Let There Be Light: The Art of James Turrell

“My art is about your seeing,” states the enigmatic artist James Turrell (b. 1943). Although one could argue that most art is intrinsically about the experience of the viewer “seeing” it, this is not art as we know it – art that asserts itself as a singular entity on a wall or polished concrete floor. Rather, Turrell’s art is pure, otherworldly, and intended to affect profoundly the viewer’s experience and perception when encountering the works crafted solely with light as the medium; light, not as a medium for looking at other things, but as “an architecture of space created with light”. As architects working in the American West, an area that possesses a unique quality of light, we are fascinated with Turrell and his tireless obsession with the effect that light, both celestial and manufactured, has on an occupant in a space.

“Bridget’s Bardo” by James Turrell at the Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg, Germany, 2009. Photo courtesy James Turrell Studio. © James Turrell

Turrell, who was raised a Quaker, was often encouraged in his faith to “go inside and greet the light”, a metaphor for the soul searching that takes place in the austere Quaker meeting houses. Later, at university, he was fascinated by vibrant color and the field paintings of Mark Rothko. In graduate school at the University of California, Irvine, he realized that by positioning a slide projector just so, and by focusing the projector’s beam of light sharply at the corner of a wall, he could create a luminous apparition that appeared to hover and protrude into space. He had created space using the presence of light. As Turrell explains, this work, titled Afrum (White), was groundbreaking because “the light is used as material, and…it has a physical presence as such, and that [resulting] space is solid and filled and never empty”. His point is that “light can hold a volume, and have a surface”. The psychophysical effect is similar to the German term Ganzveld, a word used to describe the phenomenon of the total loss of depth perception when encountering a structureless field of vision. Indeed, some of Turrell’s works – including those at an infamous exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1980 – have caused visitors to precipitate to the floor after becoming so disoriented and confused, mistaking fields of light for solid walls.

“Afrum (White)” by James Turrell, 1966. Photo courtesy James Turrell Studio. © James Turrell

An obvious comparison might be to the work of Dan Flavin (1933-1966), a contemporary of Turrell’s renowned for creating sculptural objects and installations from commercial fluorescent light fixtures. However, while both artists were preoccupied with the effects that light could have on a room and viewing public, Flavin’s work used a light-emitting bulb, or an amalgamation of bulbs, as the subject matter – light was a byproduct of form; what Turrell requires of light is that it be objectless, and that it be pure space. Another comparison, given Turrell’s magnum opus titled “Roden Crater” located in the Painted Desert region of Northern Arizona, to which he has unwaveringly devoted his life, is to the Land art movement. The immersive work is a gateway to the contemplation of light, time and landscape, a “naked eye observatory” and offering to the element Turrell worships. Turrell has toiled on the project since 1977, and while it takes its place within the movement, Turrell insists: “I am not an ‘earthwork’ artist. I am totally involved in the sky”.

“James Turrell: You Who Look”, film directed by Jessica Yu.

Turrell’s work has been exhibited internationally, most recently at LACMA, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Much of his work is located in obscure locations across the globe: an 18,000 SF museum dedicated to his work in Argentina, a pyramid Turrell constructed in eastern Australia and another on the Yucatán Peninsula. “Roden Crater”, though not a constructed pyramid, nevertheless draws parallels with the archetype. Turrell’s chambers carved into the earth lead to sacred spaces – altars to divine light. 

Visceral, spiritual, abstract, theoretical, and elemental. Turrell’s art is perhaps so beguiling because embedded within the concept of light is the passage of time. Whether cosmic light or the light emitted from suffused, glowing bulbs, the light with which Turrell works and the resulting creations touch on something primordial. A painting may be psychedelic, but Turrell’s colorfields and optical illusions innately possess the ability to shift our consciousness. Turrell’s works are revelatory – “light itself is becoming the revelation”. This is powerful work that hints at a human connection with a higher supremacy and an interconnectedness with nature, truth, and a spiritual connection to the world around us.