Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

The Art of James Turrell

May 21, 2013 07:01PM ● By Anonymous

But in what little down-time he has, Turrell and his wife, Kyung-Lim Turrell—an artist herself— like nothing better than spending their days sailing the waters near their Eastern Shore home, which they visit as often as they can. “This is such a light-filled environment,” says Turrell, explaining his attraction to Shore living.

And for someone who, for more than four decades, has pursued his fascination with the phenomena of light to create striking works that play with the perception and the effect of light within a created space, it’s not surprising that Turrell is drawn to a place that both stimulates his creative muse, while at the same time offers a sense of serenity likely not found in his otherwise peripatetic lifestyle.

Born in Pasadena, Calif., and now making his permanent (such as it is) home in Flagstaff, Ariz., the 69-year-old Turrell first came to the Eastern Shore in 1989 to work with printmaker Donald Saff. Then, and now, he was struck not only by the relatively unspoiled pockets of the region, but the many interesting people who call the Shore home—even if, like himself, only on a part-time basis.

It’s that appreciation for his adopted home that has led Turrell to collaborate with Easton’s Academy Art Museum (AAM) on an exhibition— a year in the making—of his work, James Turrell Perspectives, which will run concurrently with his retrospectives at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Los Angeles County Museum. (Because of the scope and size of his work, no one museum could handle an entire retrospective, Turrell explains.)

“We’ve been hoping that we might find a way to include James’s work,” says AAM Director Erik Neil, adding that the museum held an exhibition of Korean-born Kyung-Lim’s abstract paintings and drawings last year. “This seemed to be a good time because of the other exhibitions going on.

“When you have an artist of James Turrell’s caliber in the community, you want to bring him in. This is not an exhibition you’ll have the opportunity to see all the time,” Neil says, observing that he believes Turrell was receptive to the idea because he appreciates what the museum is doing to create a vibrant arts center and become a serious venue for art on the Eastern Shore.

According to Neil, the “ambitious” exhibition will provide a context for understanding Turrell’s work. “Although not conceived as a commentary on the regional situation,” he says, “the exhibition will reference the qualities of space and light that distinguish the Chesapeake Bay environment with its broad expanses of air and water.”

Curated by Anke Van Wagenberg, the exhibition consists of three parts: an introductory overview, a gallery of holograms, and a site-specific “Aperture Space.” Van Wagenberg explains that the three segments will focus on Turrell’s fascination with both the mechanics of visual perception and the metaphysics of light. (Turrell, who received a degree in perceptual psychology from Pomona College, also studied mathematics, geology, and astronomy.)

The introduction to the exhibition will feature an overview of Turrell’s career, with carbon prints and models representing his many projects worldwide, from his “Skyspaces,” which are enclosed spaces open to the sky through an aperture in the roof, to his light tunnels and light projections.

Though Turrell’s work can be seen both in private collections and in museums—from the Tate Modern in London to the eponymous James Turrell Museum in Argentina—he is perhaps best (though certainly not exclusively) known for his continuous work on the 400,000-year-old, two-mile-wide Roden Crater outside Flagstaff. Since he bought the land in 1979, Turrell has moved tons (literally!) of earth in his ongoing creation of a naked-eye celestial observatory.

The Roden Crater project will be central to the exhibition introduction, Neil says, but works related to other projects will be displayed, as well, not only to emphasize the scope of the large-scale installations and the massive scale of Roden Crater, but also to introduce visitors to Turrell’s frequently recurring themes related to geologic time, and his efforts to give viewers a direct experience with the cosmos.

Moving away from the introductory exhibit, Van Wagenberg has planned a series of 10 holograms that will introduce visitors to ideas that have engaged Turrell for decades, including the duality of light, visual perception, dematerialization, the physical property of light, and the spiritual quality of light.

The third part of the exhibition, an installation created specifically for the museum in its Lederer Gallery, is part of a category Turrell calls “Space Division Works,” in which he hopes viewers will experience the interplay of space, forms, and tone through a carefully crafted projection of light. The projections work on visual perceptions and the sense of light as a real physical material. The installation, which will be demolished after the close of the exhibition, will relate to St. Elmo’s Fire, a meteorological phenomenon named for the patron saint of sailors. (In addition to being an avid sailor, Turrell also became a licensed pilot at the age of 16.)

Influenced by his parents’ Quaker faith, with its discipline of meditation, contemplation, and patience, Turrell says of his installations, “I love making spaces that change as your looking changes.

“It’s not quite as if something’s looking back at you,” he continues, “but it’s about something that has a presence equal to yours, because the light inhabiting that space has a ‘thingness’ of its own.”

Though Turrell works more with space and light and less with paints and canvas, and is often associated with the minimalist and land art movements that have been prominent since the 1960s, he says he is inspired by such artists as Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Caspar David Friedrich, and J.M.W. Turner—“not to mention the Impressionists!” —who were compelled to represent light in a way that also conveyed a greater meaning.

Turrell is grateful for the acclaim and recognition that have come his way—including such prestigious awards as the Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships—admitting that recognition was slow to come, as “selling light is like selling the sky.” But what is most important to him is the thought behind, and the creation of, the art itself. “I want to create works that introduce a new way of seeing light,” he says, likening his creative process to the theory of lucid dreaming, in which one is aware that one is dreaming. “I want to bring a physicality to light,” he says. “I want it to reveal itself.”

James Turrell Perspectives will be on view at the Academy Art Museum in Easton beginning April 20th and lasting through July 7th, underwritten in part by the Dedalus Foundation, the Talbot County Arts Council, and the Maryland State Arts Council. Curator Anke Van Wagenberg will lead guided tours on Friday, May 10th, Thursday,

May 23rd, and Friday, June 7th, at noon. The museum is located at 106 South Street. For more information, call 410-822-2787 or visit