Category Archives: James Turrell

The Texture of Light

Regardless of the language in which it’s described, James Turrell’s light speaks to us at the most primal level. This 2009 YouTube video with English subtitles beautifully captures the spirit of a similar experience I had at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The late Markus Brüderlin leads us through a Turrell Ganzfeld light installation at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in Germany, describing this Ganzfeld as a “room of light that has no outlines.” He continues: “ … The climax of this development, of liberating light from its source, and letting it spread freely throughout a room, that’s the essence of James Turrell.”

On a Friday afternoon in August 2013, I sat on a community bench inside The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, waiting to climb a short pyramid of stairs and enter an unknown space filled with unknown light. I came here trying to grasp the essence of James Turrell, the revolutionary light installation artist who speaks of the “thing-ness” of light and whose radical work demands surrender to the evolving and provocative colors of light presented within the powerful presence of space.

I came here chasing ideas of light and how best to share them with a world separated from light’s color-driven wavelengths. But as I quietly waited in a long, narrow room, there was a feeling of marking time at a train station, a feeling that I was preparing to embark on a one-way journey. A feeling that as I slipped on disposable white booties, I might not ever again wear my empty shoes. A feeling that after experiencing just two of seven light installations composing the exhibition “James Turrell: The Light Inside,” I was already hopelessly lost, in a profoundly joyful and sorrowful way.

In the first installation I entered, with effects produced by a computerized, multicolor LED light system, I watched a figure of light take shape. Hues of purple, indigo, and sky blue engulfed me. I felt certain, that if allowed, I could touch the texture of what my mind called an apparition of pulsating, beckoning light. At the entrance for the third installation, two museum docents stood sentry atop pyramid steps, offering forearms to guests as if guiding them through a portal to another world.

Come. Rise. My group ascended the steps. Our white-bootied feet carried us over the threshold, into quivering pink light, into what looked to be a rectangle of color. Room. The word sounded strange, like a definition that had nothing to do with this incalculable space. We stepped into the effect of Ganzfeld, a German word meaning “complete field” and referring to a loss of depth perception, a dissolving of visual boundaries. In his writings, Turrell describes the experience as like stepping into light. There’s no up, no down, no left, no right. One small scuff from a shoe could disturb the sequence of colors. Light spilled evenly across the vast floor, slipping up the curved bottoms of walls, sliding back down from the ceiling, flowing like an endless waterfall.

Curves met as friends, not sharp-angled strangers. We were swallowed by a seemingly limitless field of light.

A woman who entered the room in the group before me stood motionless, facing me, her mouth agape. She stared at me, and beyond me, toward the door’s threshold and space from whence I just climbed, her concrete expression stirring concern that perhaps I was about to be consumed by an unseen wave, or a lion. Turn around, she told me. I turned, slammed by radiant color. Green. Not emerald green, not forest green, not jungle green, not olive green, but green, rich, fathomless, and deliciously knowable, like an original thought, like a fruit first tasted, like a color just invented. Green. The green filled the doorway, like rising smoke. I turned back around, toward the open space. The floor sloped down ever so slightly, away from the doorway, toward a back wall: a pool of ocean-blue light.

My lungs felt full of light, as though they might burst. I longed to stretch my arms high over my head, arch my neck and shoulders, and dive backward into the infinite blue. The light changed, again and again. The green faded, and I wondered if it was ever really there.

Outside the museum, as I walked to my car, I opened my eyes wide to the natural light. I found myself chasing a new idea: I, too, can choose my relationship with light. All light. Light that reveals, heals, and opens my mind and spirit to the global community that surrounds me.

Confronting Ancient Light

James Turrell casts a long shadow in the art world, and no project is bigger than that of his Roden Crater: an ancient, non-active volcanic crater in the Arizona desert which he is converting to a naked-eye observatory. Michael Govan writes in the book James Turrell: A Retrospective, “In some parts Roden Crater is an architectonic camera obscure, rendering the image of celestial bodies like the sun or moon within spaces we inhabit—bringing outside light inside.”

James Turrell casts a long shadow in the art world, and no project is bigger than that of his Roden Crater: an extinct volcanic cinder cone in the Arizona desert he is converting to a naked-eye observatory. As Michael Govan writes in the book James Turrell: A Retrospective, “In some parts, Roden Crater is an architectonic camera obscura, rendering the image of celestial bodies like the sun or moon within spaces we inhabit—bringing outside light inside.”

Light, as controlled by revolutionary light installation artist James Turrell, becomes something tangible we can touch, something we feel with mind, body, and spirit that pulls us to our higher purposes. Turrell doesn’t experiment with light. His work is light, interacting with us in precisely made spaces that isolate the light and allow us to form relationships with it as a physical presence.

In October 2013, I scored a front-row seat to hear the internationally famous Turrell address a standing-room-only crowd of architecture students and faculty at The University of Texas at Austin. Midday sunlight flooded the ballroom, pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows and bouncing off Turrell’s thick head of white hair.

I listened, transfixed, as Turrell spoke of a lifetime love affair with light. Now 72, he’s in a race against time to complete one of the most enormous art projects ever tackled: the conversion of the Roden Crater, an extinct volcanic cinder cone, into a naked-eye observatory that draws natural light into underground chambers and tunnels.

Turrell remains focused on his vision of what he calls confronting ancient light: of creating spaces inside the Roden Crater where people can look into parts of the universe that cradle stars older than our solar system.

I, like those around me, fell under Turrell’s spell as his soft, kind eyes swept the room, drawing us into his description of human beings’ relationships with light. We resemble crustaceans, he said, inhabiting these shells we construct. Like hermit crabs playing musical chairs, we move around and within our mobile and immobile shells — vehicles, homes, work places — generally oblivious to how we’re connected, and disconnected, to light.

Turrell described the heart of his work, of creating holes in our shells, whatever they might be, to set the light free. I looked around at people sitting on the edges of their seats. I wasn’t the only one moved. We were all on the same wavelength. At talk’s end, I and hundreds of other people would have followed James Turrell anywhere, coming out of our shells, and into the light.

Light, as Turrell is oft quoted, is not so much something that reveals as it is itself the revelation. Light is.

Watch an exquisitely made short film about James Turrell’s magnum opus, the Roden Crater, at http://vimeo.com/67926427. The film, commissioned by The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was produced in conjunction with the “James Turrell: A Retrospective” exhibition held from spring 2013 through spring 2014 at the museum. The exhibition, held concurrently with similar ones at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, formed a comprehensive retrospective of Turrell’s art career. To learn more about Turrell’s revolutionary work with light, go to http://jamesturrell.com, http://jamesturrell.com/about/reviews, and www.lacma.org/james-turrell-in-the-press.

Watch an exquisitely made short film about James Turrell’s magnum opus, the Roden Crater, at http://vimeo.com/67926427. As commissioned by The Los Angeles County Museum of Art — which provided both photos for display on this page — the film was produced in conjunction with the “James Turrell: A Retrospective” exhibition, held from spring 2013 through spring 2014 at the museum. The exhibition, held concurrently with similar ones at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, formed a comprehensive retrospective of Turrell’s art career.

To learn more about Turrell’s revolutionary work with light, go to:
http://jamesturrell.comhttp://jamesturrell.com/about/reviews, http://rodencrater.com/james,
and 
www.lacma.org/james-turrell-in-the-press.