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James Turrell

James Turrell is an American artist mainly concerned with spatial and natural effects. He was born in Los Angeles in 1943, and only later in graduate school did he pursue art, receiving an MFA from the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California. Turrell’s work explores light and space, aiming to connect physically with viewers and to spiritually impact the eye, body, and mind. Turrell explains, “I want to create an atmosphere that can be consciously plumbed with seeing, like the wordless thought that comes from looking in a fire.”

Turrell’s work urges us not only to watch inactively, but to be engaged in envisioning ourselves seeing. Transforming and capturing both natural and artificial light from sunsets to television screens, Turrell’s art occupies viewers with unfettered experience. An obsessive interest with light phenomena stems from a spiritual search, from humankind’s role in the universe, and from his Quaker roots, which he characterizes as having a “straightforward, strict presentation of the sublime.” Turrell’s art inspires self-awareness through a Quaker-like discipline of silent contemplation and introversion, using everyday light to depict the supernatural and the divine.

In 1966, Turrell began experimenting with light in his Santa Monica studio during an era when the Light and Space group of artists in Los Angeles, including Robert Irwin and Doug Wheller, was emerging. By covering the windows and allowing discrete amounts of light from the street to pass through, Turrell created his first light projections. In his 1968 Shallow Space Constructions he used screens to create a radiation of concealed light and an illusion of a light-flattening on the space. He participated the same year in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art and Technology Program, working with artist Robert Irwin and psychologist Edward Wortz on perceptual phenomena. In 1969, he made sky drawings with Sam Francis, using colored skywriting smoke and cloud-seeding mediums. In the 1970s, Turrell began his series of “skyspaces” around the world. A Skyspace a is room that seats about 15 people on benches lining the edge for viewing the sky through an opening in the roof.

Turrell was given his first solo show at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1967, and he has since exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum (1976); the Israel Museum (1982); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1984); and MAK, Vienna (1998–1999), among others. In October 2009, the Wolfsburg Project, Turrell’s largest exhibition in Germany, opened and remained in place through October 2010. Amongst the works featured in the Wolfsburg Project is a Ganzfeld, a light installation that covers 700 square meters and stands 12 meters tall. A major retrospective was presented at the Solomon R. Guggeheim Museum, New York in 2012, concurrent with exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among other venues.

james turrell at roden crater in arizona

Turrell’s work in progress, Roden Crater (pictured above), is perhaps his most famous. He purchased the crater, near Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1979, and is in the process of turning thee natural cinder volcanic crater into a massive naked-eye observatory, designed for viewing celestial activity. Working with cosmological phenomena that have interested mankind since the dawn of civilization, Turrell’s crater brings the heavens down to earth, linking the actions of people with planetary movements and distant galaxies. Turrell has received many prestigious awards, such as Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, and currently lives in Arizona.

Art without images