movement:

“Whether by directing the flow of natural light, embedding artificial light within objects or architecture, or by playing with light through the use of transparent, translucent or reflective materials, Light and Space artists made the spectator’s experience of light and other sensory phenomena under specific conditions the focus of their work.”

Turrell thrived in this atmosphere and created works of art that harness the beauty of light to magnify the wonders of the natural world.  Many of his spaces provide for peaceful, contemplative meditation and I’ve been able to indulge first-hand at a Sky Space which was recently installed in Houston, TX.  Let me just say, it can be a moving experience.

James Turrell is one of my favorite artists, so I wanted to highlight some of his magnificent installations here on the blog.  Hopefully, you will get the opportunity to see one of these in person, but until then, here’s a taste of what his creations have to offer:

Skyspace by James Turrell

Twilight Epiphany – 2012 – Houston, TX

“Twilight Epiphany” is an installation on the campus of Rice University in Houston, TX.  Every day, at sunrise and sunset, students witness a magical wash of oranges, pink and blues emanating from the site. Looking up from the center as the colors change gives the viewer the experience of seeing the sky in a different light every few minutes.  Turrell was quoted on the project stating that “If you take a photo of the sky in this skyspace, the color you see in the opening is not actually going to show up in your camera because in fact it is not there… We do create the world in which we live to a much larger extent than we are willing to take responsibility for.”

Dividing the Light - James Turrell

Dividing the Light – 2007 – Pomona, California

“Dividing the Light” is another ethereal and transporting Sky Space from James Turrell installed at Pomona Art College, where he did his training.  The space features granite floor and benches and a shallow pool of water centered beneath the opening to reflect the sky.  Like the installation in Houston, diffuse LEDs light up the canopy at sunrise and sunset.

MFA Houston - James Turrell

The Light Inside – 1999 – Houston, Texas

“The Light Inside” is a permanent installation at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.  It’s an underground tunnel that connects the two main buildings of the museum.  I’ve personally visited this installation, and I must say, it’s a beautiful way to get from building to the next.  Instead of walking right through, I’d recommend taking a picture like I did.

Roden Crater 1 - James Turrell

Roden Crater (Aerial) – 1974 to Present – Arizona

The Roden Crater is probably the most fascinating of James Turrell’s installations.  If nothing else, it is certainly the most ambitious.  The crater is an extinct volcanic cinder cone in the middle of the desert in Arizona.  Turrell conceived of the project back in 1974, and he was able to purchase the crater a few years later.  Construction began in 1979 by moving 1.3 million cubic yards of earth to shape the Crater’s Bowl.  Early reports stated that it would be completed in the late 1980s, but that date has been pushed back several times for financial and artistic reasons, and even today, it is under construction. However, many in the art world have had a VIP chance to enter the crater and it is said to be beautiful, even in unfinished form.

Roden Crater (Site Plan) - James Turrell

Roden Crater (Site Plan) – 1974 to Present – Arizona

James Turrell Standing by Roden Crater

James Turrell Standing by Roden Crater

Roden Crater 2 - James Turrell

Roden Crater (Entrance) – 1974 to Present – Arizona

Roden Crater 3 - James Turrell

Roden Crater (Opening) – 1974 to Present – Arizona

Roden Crater (Hole) - James Turrel

Roden Crater (hole) – 1974 to Present – Arizona

But how can you see this if you are not a VIP?  Well, you may have to go rogue.  A few years ago, one photographer hiked to the crater:

“We started up the volcano at dusk, climbing in silence since we had not arranged for a tour. Part way up, in the darkness, we found a door in the cinders, but it proved locked. Scrambling over the crater lip, we saw two discs of glowing light down beneath us.”

He ended his account by warning others not to try the same thing. “Be aware that the desert is not a forgiving place, and that the crater is remote, many miles from the nearest paved road,” he wrote. “You can die trying to get there.”

Sounds like quite the adventure.

James Turrell Bridgets Bardot

Bridget’s Bardo – 2008 – Järna, Sweden

Bridget’s Bardo is a huge installation (700 sq meters of floor space and 11 meters high) in Järna.  It is supposed to be an inversion of the Roden Crater — dealing with inner space and artificial light as opposed to outer space and celestial light. It’s interesting to note that the viewer enters enter the work via a steep ramp which leads down from the upper floor into the space.  As in other pieces, the color slowly changes from pink to blue, orange, and red.

Stone Sky - James Turrell

Stone Sky – 2005 – Calistoga, California

Turrell was commissioned to create this piece in the heart of Napa Valley in California.  It features an infinity pool that stretches out toward the valley floor beyond. One cool thing to note is that by swimming underwater at the end of the pool, you can surface within the cube and there is a teak-lined Sky Space inside.

Within Without 1 - James Turrell

Within Without (Entrance) – 2010 – Canberra, Australia

Within Without 2 - James Turrell

Within Without (Inside View) – 2010 – Canberra, Australia

“Within Without” is located in the Australia Garden at the National Gallery of Australia.  To enter the space, you traverse a long walkway surrounded by glass-like water.  A stupa made of Victorian basalt rises at the center, highlighted by glowing turquoise water, and inside the stupa, is an opening to the sky — if you haven’t noticed, this a recurring feature of James Turrell Installations.

James Turrell - green-corner projection

Alta Green – 1968 – Salta, Argentina

Now to shift the focus a bit to one of Turrell’s older works, I present “Alta Green”.  He was working out of a small studio in Venice in the late 1960’s exploring projected light when he created this piece.  He used a slide projector mounted to the ceiling of the room via a platform and 35mm slide frames masked off with opaque silver tape in various shapes to create the brilliant green geometry seen here.

Milk Run - James Turrell

Milk Run – 1996 – Washington, D.C.

“Milk Run” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. consists of a seemingly pitch-black room with recessed lighting to create a particularly eerie atmosphere. Entering the darkened space, the viewer sees a multi-hued wedge of light that forms an illusory volume – a quality that shifts in relation to the viewer’s movements.  Apparently, the term “Milk Run” refers to the short flights pilots would make to pick up milk from farmers in rural areas.  How it relates to this piece is open to interpretation.

Live Oak Friends Meeting - James Turrell

Live Oak Meeting House – 2001 – Houston, Texas

As a lifelong Quaker, Turrell designed the “Live Oak Meeting House” for the Society of Friends, with an opening in the roof, wherein the notion of light takes on a decidedly religious connotation. Quakers have no dogma or creed, and a fundamental Quaker belief is that there is “that of God in everyone.”  In other words, this organization shouldn’t prevent anyone from visiting.  Here’s a quote from Turrell on the project:

“The Meeting is actually like the Gunpowder Meeting, or some of the earlier American Quaker Meetings…The long house form is something that was tradition…that’s what I started with as an idea. But then making this in terms of the sizing and the use that was asked for by Live Oak Meeting- I mean it’s a very traditional form, except it’s convertible. The top opens, and it makes a sky space where sky is really brought down to you; your awareness of it is made quite different. It was a little bit of a novel idea, that it’s a roof that opens.”

The wood benches and floors go really well with the diffuse white light.

Dhatu - James Turrell

Dhatu – 2010 – London, England

I’ll finish this presentation with a piece from the Gagosian Gallery in London.  “Dhatu” is a Buddhist term meaning ‘Realm’  and is part of James Turrell’s Ganzfeld series (Ganzfeld is German for ‘total visual field’).  The installation is an imageless, formless landscape of constantly changing color. At one point in this color changing sequence, the contours of the room disappear entirely as if by magic.  One viewer stated that she went to “lean on one of the walls, and it wasn’t there.”

I think this piece demonstrates Turrell’s true mastery of light and space.  When people describe your work as magic, I think you’ve truly accomplished something.

As with most installation art, you can’t get the depth of the experience until you stand inside it and become part of it, so I recommend heading to the nearest James Turrell exhibit when you get a chance.  His work is present in around 25 countries so there should be one close.  I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

For a detailed list of past exhibitions, check here.


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