Review by Wade Graham,


for The Santa Barbara Independent



James Turrell: A Retrospective


Los Angeles County Museum of Art

On View: May 26, 2013 – April 6, 2014



2013 is looking to be the Year of Turrell. As the biggest and first of six concurrent, separately-curated exhibitions about to open—also at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (June 9-September 22, 2013), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (June 21-September 25, 2013), LACMA’s show anchors a sort of national retrospective of the artist’s five-decade career. It is truly enormous: with nearly 50 works, occupying 33,000 square feet—the entire 2nd floor of the museum’s Broad Contemporary building and a third of its Resnick Pavilion.

Moreso than almost any artist besides Christo, Turrell’s work requires leagues of real estate—because it is about space itself, using carefully controlled light effects to explore how we experience the dimensional world. Several of the exhibition rooms are taken up with fairly conventional, small objects: prints, holograms, photographs, or models, such as those of Turrell’s unfinished magnum opus in the Arizona desert, the Roden Crater Project. But the main events at LACMA are the light spaces: a typical Turrell exhibit features one; here there are 10, each work a room of its own, some the size of a theater.

Turrell became interested in the processes of human perception in the 1960s, when he formed part of a loose group of LA artists dubbed the Light & Space movement, centered around the Santa Monica neighborhood of Ocean Park. There, in 1966, Turrell rented the Mendota Hotel and began experimenting: painting over windows, then opening apertures in the building’s skin to allow selections of outside light inside a room, changing with the passage of day and night.  Then he learned to “materialize” light: projecting it to make depth and volume appear where none is. LACMA has several elegant examples from this period, including: “Afrum (White)” 1966, where a cube appears to extend from a wall; and “Juke, Green” (1968), where light seems to pour into an open window where there is really just a wall.

He moved on to creating the appearance of flatness where there is depth, such as in his

famous “Skyspaces” which frame a piece of sky, flattening it into a plane—there are none in the show, but a room is devoted to pictures and plans of the more than 75 he has made all over the world. But three works in a row provide some of the show’s highlights: “Key Lime,” “Wide Glass,” and “St Elmo’s Breath” are eerie rooms in which one is challenged to tell whether an apparently flat surface is actually a large room, or an apparently deep room in fact a flat surface. Inside these conundrums, the confusion and evolving awareness are exhilarating.

Viewing a Turrell installation is all about seeing how we see: the color and intensity of light continuously change, near the limits of perceptibility, sometimes subtly manipulated by the artist, often produced by our own brains. It is hard to tell, and this is the point—the uncertainty that illuminates perception. Turrell explained: “We all know the sky is blue, but it’s blue because we give it its blueness. We all have prejudiced perception, or perception that we’ve learned. And I like to push that a bit.”

It is also about being: being in the work, that is. Commitment is required: of time, physical presence, and awareness—not exactly anything as effortfull as attention, but simple attendance. To attend means both to be there and to wait. At LACMA, waiting is literally part of the show, as several of the works are designed to be seen by only a few people at a time, and staff limit the number allowed inside. “Breathing Light,” a species of what the artist calls a “Ganzfeld,” accommodates only four at a time, for as long as one likes. My advice is, take the time: the longer you attend, the more the seemingly flat field of color before you subtly gathers depth, and gradually the boundaries between it and the rest of the room begin to blur, and flicker, and who knows what else, given enough time. These are lucid hallucinations.

Befitting its ‘60s roots, Turrell’s art is like a drug experience, without the drug: you take it, wait for it to come on, and marvel as odd things happen in your mind. The medical analogy is not accidental: Turrell’s art is fundamentally somatic. The point is driven home in “Light Reinfall” (1969) a species of what the artist calls a “Perceptual Cell”: a sphere illuminated inside by blue neon light into which two young women in white lab coats slide a single, shoeless person on a tray—just like a CT scan. Each viewer is allotted 12 minutes inside. Tickets are allocated for three people per hour. With such limitations on attendance required to ensure full immersive attendance in the works, one can see why the museum plans to keep the show open for 10 months.   

Though the artist has continued to fine-tune his techniques in producing such effects and insights, the art remains firmly rooted in the ‘60s, when a fascination with individual sensory experience gripped the art world and the larger culture. Being immersed in a large, expensive installation all by oneself is a rare luxury these days, and surely the height of solipsism—especially when the culture and the planet have more pressing issues to confront. And yet Turrell’s art is a solipsism of awareness—of a demanding, even monastic type we struggle to attain in this twitter universe of fast-twitch continuous self-promotion, aspiration and dissatisfaction. It can be thought of as a kind of practice, not unlike meditation, that promises to reconnect us to the world by making us aware of how we experience it, and in so doing, shape it.