Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 20, 2014
Michael Govan and Christine Y. Kim James Turrell: A Retrospective Munich and Los Angeles: Delmonico and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2013. 304 pp.; 250 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9783791352633)
Exhibition schedule: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, May 26, 2013–April 6, 2014; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 9–September 22, 2013; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 21–September 25, 2013
James Turrell. Key Lime (1994). Wedgework: fluorescent and LED light into space with fiber-optic light. Dimensions variable. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Gift of Renvy Graves Pittman, M.2013.3. © James Turrell. Photo © Florian Holzherr.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) nearly yearlong James Turrell: A Retrospective opened concurrently with two other major exhibitions of the artist’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Initially conceived independently by the three institutions, these exhibitions were aligned more to strengthen the visibility of Turrell’s work than to present a coordinated account of it. The MFAH show was first imagined in 2002 after the opening of Turrell’s The Light Inside in 2000, a permanent installation within the tunnel linking the museum’s two buildings. Its 2013 exhibition included eleven works from the permanent collection, most of which were donated recently from significant private holdings of Turrell’s work in Houston. The Guggenheim exhibition, conceived some six years ago, was the narrowest in scope, in that it paired selected works dating from the 1960s and 1970s to complement a new installation by Turrell, named Aten Reign after the ancient Egyptian sun god, that inhabited the entire central rotunda of the museum’s iconic spiral ramp. LACMA’s retrospective, which I will discuss here, was the most comprehensive in scope.

LACMA’s major installation of some fifty works developed over five years, a period of time following the 2006 arrival of director Michael Govan, who serves as co-curator with Christine Y. Kim; this duration also encompasses the widespread Pacific Standard Time (click here for review), a program of exhibitions staged throughout Southern California in 2011. Due to the generous space and exacting environmental conditions that Turrell’s works require, his art, more so than most, tends to be experienced through sporadic, individual encounters. On the occasion of the artist’s seventieth birthday and the impending opening of his magnum opus, Roden Crater, a massive naked eye observatory located within an extinct volcano in Arizona’s Painted Desert, LACMA’s retrospective thus offered an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate his practice.

From his earliest light projection pieces of the 1960s, when in residence at the former Mendota Hotel in Santa Monica, to recent holograms and installations of the early twenty-first century, Turrell’s works on display at LACMA reveal an admirably ceaseless probing into the possibilities of sculpting with light, as they equally and revealingly showcase a tendency to impose strict conditions upon his spectators, controlling their movement and range of perceptions within the gallery space. Indeed, this latter aspect of Turrell’s work had very real organizational implications: to limit crowding, the museum decided to admit spectators only in small groups of fifteen at timed intervals, the upshot of which was that the show’s opening gallery of works on paper became a holding pen where throngs strained to see beyond the walls of photographs, large aquatints, watercolors, and aquatint engravings. Once “inside,” however, the sparsely populated and largely silent rooms bathed in color achieved their purpose in allowing for an intimate meeting between the materiality of light and the spectator’s sensory faculties.

This kind of encounter was especially powerful in three of the works on display: Afrum (White) (1966), Key Lime (1994), and Dark Matters (2011). The portentous Afrum (White) is both the initial projected light piece in the show and Turrell’s first work of this kind. The work consists of a shaft of light cast diagonally from high in the corner of a gallery space onto the opposing lower corner of the room. The projection is hexagonal in shape, but when seen in its proper context against the corner of a rectangular room has the appearance of being a cube of solid light. This is an illusion, of course, as the actual shape of the light is a hexagonal cone terminating in the lens of a projector embedded into the gallery wall, but this literal approach to the space of light projection would not be developed until the 1970s in Anthony McCall’s films. Turrell’s work of the preceding decade is more closely attuned to testing the perception of dimensionality in geometrical surfaces and volumes. In this respect, I was struck by the manner in which the appearance of edge in Afrum (White) is activated not only by the joining of gallery walls, but also by the way in which solid white light, when seen up close, appears to “fray” into a thin purple band along the perimeter of the work. This aspect—which importantly opens a dialogue between Turrell’s practice and other artists of his generation based on the East Coast such as Donald Judd and Fred Sandback who were engaged with edge as a critical issue in Minimalism—is invisible within photographic reproductions. Yet where Judd and Sandback actively responded to the givens of physical and institutional space, Turrell’s work dematerializes architecture. In Afrum (White), a sliver of wall is destabilized, but in later works, entire rooms would be taken under the palpable grip of reflection, pulsation, and darkness.

Located a few galleries beyond Afrum (White), Key Lime is what Turrell calls a Wedgework. As Kim explains in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, “By 1969 James Turrell began to create immersive environments known as Wedgeworks and Veils that use architecture itself to frame light and directly address a viewer’s perception. . . . In the Wedgeworks, fluorescent sources hidden behind partition walls within a discrete space create the appearance of a transparent light screen” (89). Entering a dark room, viewers approach a seeming “wall” of light rimmed in blue that opens onto subsequent atmospheric spaces articulated by a sequence of yellow and then red frames created with a combination of fluorescent, LED, and fiber-optic light. These subsequent rooms are apparent only through changing hues of air made thick by colored light, and they invite an out-of-body sense of traversing the atmospheres of color with eyesight alone. This abandoning of physical presence is utterly unlike the experience of groping along into Dark Matters, which one enters through an unlit hallway whose switchback design eliminates all exterior light. Once inside, a maximum of two spectators at a time encounter a small viewing platform guarded by rails and outfitted with two lounge chairs. It took minutes for my eyes to adjust to this staggering darkness, during which time the rhythm of my breathing and my slow, searching movements around the enclosure were both exaggerated in duration and hypersensitive to the slightest input. This bodily awareness cuts against the sheer opticality of Key Lime, as does the lack of technical sophistication constituting Dark Matters itself. In contrast to the Wedgework’s apparatus of optical gear, Dark Matters consists only of a single deep red light projection. This light is bright enough only to perceive in and of itself, illuminating neither the architecture of the room nor its contents to a perceptible degree.

As the exhibition catalogue elucidates, Turrell has repeatedly cited a number of inspirations for his interests in light and space, among them: Plato’s cave allegory, the visuality of dreaming, his Quaker upbringing, and the numerous hours he has logged piloting aircraft. Produced in conjunction with the concurrent exhibition in Houston, this compendious catalogue offers high-quality illustrations of works both included and not included in the exhibitions, as well as essays that lay out the basic interests of the artist, generally on his own terms, by the organizers of these two shows (Govan and Kim at LACMA and Alison de Lima Greene at MFAH) and E. C. Krupp, an astronomer who directs Los Angeles’s Griffith Observatory and is Turrell’s former undergraduate colleague at Pomona College. Greene’s essay provides art-historical context for Turrell’s work among peers of his generation, and Krupp’s comments upon Turrell’s art in relation to other manmade observatories both modern and ancient. While it will be an indispensible resource for scholars of the artist’s work, the catalogue illustrates but ultimately does not challenge the sheer diversity and even contradictory nature of Turrell’s engagement with models of temporality. At various points in written and spoken statements, for instance, Turrell has claimed that his work engages the timeless faculties of human perception. Whether endeavoring to fashion a “primal relationship to light,” creating cave-like conditions in his installations, or citing the structures of ancient civilizations as kin to his multi-decade endeavor to complete Roden Crater, Turrell’s work assumes a long duration of human visuality that reaches across millennia (quotation spoken by Turrell in the short film James Turrell’s Roden Crater commissioned by LACMA and displayed within a gallery of his architectural models in the Resnick Pavilion).

Although Roden Crater has become Turrell’s most famous and anticipated artwork, for which LACMA dedicated a gallery of models, aerial imagery, and photographs, it has not yet opened to the public. I have therefore left the work itself outside the scope of this review, together with Turrell’s Skyspaces (architectural structures with an open frame to the sky), since they are similarly documented but not included otherwise. Notably, however, numerous illustrations of both Roden Crater and Turrell’s Skyspaces populate the catalogue, creating an unusual relationship in which both exhibition and publication document finished works located elsewhere. Thus the exhibition’s publication at once serves as catalogue for two exhibitions, a volume approaching a catalogue raisonné, and an advertisement for a project in-progress. Crucially, the discussion in this volume also reveals that a number of concepts that have driven Turrell’s work were revealed to him through situations fundamentally mediated by late modern science and technology. Along with his passion for flying, these include his collaborative work sponsored by LACMA’s “Art and Technology” program in the late 1960s with psychologist Edward Wortz and fellow artist Robert Irwin.

This laboratory aspect of Turrell’s art is also central to its corporeal regulation of the spectator and comes across most plainly in his work installed in the Resnick Pavilion. Entry to Dark Matters is not only limited to two spectators, for instance, but also involves a release waiver. The neighboring “ganzfeld” (a German term referring to one’s “complete field” of vision), Breathing Light (2013), must be entered through an elevated portal in the wall with shoes removed, while admission into the kaleidoscopic maelstrom Perceptual Cell (2013) is limited to one spectator at a time who is pushed on a flat bed into a free-standing pod by two women donning white coats (per the artist’s stipulation) and treated to a ten-minute, timed sequence of pulsating light and sound. Perceptual Cell and Dark Matters require a separate, forty-five dollar ticket for visitors. Perceptual Cell is a work created specifically for the exhibition that extends the series of booths and pods for single spectators that Turrell has fashioned since the late 1980s. These light-and-sound environments arise as an inversion of earlier experiments in sensory deprivation that Turrell conducted along with Irwin and Wortz in the 1960s. In the latter situations, a lack of sensory input stimulates the mind to generate its own phantasmic sensations, while in Perceptual Cell, light and sound impinge upon the body too rapidly to be processed and so stimulate the mind to create similarly phantasmic spatial patterns to organize the input. In my own limited experience, the sensations that arise within sensory deprivation can be consciously manipulated, to an extent, while those experienced within Perceptual Cell are involuntary. As Kim states in the catalogue, “Turrell believes that all light comes from fire; he does not differentiate between natural and artificial light” (251). Arising from this notion, what remains unsettling about Turrell’s retrospective exhibition is a sense that the purported universality of light and perception invoked by the artist’s work does not reconnect us to a “primal” relationship to light so much as it carefully manipulates our modes of seeing. While a number of Turrell’s works impressively treat the spectator to effects that we might not otherwise be able to experience, such effects find little traction outside of his laboratory settings. In binding perceptual experience to phenomena that appear primarily through the apparatus of these highly controlled environments, the perceived effects of Turrell’s work remain largely disconnected from the social conditions of the technologies employed to create them. This is equally true of conditions that pertain to something as simple as whether the light of Afrum (White) would have looked the same in 1966 or as complex as the psychedelic landscapes that enter one’s field of vision within Perceptual Cell. Turrell calls this latter kind of vision “the light perceptible only in the mind” (quoted in the exhibition catalogue, 267). I am left wondering whether “light” is in fact a material that ties together the varied perceptual events of his artwork, or whether the very materiality of light as a physical, and therefore historically bounded, presence is an empty cipher for Turrell’s captivating phenomena.

James Nisbet
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of California, Irvine

Please send comments about this review to