James Turrell

James Turrell.  Breathing Light, 2013. Photo: Florian Holzherr.

As promised, longer museum write-ups from my visits to LACMA. First, the James Turrell retrospective. This one left me a bit at a loss for words. My initial response?

Holy crap.

Having thought about it for a week now, I think I’ve finally figured out how to be more intelligible. Where most retrospectives seem to try to pick as many pieces as possible, this one picks representative “best” pieces and suggests that we spend a lot of time (often ten minutes or longer) with them. Most of them are well worth the investment.

Turrell’s work involves viewing and experiencing light. Most of the pieces have a single gallery dedicated to a single piece so viewing everything is also somewhat meditative as you let your eyes and brain adjust to the light and just pay attention to how your perception changes.

It’s not an experience which I typically have in a museum. It’s actually more like the experience I have at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Outer Bay tank where I’m sitting in a dark room looking at a glowing dimensionless space which is simultaneously a screen and a void. Except that where the aquarium has things in the tank providing some depth and you can get right up and notice the tank glass, Turrell is 100% pure light.

James Turrell. Raemar Pink White, 1969. Photo: Florian Holzherr.James Turrell. Raethro II Blue, 1971. Photo: Florian Holzherr.

The exhibition really gets going with a number of “slim spaces” which feature the dimensionless light in a space in one side or corner of the gallery. The lights doesn’t come out of the space and you can’t tell whether the space has a hole or a screen. Yet at the same time, the light manages to also fill the gallery. When you’re looking at the light, you want to try and touch it and figure out what the hell it’s doing and how the hell it’s doing it. Thankfully LACMA provides a map which shows the floorplan—including the sizes of the slim spaces.

The photos on Turrell’s website suggest that these are all super brightly colored but the effects are much more subtle as your eyes adapt. In the pink room (Raemar), it’s overwhelmingly pink at first and then your eyes filter it out into more a more subtle shade. It amazed me how much color remained after filtering out the pink as I was expecting something similar to Olafur Eliasson’s Room For One Color to occur.* Instead, the the room stayed pinkish but still in color while the slim space wall remained incredibly vibrant and compelling.

*Eliasson featured low-pressure Sodium Vapor Lamps to create a yellow room with such a low frequency response that once your eyes have filtered out the yellow, everything is in greyscale.

Similarly, Raethro II sits in the corner of its gallery and demands to be touched—or reached into—through its vibrancy and the fact that despite being a void in the corner, your eyes complete the form even though there’s only light in there.

I also really like the super-dark pieces like Key Lime which slowly reveal themselves as your night vision kicks in. I still have no idea how this piece works, just that my eyesight isn’t enough to figure it out even after losing track of how much time I spent inside it. I want to touch it and fail so that I can see where the shadows fall and verify that I’m not looking at a scrim. At the same time, I love the sense of confusion which makes this piece fit in with the best magic tricks.

All the slim spaces build up to the giant ganzfeld piece Breathing Light—essentially a slim space you can enter with another slim space as one of the “walls.”* While you’re inside the piece, the light changes hue and you’re truly left in a state where your sense of light, white, color, depth, and space is never certain. The single anchor available to you is the void through which you enter the piece and even there, due to the changing light inside, it appears that everything is changing outside too.

*Really a void which you’re (correctly) cautioned against approaching because of safety reasons.

This is light as architecture in how it defines and determines space. It also, sort of perversely, reminds me of Richard Serra* in that instead of providing walls which define a space, Turrell does the same thing with light. It’s easy for me to get caught up in the exploration of the medium and lose track that it’s really the exploration of space which is going on.**

*This is most obvious in his drawings, but is also worth keeping in mind when walking through his sculptures. It’s nice that LACMA has a giant Serra downstairs from the Turrell show.

**Of course, this isn’t an either-or decision.

The other nice thing about Breathing Light is that it gave me hints about how the previous pieces were constructed. Being able to enter one allowed me to observe how the walls were shaped and how the entrance portal had bevelled edges.

As a photographer, I find myself especially excited by Turrell in that by exploring how light can define space, he’s making what photographers are trying to capture. That he does it with color is even more impressive. His work is essentially unphotographable while at the same time being photographic catnip. For once I was glad the galleries prohibited photographs. I’m happy to see the official photos of the pieces as they remind me what I saw. None of them do justice to the experience.

A number of the rest of the Turrell pieces are also interesting but didn’t blow me away in the same way as his architectural light constructions. His projected shapes are neat but seem like steps toward the actual architectural usage of light to create shape space rather than just play with perception.

I really like the Sky Spaces concept. When I first saw Three Gems at the De Young I didn’t quite get it. I need to revisit it now. The Sky Spaces show how it’s possible to remove depth perception from natural light too. Instead of just being far-away, by framing the sky it becomes dimensionless and variable. I’m fascinated by the Roden crater project since it appears to take the sky space concept to its logical extreme. I hope he manages to finish it to his satisfaction since I’d love to see it.


While they don’t seem to fit with the rest of his work, Turrell’s Holograms are also extremely interesting. I remember when holograms were the neat new thing in the mid-1980s.* Then they became security features on tickets, and money and a feature of blinged-out baseball cards when that market started to implode.** I haven’t seen them used as art before this. I really like that Turrell’s approach exploits the 3D nature of holography without making it a literal 3D  picture.

*Seriously. The March 1984 National Geographic cover blew my mind.

**Random note on baseball cards. The packs at the Dollar Tree still consist of  commons from 1986 through 1992.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

8 thoughts on “James Turrell”

  1. Pingback: LACMA | n j w v

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