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James Turrell lightens up

portrait of the artist in the desert light

Artist of light James Turrell, looking rather like a rugged daisy* with his white mane and full white beard, addressed the annual meeting of the Fairmount Park Art Association at the Philadelphia Museum of Art yesterday evening. Turrell was speaking with a mission–to raise money. He had been asked by the Chestnut Hill Quaker Meeting to make them a new building. But it was going to cost them more than they could afford (the link above is to the Art 21 videos on Turrell).

aerial view of Roden Crater, the volcano that Turrell rebuilt

Turrell was introduced by Signe Wilkinson, Daily News political cartoonist and a member of the CHQM. She retold the story of Turrell’s purchase of 150,000 acres, which included a volcano and some cattle. It was really the volcano, Roden Crater, that interested him. He was going to turn it into an art work that captures the light of the sky.

“Megalomania is too puny to describe it,” she said of Turrell’s ambition. The volcano is the height of a 75-story building, and the structure inside being created by Turrell is 35 stories. “Where does someone with this sense of grandeur come from?”

Of course, Wilkinson ascribed it all to his Quaker roots–to his grandmother who took him to endless Quaker meetings and told him to look to the light.

The megalomaniacal vision of creating a light sculpture out of that volcano, along with his other work, earned Turrell a MacArthur Foundation award.

But the real surprise in the talk was Turrell himself, whose artistic hubris turned out to be tempered with a dry sense of humor and the ability to tell a joke on himself–like the time he pumped water from 900 feet below to fill a 1.5 million gallon reservoir atop the crater. Overnight, a tube he forgot to remove siphoned the water right back to its source.

James Turrell, “Raemar,” 1969, reconstructed 2004, mixed media installation.

Once he’d gotten past having to make himself seem more human, he began to talk about his 3-dimensional projections of light. He wanted a way to form light that would give the feeling of its physicality or thingness. He came out of a painting background, he said, with wall spaces as picture planes. He said he was trying to get light to “occupy” a space the same way that a stereo turned up can cause music to occupy a space.

He liked the idea of connecting the physical with the non-physical.

James Turrell, Spread (2003), installation view at Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, WA, photo Dean Welshman

Unfortunately, he was making art that had difficulty fitting into people’s homes. So he began flying people around and restoring antique airplanes until he could find a way to “sell colored air and blue sky.”

His work, he said, was not a comment on our materialistic culture. He was reading stuff like Cal Tech physicist Richard P. Feynman’s “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter,” which discusses the intersection of matter and light. “I wanted to make art that was about this formless, filled void.”

Turrell showed some slides of his pieces that look like walls but are actually light, and mentioned that at the Whitney, three people fell when leaning against one of the light walls. One of the victims, married to a state supreme court justice, sued him. He mentioned the deaths caused by Richard Serra’s and Christo’s art. “I couldn’t believe that I was doing anything but the most benign kind of work.” I myself have to think that Christo and Jeanne Claude never imagined that one of those festive-looking parasols could become a deadly weapon, either.

James Turrell: The inner way, 1999

At some point in his art-making, Turrell decided that stepping into the light was more effective than observing a light shape. He began lighting tunnels, making a space inside that that the light makes larger than the physical measurements. It’s here that I would imagine that he found the alchemical principal of making gold out of light.

The experience of light in this way was something spiritual, he suggested, and was something art had been missing for centuries. (He wasn’t joking here).

House of Light, a traditional Japanese ryokan. Turrell did not mention that you can rent this out (oh, I love the Internet, where I also learned: “This property is an 80 minute bullet train from Tokyo, and once you get there you will be treated to the roof opening at sunrise and sunset. Cool. The game here is to use the natural light to meditate and find your inner zen. It will cost you over $200 a night to find that zen, but hey, if you are searching for inner peace you gots to shell out some cash.”)

Then he made a bunch of “Perceptual Cells,” sort of phone booths infused with light that taught lessons about light perception. “They’re all now owned by the Japanese,” he said. If you went into the black-out booth covered with egg-crate foam at the 1993 Turrell exhibit at the ICA, you get the idea. My favorite pictures of these looked like they were experiments run by mad scientists in white coats, with beds that slid into the light pod the way an MRI bed does.

James Turrell’s Skyspace at the Henry Art Gallery. Photo by Anna Fahey. University of Washington in Seattle

At some point, Turrell decided to use the light of the sky, which is what the crater is all about, too. He began making gazebo-like garden structures, Turrell’s architectural follies, he said, things that were collectable. And he showed an image of the one belonging to Mandy Einstein in California. (Here my notes become obscure and overwritten a couple of times because, unlike Turrell, I was working in the dark.)

He talked about the Quaker meeting house he built in Houston, and in this very Quaker city, delivered a Quaker joke: “They were able to come to consensus on the whole meeting house, but it took them five years to decide on the cushions.”

Turrell also talked about his experience, as a child, of seeing Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, and idea in it of bringing art outdoors. Then he joked, “I didn’t think it was going to be 40 years in the desert,” when he began his crater project. “It’s been 32.” He also talked about his proximity in the Arizona desert to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah, and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico. “I spent more for a New York apartment than I did for this ranch that the volcano is on,” he quipped.

Roden Crater, near Flagstaff, Arizona

He picked the Roden Crater for its conical shape, which reminded him of Egyptian mestabas, Sarum, and Buddha’s Mt. Maru. (I’m out of my spiritual depth here, guys. Even the Internet and my dictionary were no help here, but that’s what he said).

By using the crater, he was putting his ideas about light in a geological-time stage setting, he said.


He pointed out that the sky is formed by near space. It’s domed overhead and wedges to the horizon. But the near space can be altered. And that’s what he’s doing. He drew plans, made models, and hired workmen–all Navajos, who, from working at the crater, got behind the local dark skies ordinances that astronomers had been pushing. Two cities passed the ordinances as a result, he said. (Dark sky ordinances are about keeping the stars visible by limiting city lights.)

“If you don’t see the stars at night, the psychological reduction of the lived in space you have is reduced.”

Until the crater project is finished, your chance to have your space expanded will have to wait, preferably not for as long as geological time (unless you have an in, and can convince Turrell to take you around for a tour). I’m lining up.


Amidst the no surprise boasts and encomiums that started the program off, artblog learned a few nuggets that interested us: Pepon Osorio has been invited to exhibit in the upcoming Bienal de São Paulo; Lonnie Graham was named Pennsylvania’s Artist of the Year; and Diane Pieri’s Manayunk Stoops, a project of the FPAA, is now in fabrication (what’s with stoops? in Philadelphia it’s steps; maybe Pieri’s a New Yorker).

*I stole this metaphor from Chaucer