James Turrell: Looking Back at 50 Years of Illuminating Light as Art

Jean Trinh explores LACMA’s retrospective on James Turrell’s career and talks to the artist about light play.

Florian Holzerr

“I’m always interested in making people look up [because] they almost always never do,” James Turrell told The Daily Beast.

The prolific artist—who just turned 70 this month and has a fittingly huge, fluffy white beard—has made a career of making light the focus of art in the simplest and most complex fashion. People who have physically entered his illuminating and immersive installations describe the experience as bathing in hues of light. In his oeuvre, he’s created a series of “skyspaces”—enclosed spaces with openings in the roof that give people an enhanced perception of light through the combination of the natural sunlight and LED lights. Collections of Turrell’s artwork have been represented and sought out around the world, from the Tate Modern in London to Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture in Moscow. Even the entire fourth floor of the Louis Vuitton store in Las Vegas’s high-end CityCenter is currently dedicated to one of his immersive and perception-altering Ganzfeld installations.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is honoring Turrell by presenting a retrospective on the past 50 years of his unique work—the largest survey of his art since 1985—and the show opens today and runs through April 6, 2014. Concurrent Turrell exhibitions will commence on June 9 at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and June 21 at the Guggenheim in New York.

It was a huge undertaking to create this retrospective, and it took LACMA and Turrell four years to fruition, resulting in an exhibition that encompasses 33,000 square feet of the museum. It includes holograms, large light installations, and a fully immersive “perceptual cell” called Light Reignfall that requires a signed waiver for participation and already has a waiting list filled through August. (Only one person is allowed in the “Light Reignfall” chamber at a time, for a period of 20 minutes.)

Also in the exhibition is a section of blueprints, models, and drawings dedicated to Turrell’s largest project and work in progress—the three-kilometer-wide extinct volcanic crater, Roden Crater, located near Flagstaff, Arizona, in the Painted Desert. Turrell has been excavating and constructing multichambers in the Roden Crater since the 1970s, in an effort to create spaces aligned with celestial events like sunrises and solstices to produce a spectacular visual experience illuminated by daylight and starlight. He’s also referred to it as a “naked-eye observatory.”

“The big thing is I learned [through all this is] how art gets financed and doesn’t get financed,” Turrell said. He noted during an early preview at LACMA on May 22 that part of the reason for participating in this exhibition was to garner more interest in his Roden Crater project and also to provide some financial backing so he could complete it. Roden Crater is still not open to the public, but Turrell joked, “I committed to the fact that I was going to open this in the year 2000, and I stick with that.”

One of the most impressive pieces in his LACMA collection is the Ganzfeld installation, Breathing Light, that takes up 5,000 square feet in the museum. Like his other installations, only a few people are allowed in the room at a time. Patrons are required to remove their shoes to put on booties (similar to the ones paired with hospital gowns) to walk up a pyramid of stairs into an illuminated bare room. Depth of field is quickly lost and perceived hues of pink and blue fog fill the room, causing a bit of a disorienting effect.

Christine Y. Kim, a co-curator of the exhibit who first took notice of Turrell’s work back in 1992, said she felt a shortness of breath the longer she spent in the room and had the irresistible urge to lie down. “I’m not a pilot, but it’s as if [I’m] flying, as if I’m in another state—in an alpha state or theta state,” she said. “It’s something that’s transformative each time.”

Richard Andrews, the curator of a concurrent Turrell exhibition at the new Los Angeles space of the Kayne Griffin Corcoran gallery and the president of the board of the Skystone Foundation (which is raising money to support Roden Crater), described the Ganzfeld series as a “uniformly, illuminated, featureless space.”

“Your eyes are working really hard to find something to grasp on to, but there isn’t anything, so your brain turns that into infinity, and it seems like an incredibly deep space,” he added.

Turrell was extremely hands-on in designing the new Kayne Griffin Corcoran gallery, including building his permanent Skyspaces throughout the structure and even picking out the shrubbery for the courtyard. The inaugural exhibition that began May 25 runs through July 10 and is dedicated to Roden Crater, aptly titled Sooner Than Later, Roden Crater—a slogan of Turrell’s. It showcases a series of his drawings, photographs, models, tools, and architectural plans from 1976 to today. There is even a perceptual-cell meditation room tucked away in the back of the art space.

At a private preview of the gallery May 23, guests gathered in the conference room—which featured one of Turrell’s permanent Skyscape installations. In a tight squeeze in the room, people lied down on lounge chairs and sat cross-legged on square cushions on the ground to gaze up at the sky through the square opening in the roof. As sunset hit, a stream of colors from turquoise to pink and peach blended seamlessly on the ceiling, illuminating the room.

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“I like this vision of the sky,” Turrell said. “I live in the sky as a pilot, so it has great meaning to me.” Turrell once restored antique planes as a means to fund his artwork, and now he jokes that he needs to do artwork to finance his plane hobby. His artwork is heavily influenced by the vastness of the big, open sky.

“It’s a space where there’s atmosphere and a lot of moisture and clouds,” he said. “So you see a lot of light phenomenon in the atmosphere as you fly, and that’s really a great inspiration right there.”