James Turrell Gard Pale Blue

It’s been a summer of light for the arts world – and for artist James Turrell.

Three major exhibitions of Turrell’s work opened within the same month at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. According to the New Yorker, the shows provide a “belated burst of celebrity” for the artist.

In mid-September, an early work, Gard Blue, also went on display at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas.

Light as medium

James Turrell is considered one of the leading artists in a movement called Light and Space, that originated in the late 1960s in Los Angeles. And over the last five decades, he’s continued to push the boundaries of light and color.

“You know, there’s truth in light,” Turrell told NPR’s Edward Lifson, while they walked through his retrospective at LACMA. “I’m interested in the thingness of light itself, so that light is, is the revelation.”

To date, he’s created 82 (out of an anticipated 100) “Skyspace” art installations in nearly 30 countries, including 21 in the United States. It’s a room, a contemplative space, with a hole in the ceiling opening to the sky. When activated, LED lights alter the way viewers perceive the color of the sky.

Another ongoing project, called Roden Crater, is an extinct volcano near Flagstaff, Arizona. Turrell started working on it in 1979, creating tunnels and rooms for a “naked eye observatory.”

On ‘Gard Blue’

Gard Blue, 1968. Copyright James Turrell.
From 1966 to 1974, James Turrell’s studio at the Mendota Hotel in Santa Monica became a hub for gallery owners, artists and curators, as he explored projected and natural light. It was during this time that Turrell created a projection work, Gard Blue, now on view at the Spencer Museum.

In a public conversation at the museum on September 15, collector Mark Booth asked the artist, “When would you say that the art world understood what you were up to? When do you think you started to move from an artist who was creating these new ideas, to being more established?”

“Several weeks ago, I think,” Turrell replied, to laughter from the audience. “I’m one of those artists that keeps being rediscovered.”

Public Conversation Highlights: James Turrell

On creating Gard Blue

I started out looking at the wall as the picture plane… it was like Plato’s Cave. Book VII of The Republic, he talks about the cave and its relationship to perception…

I first started with this idea of the cave…it’s like perceiving reality upside down and backwards. The cave wall I took as the analogy of the rooms that we occupy, that we’re housed in, as something that is embodied in us. So I would project on the walls of the spaces we’re in.

The thing’s that most interesting is that you could put just a shape on the wall of light and it wouldn’t lie on the same surface as the wall. It’s either slightly in front of it, or almost seems to make a hole through it. This shows that it’s a very plastic and malleable medium. That excited me.

On the color of light

It looks like the light gels up and it’s almost like a fog to touch. These little, simple qualities were something that was remarkable to me…This began to look like how we see light in a dream, in a lucid dream, where the colors are very intense, where they radiate off things and people. And where light defines the space, as opposed to concrete physical structures creating the space.

On art and perception

I’ve always felt that I did an art that takes place between the actual limits of our perception, like some of the dark spaces right on the edge of actual seeing, and then the prejudice perception that we have – that is how we have either learned as a society to perceive or have come to perceive without knowing. Artists are always putting their audiences up against what they have decided.
James Turrell’s pivotal 1968 work Gard Blue represents a transformative period in his career, marking the crucial juncture when Turrell shifted the viewer’s attention to perception and the phenomenon of light rather than an object. “Light is not so much something that reveals as it is itself the revelation,” the artist has famously said.

Appearing in a large, box-like room constructed within the Central Court, Gard Blue is a projection of light. The clarity of Gard Blue’s presence is held by a single, arresting color. In the Spencer’s exhibition, holograms by Turrell surround Gard Blue, representing this important American artist’s ideas, innovative methods, and unwavering vision.

The exhibition builds on the momentum of a set of Turrell retrospectives at major museums nationwide, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Gard Blue sends a powerful message regarding the importance of innovation and artistic achievement. This essential work by James Turrell comes to the Spencer as a gift from distinguished friends Mark and Lauren Booth. Mark, a KU alumnus, and Lauren, an artist, continually extend their generosity to a broad range of programs at the Spencer Museum of Art, reflecting their deep commitment to contemporary art. Additional works have been generously loaned by Pace Gallery in New York. This exhibition is made possible with financial support from the William T. Kemper Foundation – Commerce Bank, Trustee, the Anschutz Family Foundation, Emprise Financial Corporation, Arthur Neis, David and Gunda Hiebert, and the University of Kansas Research Investment Council.
“It’s normal to get a little teary in there,” James Turrell reassures me as I sign a waiver before lying down on a bed that slides into a sphere that looks like a cross between an MRI scanner and a UFO. “You’re also agreeing to give me a good review when you sign that too,” jokes the American artist.

The waiver confirms that I don’t have epilepsy, a pacemaker or claustrophobia – his 2010 artwork Bindu Shards could potentially trigger any of these things. I’m in a tight, enclosed space and there are bright, pulsating lights making me lose not just my sense of depth, but any idea of whether my eyes are open or closed.

It would be easy to describe the cell as a light show, but it’s far more than that. The “real” show is happening inside my head. “It doesn’t actually change, it’s your perception that changes,” says Turrell. “This is behind-the-eye seeing. All those things you see there are not projected on that dome – there’s nothing there at all.”

Part of his Perceptual Cells series, Bindu Shards is one of the major works that make up the Turrell retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. While intense, the cell is designed to induce the state of mind that occurs in the early stages of meditation – the sort of drifting off sensation that happens when you gaze into a fireplace.

James Turrell’s Bindu Shards (2010). Photograph: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
“One of things I’ve always been interested in is the theta state,” says Turrell. “That’s thinking, but not thinking in words.” The alpha state and theta state occur naturally on the path to rest and sleep, he explains, and the light and sound in the cell prompts the brainwave entrainment that makes that happen.

While all this might sound a bit bizarre, Turrell has a wealth of knowledge to back up his ideas, including a degree in perceptual psychology and another in mathematics. But though his art revolves around various scientific concepts, he does not have the same intent as a scientist. “I know that science is very interested in answers, and I’m just happy with a good question,” he says.

Turrell is also a trained pilot and the influence of flying can be felt in several of his works that induce a sensation of floating in space. It was while flying his plane over the Arizona desert that he spotted Roden Crater, an inactive volcano that has become the centre of his lifetime’s work. With the help of astronomers, he turned the crater into a naked-eye observatory, with tunnels connecting various other installation spaces. Still a work in progress, the crater is a much sought-after experience open only to friends and special guests of the artist.

Volcanoes aside, Turrell’s main inspiration is a lifelong fascination with light. He always wanted to deal in it, he says, but “didn’t know quite how that plugged into society or where you got a job doing that”. He was strongly informed by the way artists like JMW Turner, John Constable and Mark Rothko depict light in their paintings, and also cites dioramas and the camera obscura as influences for his experiential pieces.

Turrell’s first projection pieces in the late 1960s raised questions around the very definition of art and reactions to his work were mixed. “People said I was just shining light on the wall,” he says.

Virtuality squared (2014).
FacebookTwitterPinterest James Turrell’s Virtuality Squared (2014). Photograph: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Both his obsession with light and the idea of art as an experience stem from Turrell’s Quaker upbringing. “The Quakers don’t believe in music or art, they think it’s a vanity,” he says. However, his Quaker spirituality evidently informs his work.

Turrell describes the paintings of Quaker preacher Edward Hicks as a major inspiration because of its message of peace. As a child, Turrell recalls sitting through long, meditative Quaker meetings. “I would just sit there and think about the meeting house, and I would think: wouldn’t it be terrific if it was a convertible?”

This childhood urge to peel the ceiling back birthed Turrell’s famous skyspaces – outdoor viewing chambers that alter viewers’ perceptions of the sky. Meeting was the title of his first public skyspace, which he began in 1978 at the Museum of Modern Art PS1 in New York. Since then, Turrell has made 89 around the world. Within/Without (2010), a permanent work at the National Gallery of Australia, is his 82nd. Currently, he is also working on one for the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart.

Each skyspace is site-specific, and Turrell visits those sites multiple times before making them. “I respond to what the sky is: you have maritime skies, desert skies, and you have high desert skies. I’m doing some also in the Alps – and there you have the really crisp blue that can happen in the winter, which is almost like a blue you can cut into cubes.”

James Turrell’s Within without at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Turrell’s Within Without at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Photograph: John Gollings/James Turrell / National Gallery of Australia
While Canberra cops a lot of flak for its weather, it certainly puts on an impressive blue sky – in this sense, says Turrell, it’s a lot like Arizona. How we interpret colour in a skyspace depends on the context of our vision, he adds. “We think we receive all that we perceive but in fact we actually give the sky its colour. And because we give the sky its colour, as in the skyspace here, I can make the sky any colour you choose.”

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Space is intimately linked to the passing of time, says Turrell, whose gallery works can take a certain amount of time to adjust to. Orca (1984) for example, needs eight minutes before the eyes begin to register the changes of light in the space.

The light in Virtuality Squared (2014) from his Ganzfeld series, is programmed to change over time. What at first appears to be a flat projection is in fact a large room that viewers enter, engulfing them in what seems like a never-ending expanse of colour. As the colour shifts, our perception compensates, and static light is suddenly not static at all.

“Each day is a different length of time and that gives a different length to the cusp between light and darkness or darkness and light,” Turrell explains. “I’m making the piece for that cusp – to be most active then.”

The cusp, or threshold, between light and darkness, and between what we believe and what we perceive – that moment when we realise something isn’t flat when we thought it was, or that it is static when we thought it was moving – are the moments Turrell manages to suspend us in, sometimes for surreally extended periods of time.

Turrell’s art reveals the multifaceted dimensions of his own life. But by pairing things back to a single element – light – his work becomes a window into a state of being beyond words. “This wonderful elixir of light is the thing that actually connects the immaterial with the material,” says the artist. “That connects the cosmic to the plain everyday existence that we try to live in.”

• James Turrell: A Retrospective is at National Gallery of Australia, Canberra until 8 June 2015

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