The story goes that, in the mid-1960s, a young California native named James Turrell, the son of devout Quaker parents, took an empty slide projector and positioned it so that it would shine into the corner of a room. After adjusting the angle, what appeared where the beam hit the intersecting walls was a cube of light. Moving around the room, the perspective changed but the glowing apparition maintained its three-dimensional form, until, after getting close enough, it became clear that the box was an illusion. All that really existed in the spot was two intersecting flat planes of white light. But the phenomenon—both the material quality that the light seemed to take on when projected this way, and what that illusion implied about the nature of perception—launched Turrell as the foremost artist of what is referred to as the Light and Space movement, and has since taken him on an artistic journey that is now entering its fifth decade.
The cube of light, a piece titled Afrum I (White) (1967), is currently on display on the fifth floor of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, as part of a major solo show of the artist’s work titled simply James Turrell , which runs through September 25. Concurrent to the Guggenheim’s exhibition is one called "James Turrell: The Light Inside" at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), which runs through September 22, and another called James Turrell: A Retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which runs through April 6 of next year. Together, these three related exhibitions are giving American audiences an opportunity to immerse themselves in a diverse body of work that must be experienced first-hand to be fully understood.
Many of Turrell’s pieces are based on studies of sensory deprivation and the Ganzfeld effect, which is also known as perceptual deprivation. It is a phenomenon in which individuals who are exposed to uniform stimulation fields—usually a static field of color—undergo a loss of vision as the brain tunes out the unchanging signal from the eyes. The effect is often described as “seeing black,” though some people also have hallucinations. Both the MFAH and LACMA exhibitions feature several of Turrell’s immersive light environments that bank on this mechanism of the senses. At LACMA in particular, visitors will get a chance to go all-in with Light Reignfall (2011), part of the artist’s Perceptual Cells series. It is a spherical structure that individual viewers, assisted by an attendant, enter on a sliding bed. Once inside, they are subjected to saturated light, controlled by a technician, for a period of 12 minutes.
For those unwilling to partake in what can be a claustrophobic experience, the museums also have on view several of Turrell’s early geometric light projections, prints and drawings, and some of his more recent work with two-dimensional holograms. They also have sections devoted to Roden Crater, a dormant volcano in northern Arizona where, since the 1970s, Turrell has been digging a series of tunnels that open up into a variety of Skyspaces—works that frame a slice of sky while providing a relaxing, meditative environment in which to view it. At the MFAH, which hold more Turrell pieces in its collection than anywhere else, visitors will also be able to experience The Light Inside , a permanent installation in the tunnel that links the museum’s two main buildings, and take a field trip to two local Skyspaces: One Accord at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in the Heights and Twilight Epiphany at Rice University.
But the most significant new work by Turrell on view this summer is at the Guggenheim in New York. Called Aten Reign , which refers to the ancient Egyptian divine sun disk, it is the artist’s largest museum installation to date: a 79-foot-tall, site-specific fabric and aluminum structure that completely fills Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous rotunda. The piece is experienced from below and, much like a Skyspace, the perimeter of the room is lined with a near-continuous high-back bench that provides a place to sit back, chill out, and open up to the light experience that, metaphorically, rains down from above.
Turrell is a master at manipulating light so that it appears to take on a material quality, and that effect is fully expressed with Aten Reign . On first entering the rotunda, the air itself appears to be suffused with what can only be described as a fog of light. The gentle gurgling of the Guggenheim’s fountain only reinforces the impression that a shimmering, otherworldly mist engulfs the space. Looking up, the visitor is greeted by five concentric ellipses, each emanating colored light in a gradient that decreases in saturation from the largest ellipse to the smallest. At the center is daylight. The colored light slowly transitions across the spectrum, pausing long enough between changes to inundate the eyes before moving on with its mesmerizing, hypnotic progression.
While Aten Reign fills the entire rotunda, it is difficult to get a read on its height. The piece is constructed from five separate truncated cones, similar in shape and construction to lampshades, made from aluminum box truss structures and stretched PVC scrim, stacked one atop the other, and suspended from the rotunda’s skylight. Each cone has two layers of fabric, a white one on the inside and a black one on the outside, which helps each section achieve a full saturation of color. It also prevents light from leaking out of the installation onto the museum’s ramps, which are isolated from the piece by white fabric walls. At the top of the installation is a translucent scrim, which lets in daylight from above, and between each cone is a layer of fine gauze, which captures just enough light to give the impression that it is matter filling a space of uncertain dimensions.
The electric light is produced by two rings of color-changing LED fixtures mounted and concealed on shelves at the base of each cone—more than 1,000 fixtures in all. Each fixture was assigned its own DMX address and linked by cable to a color mixer controlled by a program developed by Turrell’s studio. The entire installation was constructed first in a New Jersey warehouse over a period of two-and-a-half months and then trucked to the museum and installed in five weeks. Once in place, Turrell programmed the colors and transitions from the base of the rotunda, tuning it to interact with the space’s unique conditions.
“With light as medium you have to make the instrument first, then you can play it,” said Turrell at a press preview that preceded the opening of the Guggenheim show. With Aten Reign , as is true of most of his work on view across the country this summer, he has proven himself to be a virtuoso of raising awareness about this essential aspect of our senses, on which all visual art depends: light.