Enter Dimensions: The Art of James Turrell
By Alexander Ostroff
Most museum visitors saunter through exhibits with polite curiosity. True aficionados hang around to glean deeper insight into the work. It’s safe to say that nearly all of them are accustomed to viewing art that doesn’t take up much space. A sculpture here, painting there, heap of steel in the corner and off to brunch with friends. Such viewing habits are a bit of an issue for American artist James Turrell, who’s been creating spacious, mind-bending works for half a century.
Turrell is revered in the art world but not well-known to the general public, primarily because displaying all his work is a logistical conundrum. The solution was deceptively simple. In May and June 2013, The Guggenheim Museum in New York, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art set up independent yet complementary exhibits exploring Turrell’s five-decade career. He has won countless prestigious awards and received generous grants from top endowments. He’s had more than 160 solo exhibitions since 1967. More than 70 international collections display his work, including 22 permanent exhibitions. There are 82 (and counting) Turrell Skyspaces installed in public and private structures all over the world,
Mathematician, geologist, astronomer, architect, cartographer, engineer, psychologist; Turrell, 70, is a genius for whom science is the ultimate palette. You won’t find crushed paint tubes and dried brushes scattered about his studio. The medium he uses is freely available to all, but only deems Turrell worthy of its obedience. Like an ancient magician bestowed with knowledge of the hidden, Turrell harnesses its power, crafting works of mesmerizing beauty. Turrell paints . . . with light.
Turrell’s work can best be described as indescribable, at least not with standard lexicon. In essence, he gives substance to the insubstantial. Professional art critics can articulate the layout and technical components. Conclusions will remain elusive. Sounding like an ancient Kabbalist, Turrell himself has said: “My art deals with light itself. It’s not the bearer of the revelation—it is the revelation. I am making spaces that play the music of the spheres in light.” Viewing a work/piece by Turrell creates a fusion reaction between observer and art. Light, color, and space team up to invade the psyche and accost the senses – in a good way – creating a very subjective experience that renders any critique meaningless.
When in town, Turrell looks like a sophisticated, transcendental Santa Claus. Back at his sprawling Arizona ranch, he’s a cross between the Lubavitcher Rebbe and John Wayne; a mystical American frontiersman pioneering new ways for us to see things, or “see yourself seeing,” as Turrell puts it. In the few interviews Turrell has given thus far, he comes off as contemplative, witty, and a bit shy. The artist speaks about technical matters with poignant brevity. When pressed to provide some kind of deep insight, Turrell grows cryptic. Good for him. Any possible explanations would defeat the purpose of his work.
Despite working off the grid for decades, Turrell is one of the most successful artists on the planet. This is the byproduct of obsessive determination, steely eyed focus, and incredible work ethic. Some artists eventually break and genuflect. Turrell never compromised his vision. The world came to him.
A thorough breakdown of Turrell’s work is beyond the scope of any article. Google him, and you’ll find a ton of stuff, his website as the best source. Here are a few works that I found particularly intriguing.
Turrell’s Perceptual Cells are what Stanley Kubrick would have used as a time-machine had he made a film about time travel. These spherical chambers are designed to produce sensory deprivation hallucinations, offering a Whole Foods version of an acid trip. A convincing lab technical gives you a choice of two programs: “hard” or “soft.” You stretch out on a padded sliding table, but instead of being pushed into a crematorium, you enter the ethereal. Turrell, puppet master of the senses, has you exactly where he wants you. A hurricane of colors soaks your rods and cones, triggering an unscripted theater of mind for about 12 minutes.
The Ganzfeld series is what it would look like if a rainbow miraculously touched down during an Arctic whiteout. You stand in the middle of spacious room and exit within the light. Time comes to standstill. Colors gradually shift. The light seems to take on visible mass, like subatomic fog. You’re a goldfish stuck in a murky aquarium that’s been placed in a steam room, the unseen hand of Turrell devilishly pouring food coloring into the water in hopes of completely nullifying your sense of location in the universe.
Many artists, past and present, force you to see their work through their eyes. In a way, your emotions are dictated to you. A subconscious desire to break free causes some people to attribute ideas to the artwork that the artist never even considered. In contrast, Turrell is a station ticket agent who secretly owns the station, tracks, and trains. When you view his work, Turrell can be coldly absent or omnipresent. It really depends on you. According to Turrell: “We are part of creating that which we think we perceive.
Given the nature and proportions of Turrell’s work, his collectors are the 1% of the 1%. There are private collectors who illuminate their mansions, but much of Turrell’s work is incorporated into the architecture of public and private organizations around the world. For example, there’s a mountain in Argentina that supports an 18,000-square-foot Turrell museum. He constructed a massive pyramid in eastern Australia; eclipsed by one that he created in the Yucatán Peninsula. These are only a few examples.
Turrell has indicated that he tries to be a full-service artist, i.e., create work that is more “ownable.” Enter framed holograms. Turrell’s holograms are not the gift-store variety with fracturing images and ghoulish faces staring at you with perpetual indifference. The subject is light itself, not what it illuminates. These transmission holograms change depending on your position, vanishing if you get close enough. Black frames house kaleidoscopic forms, both geometric and amorphous. If souls are as distinctive as the bodies they animate, Turrell’s holograms are snapshots of spiritual still life.
After making the required publicity rounds for his retrospective, Turrell disappears back into the marmalade brilliance of his 150,000-acre working cattle ranch in Arizona. This is ground zero for his magnum opus: The Roden Crater.
Roden Crater is an extinct cinder-cone volcano located near Arizona’s Painted Desert. It’s old as hell and looms about 600 feet above the desert floor. I didn’t think one could buy a crater, but Turrell did, and he’s transforming it into a celestial masterpiece—a project he’s been working on since 1972. Roden Crater is difficult to describe for another reason: It’s not yet open to the public; only major supporters are allowed to visit.
Roden Crater is a structure that exists both in the far-off future and distant past; where ancient technology and the sleek, seamless instruments of tomorrow conflux. At first glance one might think it’s a landing base commissioned by extraterrestrials. Roden Crater will soon be the first naked-eye observatory in modern civilization, enabling us to see the celestial movements of stars, planets, and distant galaxies. In short, Turrell will lasso in the heavens.
Inside are viewing chambers, tunnels, and a strange staircase that appears thin and flimsy but is actually made entirely of bronze. A 900-foot tunnel basically acts as a refractor telescope with a massive lens at the center to focus the light. In order to get the full effect, visitors will have to observe from sunset until dark. Looking through the Skyspaces (apertures in the ceiling) one can observe dawn and dusk from inside the crater. The colors of the wild blue yonder mysteriously alter depending on whether you’re inside or outside.
Turrell’s work is incredibly important for reasons that go beyond art. He is bringing awareness to the critical role light will play in the future of technology and medicine. Light therapy (heliotherapy) has been used for thousands of years to treat a wide range of mental and physical ailments—everything from skin problems to mood disorders. Medicine is only at the needle tip of the iceberg, in terms of understanding how light can heal the body and mind.
Photons are the particles that make up light. Not all light, however, is visible. The greatest minds in physics have tackled the dynamics of light, but plenty of mysteries remain. Experiments have demonstrated that light has awareness; it exhibits different behavior when we are looking at it, and when we’re not looking at it. Does that mean photons possess a quantum consciousness? We also know that light is able to transport information. Now, we know a lot about how the brain works, but next to nothing about the true nature thought. What if our thoughts are a type of light? These are all questions worthy of further scientific research. Then again, we can just ask James Turrell.