James Turrell

Los Angeles USA 1943, lives and works in Flagstaff, Arizona

Many works of the American artist James Turrell deal with the complexity of perceiving light. Wedgework III (1969) is no exception to this. On entering the dark, blacked-out space by way of a passage, one sees a volume of fluorescent violet light. It is as though the immaterial light has assumed a tangible shape, that of a wedge. The source of light remains out of view; one sees only the projection. This pure light appears in the space for the sheer purpose of being visible. It does not illuminate an object; it has become an object.

James Turrell produced his first work during the sixties, when he, Robert Irwin, Douglas Wheeler and others were part of California’s Light and Space Movement. For this group of artists, the work of art ‘as object’ was finished. What interested them was the phenomenology of perception, a puristic investigation of the visual experience. Their analyses led to the creation of environments, meticulously calculated stagings of light and space which confront the viewer with remarkable optical effects.

As a pilot and cartographer, Turrell knows that theoretical models, which have been developed in order to understand light, color and space, have only limited validity. His observations from the cockpit are, for him, an important source of inspiration: the changes in light and color that take place with a change of course at twilight, or the influence of fluctuating weather conditions on one’s perception of space. ‘If you go high enough, you can see the reflections of light on the moon change,’ he once said in an interview. ‘The color changes as the light glides by. You can know things without touching them, without handling with them, even without being there. You can feel things with your eyes. Observation is much closer to thought than words are.’

James Turrell situates his art somewhere between logical discourse and pure observation. He wants to make his audience aware of its own observations by creating works that reveal the discrepancy between knowing and seeing. Familiar Cartesian statements are insufficient here. Even so, that which Turrell shows us is not illusion or fiction, but the astonishing reality. Turrell: ‘To some extent, we are looking at the reality that we create, in much the same way as scientists discover the subatomic particles they’re looking for. The act of looking is almost tantamount to creating.’

Turrell shows the light as it appears before one’s eyes in a meticulously calculated construction, not as he observed it elsewhere and at a different time. In this respect he differs from painters who have given intense consideration to the rendering of light. Monet, Seurat, Cézanne, Rothko, Newman – they show how they saw and make that visible by means of the painting as a substitute experience. Turrell, an artist with the eyes of a painter and the insight of a pilot, shows us light itself, in all its complexity, in all its beauty.

In addition to artificial light, Turrell also works with light from the sun. In large-scale projects such as Roden Crater, the magnum opus on which he has been working since 1977, he gives shape to the perception of the sky. An enormous observatory is planned for an  extinct volcano in the Painted Desert near Flagstaff, Arizona; access to this will be provided by two concrete tunnels. From the center of this crater the visitor experiences, on lying down and looking up, the immense depth of the firmament: it assumes the shape of a dome. When the project is completed, the crater will be transformed into a huge astronomical monument, where continually changing light becomes the image.

On a smaller scale, Turrell carried out a similar project in the dunes at Kijkduin, near The Hague. Celestial Fold (1996) consists of an artificially introduced hollow in the dunes (about five meters deep, thirty meters wide and forty long), which can be entered by way of a concrete passage. Lying on the stone bench at its center, one sees how the sky seems to rest on the edges of the hollow like the top half of a sphere. The elliptical form of this work functions as a gigantic eye socket, an optical instrument that gives contours to the infinite space and makes visible the invisible form of light.

‘I’m interested in invisible light, light that can only be perceived by the mind,’ says Turrell. ‘I want to address the light that we see in dreams. I’m interested in doing works that seem to come from these places, in order to create an experience of wordless thoughts.’


For more information, photographs and audiovisual material on James Turrell, please visit PBS Art21


Click here for a video of Turrell discussing the process of creating a suite of Ukiyo-e woodcuts with Pace Prints.