Pasadena-born digital artist James Turrell, who at the age of 77 continues to be one of America’s most prominent and influential artists, primarily uses his “perceptual” art to explore the relationship between light and space.

Hope Riley  |  Ed Cristina Brooks  | 25 November 2020

In the mid-1960s, Turrell gained a Bachelor’s in perceptual psychology before taking up art at Claremont Graduate School. Although his career had unlikely beginnings — he worked as a fighter pilot in early adulthood — he later drew on his undergraduate studies, becoming highly preoccupied with vision and the brain. Indeed, the new media artist is now widely known for the way in which his work explores the sensorial experience of space, colour and perception.

Part of that era’s Light and Space movement that hailed from his birthplace of Southern California, Turrell developed his practice in a studio in the Mendota Hotel, Santa Monica. He used a slide projector in his earliest installations to beam light onto the walls of an empty room, and had his first solo exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1967.

Over the past five decades, Turrell has enjoyed an illustrious career, with solo shows abroad and across the US at venues such as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in the seventies and eighties. He also exhibited at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh over fifteen years ago. Saliently, his ongoing project the Roden Crater, to which Kanye West famously donated $10 million, is located in an extinct cinder cone volcano outside Flagstaff, Arizona and forms an important part of his work to “bring celestial objects like the sun and moon into spaces we inhabit.”

James Turrell, Roden Crater ongoing project since 1970 © Courtesy of the artist.

In many ways Turrell is a master manipulator of light and vision – he creates optical illusions by using beams of light to create the appearance of something three-dimensional. He has even been known to experiment with the “Ganzfeld effect,” a phenomenon of perception in which the viewer is starved of visual stimulation by being presented with an undifferentiated and uniform field of colour so that their brain is effectively “blacked out,” leaving them disoriented and without frame of reference. In extreme cases, such an effect can even result in hallucinations.

Part of Turrell’s “Ganzfield series” was the Breathing Light exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 2016, which comprised of 5000 square feet of LED light that was designed to leave visitors feeling as though they lost in a sea of colour, thus losing their perception of depth. Next to Breathing Light at LACMA was another of Turrell’s installations, Light Reignfall.

James Turrell, Light Reignfall  © Courtesy of the artist.

Light Reignfall , Turrell’s “perceptual cell” was an immersive experience where each visitor was provided with noise-cancelling headphones and instructed to lie down on a narrow bed. Turrell made use of highly complex technology – once lying down, the visitor entered the spherical chamber (which resembled an MRI scanner) and was shown a sequence of fluctuating colours and intensities of light, all operated by a technician. The cell was made of fibreglass, steel and neon light, and when inside visitors were totally devoid of spatial awareness for the duration of the 11-minute programme.

Turrell aims to shift our focus away from art as an object or a thing, and instead advocates “slow art,” encouraging visitors to his exhibitions to take the time to fully immerse themselves in the light experience. He has explained his intentions for his visitors, saying, “My work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, although it is a product of my seeing.”

He perceives human beings as “creatures of light” – and cites Plato’s allegory of the cave as a key influence. Turrell puts forward the idea that as humans we are living in a reality of our own creation, “subject to our human sensory limitations as well as contextual and cultural norms.”

For his Aten Reign exhibition in 2013, Turrell used an oculus in the ceiling of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building in the Guggenheim Museum to percolate natural light into the conical, atrium-like space. Around the oculus, hanging from the ceiling were five circular pieces of fabric, each shifting in colour due to thousands of computer-controlled LED light fixtures. The effect is extra-terrestrial in more ways than one – Turrell juxtaposes technology with nature to generate mesmerisingly colourful rays of artificial light around a moon-like axis of natural daylight.

James Turrell, Hotline Bling Video from Drake © Courtesy of the artists James Turrell and Drake.

Turrell’s impact extends to popular culture. Trippy light installations provided the backdrop for the music video for Drake’s chart-topping single, Hotline Bling. In conversation with Rory Caroll of The Guardian, Turrell revealed that he toyed with the idea of legal action over Drake’s unacknowledged “homage”, but ultimately decided it would not be worth the hassle. 

About the artist

Key Achievements

  • National Endowment for the Arts, 1968
  • Guggenheim Fellowship ,1974
  • The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, 1984
  • Wolf Foundation, Wolf Prize, Israel, 1998
  • The National Medal of Arts, 2013

Past Shows and Fair booths

Solo Shows

  • 2020 Constellation works, Pace Gallery, London
  • Bending Light, Pace Gallery, Seoul
  • Roden Crater and First Light Aquatints, 1984-1990, Mary Ryan Gallery, Inc, New York
  • Yukaloo by James Turrell, Asia Society Hong Kong, Admiralty
  • Depth Perception: James Turrell, Lévy Gorvy, New York
  • James Turrell, Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles

Group Shows

  • The Shelf 3.0, Lullin + Ferrari
  • Love of Prints, Zane Bennett Contemporary Art
  • Celebrating Print Week NYC, Upsilon Gallery
  • At the Doors of Perception, Lisa Sette Gallery, Phoenix
  • Summer Exhibition 2019, The Royal Academy of Arts, London

Fair Booths and Museums

  • Hiram Butler Gallery at IFPDA Fine Art Print Fair Online Spring 2020, Hiram Butler Gallery
  • Paupers Press at London Original Print Fair 2020, Paupers Press
  • Galería OMR at Art Basel 2019, Galería OMR
  • Susan Sheehan Gallery at The Armory Show 2019, Susan Sheehan Gallery
  • Pace Prints at The Armory Show 2018, Pace Prints

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