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At Play With Night and Day in the Desert

James Turrell Is About to Unveil His Life’s Work–a Natural Crater Carved Into a Celebration of Light and Space. Try Hanging That in a Museum.

It’s sunset on a winter day at the Brentwood home of Mandy and Cliff Einstein, the latter a trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Outside, on what had been the family’s tennis court, sits a 20-foot white cube that, from the exterior, seems an unlikely candidate for a work of art. The interior is another matter.

We enter through a doorway. The walls are white, lined with inclined wooden benches. Above the benches, recessed yellowish tungsten lighting is aimed up the walls at the ceiling, which has a 12-foot-square opening that shows the sky. We sit and gaze up as the light blue sky slowly gives way to darker blue. The square of color appears to be at once incredibly deep and perfectly flat, as if it’s painted on the ceiling like the sky in Giotto’s “Last Judgment” at Scrovegni Chapel in Padua: a perfect illusion but for the little angels pulling at the edges of the backdrop.

Through the doorway, the sky is completely different, with less color and density. As we stare up inside, the deep blue gradually gives way to an impossibly velveteen black, a transition so seamless that we’re at a loss to pinpoint the moment of change.

The artist who designed the cube, James Turrell, likes to say that night doesn’t fall, it rises like a veil. The effect here is bizarre and wonderful, not unlike watching the stars come out at Joshua Tree after dropping acid–but without the saucer eyeballs and the three-day brain burn. Here you come home, pour a glass of Chardonnay, spend 40 minutes in the Turrell and still make your dinner reservation.

It is the only large-scale Turrell work on permanent display in Los Angeles, and the first to be viewed by the public in more than 10 years. But the world is about to see more Turrells. A full-scale “lightwork” opens March 16 in an installation commissioned by the cell-phone giant Nokia at the Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills.

More significantly, Turrell’s monumental work in the high Arizona desert, Roden Crater, will open to the public soon (although Turrell is coy about the date, which has been postponed before). It is the product of a quarter-century of labor to convert the immense volcanic cone into an elaborate light and space installation. Could it be among the most important artworks of the 21st century?

If so, it will be a remarkable legacy for an artist who doesn’t paint, sculpt or make objects that are easily bought and sold. Most of his works are too large to fit into a museum. Even the small ones can be seen only with a lot of effort. His materials are light, empty space, silence and darkness.

Those have been his media since the late 1960s, when he surfaced as a member of an obscure group of avant-garde artists living and working in Venice and Ocean Park. In the decades since, as we entered the age of celebrity artists and architects who design billion-dollar museums, Turrell became a cattle rancher and something of a recluse, one of a small group of American artists who continue to challenge the form and function of museums and their basic claim to contain the full range of contemporary art.

James Turrell has always stood out. Born in Pasadena on May 6, 1943, the son of an aerospace engineer and technical instructor, he became an Eagle Scout at 13 and Pasadena’s “boy of the year” in 1960. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Pomona College in perceptual psychology and also studied art and art history before attending graduate school at the Claremont Colleges.

He burst out of art school as a member of the groundbreaking Los Angeles scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s. This group, drawn to Venice and Ocean Park by the cheap rents, boho vibe and beach, included diverse artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Bruce Nauman, Peter Alexander, Billy Al Bengston and Ed Moses. Tagged variously as Light & Space or Finish Fetish, they pushed the bounds of art beyond even the New York minimalists of the early ’60s: Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt.

The minimalists’ purpose had been to rescue art from the illusionistic, emotional, tragic hero postures of the Abstract Expressionists of the postwar period and to refocus modernism’s gaze on basic questions of form. Instead of making paintings that depicted some thing or feeling, they made objects that “meant” nothing beyond their literality–real things in real places in real time. “What you see is what you see,” said the artist Frank Stella. Hip galleries were filled with blank cubes, square white paintings and bare fluorescent bulbs propped against the walls.

In New York City, the work was about a physical paring away, accompanied with a flourish of rhetorical pronouncements from reviewers and the artists themselves. But in Los Angeles, minimalism was a comparatively quiet movement. It was more sensual than New York minimalism, full of rich surfaces made with industrial materials such as resins, plastics and glass, and influenced by the culture of customized cars and surfboards.

Many of the L.A. artists worked on both. Turrell for some time made a living restoring vintage cars and airplanes. The concern for precision, craft and finish was general. John McCracken, a prominent West Coast minimalist with whom Turrell studied, finished slabs of wood with layer upon layer of hand-rubbed lacquer until the colors seemed infinitely deep. He then leaned them nonchalantly against gallery walls.

The artist Peter Alexander, known then for his resin sculptures, calls the L.A. style sensualism. “Everything was really beautiful and you believed it, and you wanted it to be and the observers wanted it to be like that, and everybody felt like that,” he says. “Because it was the ’60s, there was enormous optimism and naivete, which was a good combo. There was a lot of smiling.”

And then there was light. Bell, Irwin, Nauman, Maria Nordman, Eric Orr and Doug Wheeler produced work concerned with the effects of light on different materials. Turrell went even further, bypassing painting, sculpture and objects of any kind in making light itself his medium and human perception his subject. In his first one-man show in 1967 at the Pasadena Art Museum, he used a slide projector fitted with a special lamp to create the illusion of a cube of white light standing out from the walls. When the viewer moved, the cube dissolved.

Turrell moved on to make small apertures in rooms and buildings to bring un- seen light sources into the space of the viewer, creating beautiful, sometimes disorienting, effects.

Turrell had come on the scene at the perfect moment, according to Michael Govan, director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, a private contemporary arts foundation that began helping Turrell fund his projects in the 1970s. “Minimalism, in its generic sense, was artists bringing art to nothing,” Govan says. “Jim Turrell could start by that nothing. His career begins there. Once you throw out the frame and the pedestal and start looking at things like light, purely, that’s a starting point for a whole new world.”

Turrell drew on everything in his background: experimental methods of perceptual psychology from college, minimalism from McCracken, and his own experiences as a pilot, where he immersed himself in the light of the sky. Once, watching slides in an art history class, he fixated on the light beam hanging in the darkness: “The light itself seemed somehow preferable to the pictures,” he has said.

In November 1966, Turrell leased a building, the Mendota Hotel, on the corner of Hill and Main streets in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica. Back then it was a “poor white beach,” Turrell recalls, a place struggling artists could afford to live. “There aren’t really too many left. I suppose there might be some down in Florida where the old men go and fish the pilings, or like Jimmy Buffett used to talk about.”

For two years, Turrell sealed up the rooms, painted out windows, closed off the outside. Then he carefully began opening it up. In a body of work called the “Mendota Stoppages” he experimented with cutting holes of different sizes in the walls, allowing light from outside–like the passing of the sun or the passing of a bus at night–to come inside, filling the space in extraordinary ways.

He was learning about light and the unreliability of human perception, how we “make the world through our senses.” He tweaked the dimensions of rooms and the color frequencies of lights to make light “materialize”–to “apprehend” it. Some of the spaces at the Mendota were called “sensing spaces,” where the artwork essentially was a performance by the viewer.

What did Los Angeles have to do with this? Was it the beach light, soft and white, as the painter Richard Diebenkorn remarked, that inspired such art? Turrell downplays this common explanation. “Yes, there’s light there, but if that were true, there would have been many artists out of the south of France.”

It would be the equivalent, he argues, of attributing the English fondness for watercolor to the ample rainfall there. Instead he links the creativity in Los Angeles to “a greater anarchy of taste, [leading to] greater possibilities, because taste is restriction.”

But if you had been looking for the ultimate substance with which to make art, it wouldn’t have hurt that the sun was almost always shining and that, in a movie town, watching the play of light on a wall in a darkened room as a form of entertainment isn’t out of the ordinary.

“I think that Los Angeles plays a huge role,” Govan says. “Bob Irwin was turning the world upside down. James Turrell, Maria Nordman, Doug Wheeler, if you take just those four artists, it goes head to head with what was happening in New York, and it’s never really been fully appreciated.” That said, Turrell’s reputation has risen steadily. Art dealers and most critics attest to his significance, although he remains obscure to most museum-goers.

Paul Schimmel, chief curator of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, says Turrell’s greatest contribution to the world of art has been in changing the relationship of viewers with art, making them into participants rather than observers. Since Turrell, an entire generation of artists has turned to large-scale video, film and sculptural room installations. “It’s de rigueur,” Schimmel says. “All of these come out of this legacy of how he approached art-making as an environment and an experience.”

His work also reflects the ’60s in L.A.: the pushing against the doors of perception, the faith in the possibility of liberation through a deep experience of the world. Turrell’s inquiries mirror Timothy Leary’s, without the drugs. His work requires, even forces, attention. The art is in going through the ritual of waiting for perception. In one variant of the “Mendota Stoppages,” a prospective collector was instructed to sit in a room for several hours. In the “Dark Spaces” series, the “percipient” must wait in a dark room for 15 or 20 minutes before beginning to see anything at all, and even then is uncertain if what he or she is experiencing is optical illusion, stray photons, retinal imprints or artistically induced insanity.

Those interests in the boundaries of human perception were shared by the booming aerospace industry of the late ’60s and early ’70s. From 1967 to 1971, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in partnership with NASA, set up an “Art and Technology” program. It consisted of collaborations between artists and engineers in local firms, giving artists the use of lasers, holograms and other fancy equipment. Irwin and Turrell teamed up with a scientist at Garrett Aerospace to design an anechoic chamber, a sensory deprivation enclosure without sound or light, where the “viewer” was then exposed to various stimuli to see what would happen. It was essentially experimentation on human subjects.

The anechoic chamber led to Turrell’s next innovation making Ganzfelds (“total fields” in German), spaces where all visual and aural clues to dimension are lost in an undifferentiated light like a white-out blizzard or dense fog–except that Turrell’s light came in pretty colors. Turrell compares the Ganzfelds to the floating and otherworldliness experienced when diving or dreaming. “This otherworldliness can exist here coincidental in our conscious, awake state too,” he says. “I’m interested in how we dream as well because there we create the world entirely. It’s totally visual. Here, with eyes closed, is full vision, clarity is great or better than when the eyes are open, certainly with a lucid dream, with colors perhaps even richer, and it’s suffused with a light. It’s something we know about, but it’s rarely seen with the eyes open.”

Another sensation and ’60s reference he invokes is that of listening to music and feeling as if the room has become larger than it is, “sort of like the old Volkswagen ads, where it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. There’s truth to this in the sense that reality is not just what we like to think of as ‘the real world.’ “

turrell lost his lease on the mendota hotel in 1974, but by then he had larger spatial ambitions. He had been helping support himself by flying mail around the West under contract with the Postal Service, and his skill as a pilot enabled him to search for a spot, such as a butte or mesa above a surrounding flat landscape, where he could practice his art on a grander scale. A Guggenheim grant paid for the gas while he searched for seven months, crisscrossing the West from Canada to Mexico, the Pacific to the Rockies. Again he was right in the avant-garde moment. A few other artists had already gone out to the landscape, making something nebulously called Land Art: Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, beginning in 1969, a pair of gouges in a Nevada canyon wall as long as the Empire State Building laid on end; Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah, in 1970; Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico, in 1977; Judd’s concrete works in Marfa, Texas, beginning in 1979; even Christo’s wrapped buildings.

Turrell’s flying had opened up new conceptual vistas. He was interested in re-creating certain effects that occur at different altitudes: celestial vaulting, where the sky appears rounded, curving like a perfect dome to the horizon, and the “dollhouse” effect, “where people become ants and then houses become models,” Turrell says. To preserve those effects, he needed a site remote from city light pollution, with flat, open horizons not cluttered by buildings and a clear, not too cloudy, blue sky.

He found his grail 42 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz., at the edge of the San Francisco Peaks volcanic field at an elevation of 5,000 feet. It was a 600-foot-high red cinder cone called Roden Crater, overlooking the haunting expanses of the Painted Desert, adjacent to the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

Here he planned his most ambitious project, a kind of symphonic assemblage of his discoveries from the Mendota Hotel and since: skyspaces, light corridors, sensing spaces, all connected by a series of tunnels. Each space would be built to frame and capture events in the day or night sky, some occurring every day, some biannually and one, an alignment of the moon, every 18.61 years. The light sources would be the sun, moon and lightning, with the moon or sun lined up with apertures to cast images through tunnels and onto stone slabs or pools of water, even the polar star. Turrell would reshape the crater so celestial vaulting would be exaggerated to the point of doubting one’s eyeglass prescription. The work would be a sort of giant machine for contemplating nature’s grandeur.

Turrell recalls how, in his childhood house, his father had built a glassed-in room covered by blackout curtains from World War II. Young James, 6 or 7, would poke tiny holes in the curtains in the pattern of the constellations so that he could “see” the stars in daylight. At Roden Crater, he is revisiting this game on a huge scale.

There is considerable humility in the gesture–as a form of devotion to the overwhelming beauty of this world and vast hubris in the expectation of getting someone to pay for it. Fortunately, Turrell is a compelling salesman. He got his first Dia Center grant in 1975, which helped him acquire the crater in 1977. In 1979 he moved to Flagstaff full time.

His funding from Dia soon collapsed, due to a falling stock market and financial difficulties, so Turrell hit the road to raise money, mounting exhibitions in Europe, Japan and the United States. The Italian collector Guiseppe Panza di Biumo gave him a grant to do a set of schematic plans for the crater. He also shared a 1984 MacArthur “genius” grant with Irwin, the first such award for visual artists. In the ’90s Dia came back into the picture, along with the Lannan Foundation, but still Turrell kept running out of money as the scale of his vision increased.

He is quick to joke about it. “This piece became more involved, which is a lesson that if you don’t get support to artists soon enough, their projects become even more grandiose than when they began. I’ve moved 1.2 million cubic yards of dirt. I didn’t actually understand how I could shape sky with it until I’d moved about 220,000 cubic yards, and it’s about a dollar and a quarter to move a yard of earth no matter where you put it.” The delays and costs mounted. He had matchbooks printed up saying, “Sooner or Later Roden Crater.”

He is aware of the parallels to other giant lifework projects, some of which were never finished. He ticks off San Simeon, the Watts Towers, Mount Rushmore and, also in Arizona, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti and the Biosphere 2 Center. He recalls going to see the artist Jean Tinguely’s giant sculpted head in France and asking himself, “What was he thinking?” He admits that others might ask the same about his crater.

In 1998 the Lannan Foundation decided to go all the way, providing most of the money, $9.5 million to date of a total that could reach as high as $20 million if every element the artist envisions is built. In collaboration with Lannan, the Dia Art Foundation will take on the management.

Dia’s Michael Govan defends the cost: “We’ve had paintings from the ’50s that regularly sell at auction for a lot more than that. For example, a Jasper Johns, $17-some million [the painting “False Start” sold at auction in 1988 for $17,050,000]. I think Johns is a fantastic artist, but people are spending sums for artists of roughly the same generation for a 4-square-foot canvas. And I don’t think Jim thinks of his work any differently, he’s just making an artwork. It just happens that the terms are completely different.”

As you approach the crater from the southwest, bumping along 11 miles of dirt road, you see cattle lolling among the rabbit brush. These are “Jim’s girls,” 1,000 head. Arizona is still an open range state, where the law requires that you fence your neighbors’ cows out. The only way to protect the crater’s “viewshed” was for Turrell to become a rancher, gaining control of 156 square miles, either owned outright or through grazing leases.

Visiting the crater is a trip in every sense. Phase one, begun in January 1999, is nearly complete. As one walks up from the flank into the center of the volcano through the 854-foot Alpha Tunnel, footsteps and voices boom and return like cracks of thunder. A disc of bright light marks the tunnel’s upper opening, the East Portal, a room with a hole in the ceiling to reveal the sky. From there you continue in the tunnel down under the crater to Crater’s Eye–a huge kiva-like opening that frames a circular slice of blue air. A curving staircase leads from that spot to the surface at the center of the crater, emerging into an elliptical, sloping theater of red cinder. A ring of benches directs your attention toward the rim, which seems to attach itself to the distinctly domed sky–bright red, bright blue, with white haze at the edge. Four inclined slabs interrupt the benches. Lying down on one, with your head lower than your feet, looking up the slope into the blue, the sense of celestial vaulting is radical, alarming, a little dizzying, like stepping into a fisheye lens. Behind you the East Portal yawns, a clean, elliptical concrete hole in the red earth.

The scrupulous order is incongruous in the desert wilderness. It feels like being alone on another planet amid the ruins of an alien civilization. The quiet on this still January day is so huge that it begins to howl and vibrate in the city dweller’s mind.

Schimmel offers another description: “It’s about the ultimate sort of controlled fantasy, creating a place on earth–that’s the only way to describe it because it will actually be visible from outer space. The aliens will know that it’s been built.

“If his desire initially was to control the perceptions of individuals when they enter this space, now it’s much more encompassing, not a 30-minute thrill ride, a much more extended experience.” This is just a fraction of the planned spaces that have been built, and to experience them all, with all of the intimate little discoveries in between, would take some time, at least a day.

With size comes logistical difficulties, not just for Turrell but for many artists and sculptors who, decades ago, moved off of and outside the gallery walls. They collectively voice the complaint that the art establishment has swept them aside, throwing hundreds of millions or billions of dollars not into art but into building new museums that are no more than elaborate eye-catching wrappers concealing galleries that are often too small and inflexible for anything but traditional exhibits.

“There’s this triple-A club that artists talk about–architects against art,” Turrell says. “This all started with Frank Lloyd Wright and the Guggenheim, and the Guggenheim has, of course, continued in Bilbao. This is a terrific, amazing building; what it has done for art I’m not sure is good. If you were to build a building for General Motors or a skyscraper for some company, and wouldn’t allow them to make next year’s product, they wouldn’t put up with it, not for a moment.” Galleries in many museums are often too small for anything but paintings or small sculptures. Floors are not designed to bear heavy loads or be nailed into. Walls and ceilings can’t be moved. “They lock art into something that doesn’t necessarily contain art. When you make a container for art, at least you ought to see what art is happening then,” Turrell says.

“When you deconstruct an architect’s space, since now we’ve moved into a period where the modern cathedral is actually the art museum, the architects are alive so they get quite insulted by your cutting into their space. It’s getting so we can’t do anything in these hallowed places that the architects have made. It’s their show and we have to go somewhere else. So I do that.”

During construction of the $1-billion Getty Museum in Los Angeles, architect Richard Meier nixed plans for a Turrell work on the main plaza, even though the artist had been paid for it. Irwin’s troubles with Meier over the artist’s bizarre garden at the site are now legendary. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s plans for a $300-million Rem Koolhaas-designed museum to replace its current buildings will be one more such “cathedral” in Los Angeles, in Turrell’s view.

Schimmel acknowledges this: “A lot of the most radical questions being asked in the late ’60s about museums being irrelevant are as unresolved today as they were 30 years ago.” Nonetheless, he says, work like Turrell’s isn’t easy. Even within the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary, which is set up “to work with this kind of experience, it’s still a bear. The challenge is twofold: one, to get it right, and two, how much real estate it occupies. It takes money and it takes space.”

At the core of the appeal of modern architecture is the promise that it can create spaces of personal and collective transformation. At least in the personal dimension, this is what Turrell does. It also is accessible as a type of art that can be experienced without requiring the viewer to have an education in art theory. A friend of mine, Agustin Garza, a designer in Pasadena, tells a story about going with his in-laws to the Temporary Contemporary/MOCA show, “Individuals,” which opened in December 1986. They were “unsophisticated about modern art,” he says, the kind of regular people who “think most of contemporary art is a hoax. They thought Picasso was a scam.”

In the show they saw a Chris Burden piece called “Exposing the Foundation of the Museum,” in which the artist had dug a long trench along the wall, literally exposing the building’s concrete foundation, with the excavated soil piled up on the floor. “They thought it was bull. When they saw the title, they thought that confirmed that it was bull. Then they looked at–or experienced–the Turrell installation that was there, a skyspace. At first they weren’t really quite sure how to think of it as art, which opened up a whole discussion about art. They were both entertained and taken by the sublime effect of the light and the space. After that, they were able to go back to the Burden piece and experience it and think about it in a different light. They got down into the hole and smelled the soil and humidity and began to understand what he was trying to communicate,” says Garza.

“So I consider Turrell a really important artist, and I just wish that the general public would be more exposed to his work, because I think, ironically, it would make it easier then to understand what Picasso meant.”

One response has been the commitment of Dia and Lannan to fund and manage over time a group of landscape-scale works, including Roden Crater, The Lightning Field, the City projects, Spiral Jetty and Judd’s works in Marfa–collectively referred to as “the Western Projects.” Govan describes the venture as building a museum without walls. “The truth is, it’s taken time for some of that work to mature, it’s taken time for everybody to get over the conceptual radicalness of minimalism and now see what these artists were doing was as maximal as anything. If you ask me, these objects are as important as anything since Mondrian or Picasso.” To complete and preserve them for generations of people “means taking the institution to them.”

Today the Mendota Hotel houses a Starbucks. Ocean Park, the poor white beach, is posh real estate. Turrell has his $20 million lined up, if all goes according to plan. A major international corporation, Nokia, has been attracted to his luminance. All of these are signs, on the one hand, of the triumph of the entire cultural project of Los Angeles in the ’60s–liberation while smiling. On the other, success threatens to devolve into just money, art’s revolutionary power into just the entertainment and feeding of the private self. “Therapeutic ceremonials,” as one critic has put it. Sort of like yoga. Inside a Turrell space, there is the potential for transformation, but equally there is the absence of history, of politics, of other people. The answer to the challenge lies in going in and experiencing it oneself, in the flesh.