Into the Light: James Turrell

James Turrell, Raemar Pink White, 1969, Shallow Space, Collection of
Art & Research, Las Vegas. ©James Turrell. Photo © Florian Holzherr

With three concurrent museum exhibitions in the states this summer including LACMA in Los Angeles, the Guggenheim in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, 70-year-old James Turrell is having his moment. In the mid-1960s, the artist introduced to the world an art that was not an object but an experience in perception. Turrell began in sun-drenched Los Angeles and has made manipulating light the focus of his career, creating works from the simplest of materials with deeply profound results. Today, he is revered as one of the key artists in the Southern California Light and Space movement.

Viewers who have entered Turrell’s illuminating and immersive installations, describe the experience as bathing in hues of light.  In his well-known series of “skyspaces” people walk beneath a canopy with an opening to the sky. Through a combination of natural sunlight and LED lights, the viewer is offered an enhanced view of that great expanse above.  This is a time-based experience which encourages a closer examination of the one’s visual perception. The idea of spending time looking at art has become almost inconceivable to people, but sitting and waiting for the sky to change from a lighter to deeper shade of blue is the only way to  fully experience this work.

Turrell’s artworks have been represented 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 is currently dedicated to one of his captivating Ganzfeld installations. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is now honoring Turrell by presenting a retrospective on the past fifty-years of his unique work—the largest survey of his art since 1985—running from May 2013 through April 2014. This exhibition is one of three concurrent exhibitions independently curated by LACMA, the Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts (June 9) and the Guggenheim Museum in New York (June 21). Together, these nationwide exhibitions offer a full sense of Turrell's work, exploring and illuminating different facets of the artist's five-decade career. (Image: James Turrell, Twilight Epiphany, 2012, A James Turrell Skyscape, the Suzanne Deal Booth Centennial Pavilion, Rice University, Houston, TX. © Jams Turrell. Photo© Florian Holzherr). 

It took LACMA and Turrell four years to create and complete the retrospective, resulting in an exhibition that covers 33,000 square feet of the museum. It includes holograms, light installations and a fully immersive “perceptual cell” called Light Reignfall that already has a waiting list filled through August. The installation takes up 5,000 square feet in the museum and where his other installations, allowed only a few people in the room at a time in this case, it is a private experience with only one person in the chamber at a time, for a period of up to twenty-minutes. Participants are required to put on special shoes and to walk up a pyramid of stairs into an illuminated room. Depth of field is quickly lost and hues of pink and blue fill the room, causing a bit of a disorienting effect.

James Turrell, Roden Crater Project, view toward northeast. Photo© Florian Holzherr. 
Also in the exhibition is a section of blueprints, models, and drawings dedicated to Roden CraterTurrell’s largest project and work in progress.  Located near Flagstaff, Arizona, he has been building the natural-light observatory out of an extinct volcano,  reshaping the earth and constructing chambers all in an effort to create spaces aligned with celestial events like sunrises and solstices,producing unique visual experiences illuminated by daylight and moonlight. As a career-spanning work he began in the 70s, Roden Crater is considered to be one of the most ambitious artworks ever envisioned by a single artist.

The upcoming exhibition at the Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts will focus on the Museum's collection of Turrell’s work, with many of the artist’s installations accessible to the public for the first time. At the core of the exhibition is The Light Inside, which is permanently installed at the museum. Also included is Vertical Vintage, a grouping of a dozen light-based installations that allow visitors to test the limits of their perception, study the play of illusion, and witness how light shapes space. The artist also has two Skyspaces to visit while in Houston: one at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in the Heights, and Twilight Epiphany at Rice University in the Museum District.

James Turrell, Breathing Light, 2013, LED light into space. Dimensions variable, LACMA, purchased with funds provided by Kayne Griffin Corcoran & the Kayne Foundation, M.2013.1, © James Turrell. Photo© Florian Holzherr

Turrell’s upcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, his first in a New York museum since 1980, will focus on the artist’s groundbreaking explorations of perception, light, color and space.  The exhibition’s main attraction is Aten Reign (2013), a major new project that will transform the Guggenheim rotunda into an enormous volume filled with artificial and natural light. One of the most dramatic transformations of the museum ever conceived, the installation opens at the end of June and promises to be an experience not to be missed.  Complementing the new work in the rotunda, other works from the artist’s career will be displayed in the museum’s Annex Level galleries.

At the age of sixteen, Turrell got his pilot’s license and had an early chance at exploring the sky. He hasn’t stopped since. With canvases that range from a wall, a whole volcanic crater and the heavens above, Turrell's works in light and space impact the eye, body and mind with the force of a spiritual awakening. Through his installations, he examines and challenges the very nature of seeing.