Art in 5: James Turrell

“His work is not about light, or a record of light; it is light — the physical presence of light made manifest in sensory form.” New Yorker critic Calvin Tompkins on James Turrell

Hi, it’s Erika Brechtel with a third installment of “Art in 5!” Thus far, I have focused on a painter (Ellsworth Kelly), a sculptor (Auguste Rodin), and a photographer (Julius Shulman), so today I thought I would highlight an installation artist, James Turrell. I have been fortunate enough to see his work at an art gallery in Chelsea, at a museum in Scottsdale, at the ARIA hotel in Las Vegas, and at a small gallery in Wynwood, Miami this past December during Art Basel. What fascinates me about his work is that it seems so simple — flooding light into a controlled environment. But what you don’t expect is that you completely lose your sense of depth perception to the point where you are not certain of where the walls are, where the floor and ceiling is, if the illusion of an object you see is real or projected. In some of his spaces, your mood can even change depending on the color of the light. It is precisely this human interaction and perception of reality that defines Turrell’s groundbreaking work. The gist:
Here are some examples of his work:
PROJECTION PIECESA Turrell Projection is created by projecting a single, controlled beam of light from the opposing corner of the room. The projected light appears as a three dimensional form.
Alta Blue 1968, London
Afrum Pale Pink 1968
Pullen White 1967
WEDGEWORKSIn a Turrell Wedgework, the precise use of projected light creates the illusion of walls or barriers where none exist.
Wedgework 3 1974, Holland
Milk Run, 1996
Raemar Pink White 1969, LACMA
GANZFELD“Ganzfeld”: a German word to describe the phenomenon of the total loss of depth perception as in the experience of a white-out. Turrell artificially creates a similar experience through the controlled use of light, coved corners and an inclined floor.
Armta 2011
Double Vision 2013, Oslo
SKYSPACESA Turrell Skyspace is a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky. Skyspaces can be autonomous structures or integrated into existing architecture. The aperture can be round, ovular or square.
Open Sky 2004 Chichu Art Museum, Japan
The Color Beneath 2013, Oslo
TALL GLASS / WIDE GLASSA Turrell Tall Glass or Wide Glass piece is an aperture with frosted glass. LEDs are positioned behind the glass and programmed to change slowly over the course of several hours. A glass can also be curved. Each Tall Glass or Wide Glass light program is unique.
Coconino 2007
Mohl Ip 2008, Phoenix Art Museum
I personally love the ones that remind me of Rothko paintings. (Read my past “Design Under the Influence” column on Rothko here)
If you’re in LA, definitely catch the retrospective on James Turrell at LACMA until next Sunday, 4/6/14. I’ve got my tickets!
Images and descriptions from
Top image: Akhob 2013, Louis Vuitton, Las Vegas
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  1. I will never forget my first experience of Turrell. I was a teenager looking at what I thought was a canvas, mounted in a darkened gallery at the MoMA in NY. I stepped closer, and closer, trying to figure out how the painter had got this subtle glowing of color. I stepped right up to the “surface” to see, and found that I could lean my head past the plane of the “painting” and into the next room! This rectangular hole into the next space, which was subtly lit, just BLEW MY MIND. I’ve seen many more Turrell since…my 12 year old daughter loves the piece at LACMA.