James Turrell has made light his stock in trade. He generates it, channels it and colors it to create stunning visual experiences that alter our perceptions in ways that range, depending on the viewer, from the hallucinatory to the spiritual. Fifty years ago, Turrell was cutting holes in the walls of his studio in the defunct Mendota Hotel in Los Angeles, creating some of his earliest works with light. Today the 70-year-old Turrell is hoping to complete Roden Crater, a massive decades-in-the-making project in which the artist is transforming a 400,000-year-old, two-mile-wide extinct volcano in Arizona into a naked-eye celestial observatory. He estimates it’s 60 percent complete. And this summer simultaneous, retrospectives of his work are taking place in three institutions in three cities. There has never been a better time to see Turrell’s work than right now.
Seeds for the current Turrell-a-thon germinated in Houston a decade ago with MFAH curator Alison de Lima Green and late MFAH director Peter Marzio discussing a possible retrospective of Turrell’s work. They quickly realized the enormity of the undertaking would necessitate the involvement of multiple institutions. Showing Turrell’s art is way more complicated than wheeling something into a gallery or sticking a nail in a wall. Your average Turrell work requires complex light-generating technology and precisely constructed rooms, often with winding, light-blocking entrances. James Turrell: The Light Inside is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “James Turrell: A Retrospective,” is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through April 6, 2014, and “James Turrell” is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through September 25, 2013, for which the artist transformed the rotunda of the museum’s iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building into one of his skyspaces — structures for viewing the sky.
We’re very familiar with Turrell here in Houston, where we have three permanent installations by the artist: the 2012 Twilight Epiphany at Rice University, the 2001 One Accord at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House and the 1999 tunnel The Light Inside, which lent its name to the current show and connects the MFAH’s Law and Beck buildings. Turrell has a lot of support here; his dealer, Hiram Butler, has been a dedicated advocate for his work for many years. For Houstonians it can seem like the artist’s work is commonplace. But this is a misconception based on our good fortune. Until “James Turrell” opened at the Guggenheim last weekend, Turrell hadn’t had a museum exhibition in New York since 1980.
The MFAH show presents seven immersive installations by the artist, all part of the museum’s impressive collection of work by Turrell. The exhibition is free with general admission, but making reservations is recommended. Because each of the seven installations requires a certain amount of time to fully experience and can accommodate only a limited number of people, the MFAH is trying to stagger attendance.
The 1968 Acro (Green) is the second earliest work in the show. It’s from the series of light projections Turrell was working with back at the Mendota Hotel. There, he’d blacked out all external light and was using projections to create forms. Inside Acro (Green), green light is projected into a corner of the room, giving the light a sense of rectangular, wedge-like volume. This illusion is enhanced by a flat, white painted angle of wood on the floor in the corner. It covers the dark carpeting and creates the illusion of a “base” for the light form. It’s an entrancing and seemingly simple piece that still holds its own against later and far more technically complex Turrell works.
Acro (Green) is also a reminder of the precision that Turrell works require. The shape of the projected green light is just slightly off register in the top corner. The white painted base strip has a few tiny paint globs on its edges. These are minuscule issues, but in the elegant precision of Turrell’s work, they can become strangely distracting.
Raethro II (Blue), 1971, is an early work that deftly pulls off its own perfect illusion and remains mesmerizing 42 years and a whole lot of advances in technology later. You walk into the darkened space and a blue pyramidal form seems to float in the space. Walking up close and risking the guard’s wrath, you can see that the light’s shape was created by building an obtuse angle of wall in the room. A pyramidal outline was cut into the corner of that wall and discreetly lit from inside the opening. However, glimpsing the man behind the curtain does nothing to dispel the luminous magic of the piece. It’s an affirmation of the quality of the artist’s vision.
The showstopper of “The Light Inside” is the 2006 End Around from Turrell’s Ganzfeld series. “Ganzfeld” (German for “entire field”) refers to the ganzfeld effect, the hallucinatory optical phenomena that occur with perceptual deprivation — snowblindness, for example. In End Around, Turrell has created an almost featureless field of shifting color — a kind of optically charged snowblindness. It’s hard to describe but absolutely stunning to experience.
But you’ll need some patience in order to experience it. Getting into End Around is not unlike going through airport security. You wait in a roped-off line until the guard lets you enter the anteroom to the installation. In the anteroom, another guard points you to a pile of paper booties. The MFAH is requiring you to remove your shoes and wear the booties directly on your feet. I understand that the museum is trying to maintain the pristine white floors of End Around, but may I just say that having large numbers of Houstonians taking their shoes off in the heat of summer is a horrifically bad idea. The entry to Turrell’s stunning, otherworldly environment smells like a freaking locker room. Seriously.
Goofy booties in place, you ascend a three-sided, temple-like flight of stairs. There are no rails, so you may be tempted to walk up along the wall. This is not allowed. You must walk up the center of the stairs, but more guards are there if you need assistance. As I saw the guards making elderly people with canes remove what looked like orthopedic shoes and put on booties, I was sure there were people who needed assistance.
But it’s all worth it once you reach the top of the stairs. You enter a glorious mist of color, and the floor slopes away from you towards a large back wall (?) with curved corners. The room has no edges, and the floor gently curves into the walls; the light never catches anywhere to delineate the space. Strips of light surrounding the opening to the room emanate an evolving range of color into the space. The light moves through oranges, reds, pinks, purples, blues, lavenders…You can not only see the visual shifts of the colors, you can feel their emotional shift.
The colored light seems to hang in the air like a fog; it’s a glorious and disorienting environment. What appears to be the back wall isn’t. According to one of the guards, the floor simply drops eight feet; the “wall” is an optical illusion. Turrell’s illusions are masterful, so convincing that people have tried to lean against some of them, fallen and sued the artist. (FYI, folks, you aren’t supposed to lean against the walls in the museum period.)
Like many Turrell works, End Around is the kind of space that would be wonderful to have all to yourself so you could lie on the floor (not allowed) and give yourself over to the space. Barring that, lounges and cocktails for you and the dozen or so other visitors would have been great.
A lot has been written about Turrell’s Quaker upbringing in California. There was no TV, no kitchen appliances — not even a toaster — and art was considered a vanity. Much, understandably, has been made of the fact that his grandmother used the phrase “go inside to greet the light” to describe their religious practice. A kind of ascetic Protestantism cuts Turrell’s lush visual experiences — viewer comfort is not a big part of the equation. Works like Aurora B, 2010-2011, from the “Tall Glass” series, which actually requires two and a half hours to fully experience, are accompanied by a bench. Turrell’s skyspaces usually have sculpturally elegant concrete or granite benches with angled backs to allow you to look up at the sky for their 40-minute-plus durations.
According to a recent New York Times count, the artist has created 82 private and institutional skyspaces all over the world. Apparently they are quite popular in the homes of Los Angeles collectors. If you’ve got a couple million, you too can have your own skyspace; each is particularly designed for its setting. The skyspaces, while helping to fund Turrell’s herculean Roden Crater project, are also a form of research for the artist, who incorporates his optical findings into the crater project.
I found a photo in the Turrell exhibition catalog of what appears to be a private L.A. collector’s skyspace, Picture Plane, 2004. There are leather lounge chairs in the room. I wonder what Turrell thinks about that. The seating lacks the clean aesthetic of the benches, and in the photo it makes Turrell’s work seem more like an interior design feature. But I bet the viewer’s actual experience of the installation is pretty amazing.
A big part of Turrell’s work relies on the artist or the institution controlling the way it’s experienced. Turrell quite rightly knows exactly the best way for his works to be viewed, where the viewer should sit or stand and for how long. He knows how to give us an unparalleled visual experience. But the problem is that controlling people too much can ultimately detract from their experience.
Maybe it’s because the show just opened, but the MFAH’s host of apparently newly hired twentysomething guards seemed to go beyond protecting the work and the visitors to micromanaging their experience. There are always rules with art; the open-air pavilion of the Twilight Epiphany skyspace at Rice University doesn’t allow food or drink or talking or cameras after the show starts, and quite rightly so. But it also doesn’t allow anyone to lie on the inviting, grassy slope that surrounds the pavilion, as one student attempted to do. I don’t know if this is Turrell so much as it is the keepers of his work. I just wish viewers were allowed a little more leeway to be human. Perhaps the Live Oak Meeting House is a perfect situation. In a place of worship, you expect to be quiet, sit still on a bench and be reverential. And in fact, the Quakers are the most relaxed and welcoming keepers of the Turrell sites I have visited. They invite viewers to get up and walk around and children to lie on the floor to view the skyspace. On a recent visit, I observed practically supine couples lounging on the padded church pews, contemplating the darkening sky.
But The Light Inside is a rare opportunity to enjoy so much optical splendor. Like Turrell’s permanent works in the city, it’s worth multiple visits. This is the kind of art you see and return to, bringing your friends and family. I’m also going to be buying a Lotto ticket in the hopes of some day getting my very own skyspace…with a couch.