Friday, May 6, 2011

Pioneer of Light and Space: James Turrell

My work is about space and the light that inhabits it. It is about how you confront that space and plumb it with vision. It is about your seeing, like the wordless thought that comes from looking into fire.”

In his often ethereal, atmospheric works, James Turrell explores the malleability of light and its infinite spectrum of effects as well as his own ability to accentuate and control the ever-elusive element. Carving a vast crater into the middle of the Arizona desert, trapping colored fluorescence into a prism, creating an entire exhibition space out of light that the viewer can physically interact with—Turrell toys with our perceptions of space, depth and light, challenging our habits of looking at and interacting with art.

Space that Sees, 2009, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Alta, 1968

The Light Inside, 1999, MFA Houston

The Light Inside (second view)

Bridget's Bardo, 2009, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany

Spread, 2003, Henry Art Gallery, Seattle

The artist had an unlikely beginning—born into a Quaker family of doctors and engineers in Pasadena, California in 1943, Turrell studied mathematics, astronomy, geology and psychology—all principles that would later emerge in his artwork. He began to gain widespread notoriety for his art in the mid-1960’s, when he became associated with a group of Los Angeles artists (including Bruce Nauman and Robert Irwin) who pioneered what is now known as the Light and Space Movement. Turrell currently resides in Flagstaff, Arizona—at least until the completion of his most ambitious project to date (slated for 2012), Roden Crater, a dormant volcano that has been in the process of artistic transformation into a celestial observatory under Turrell’s hands for the past 32 years.

Interior view of Roden Crater, 1977-present, Flagstaff, Arizona

Exterior view of Roden Crater

John Coplans writes that Turrell’s work possesses “considerable iconic power… the compelling sensuousness of the light and its inexhaustible brilliance are almost hypnotic…[the unconcealed light source] does not rationalize the total effect but adds to its vividness and mysteriousness.”

Turrell himself articulates,

“I feel my work is made for one being, one individual. You could say that's me, but that's not really true. It's for an idealized viewer. Sometimes I'm kind of cranky coming to see something. I saw the Mona Lisa when it was in L.A., saw it for 13 seconds and had to move on. But, you know, there's this slow-food movement right now. Maybe we could also have a slow-art movement, and take an hour.”

Indeed, his artwork demands direct confrontation, creating an inescapable psychological and physical dialogue with its viewers. Turrell has created a form of art that is impossible to glance at for a mere 13 seconds—the viewer is forced to walk through his pieces, to confront his or her own perceptions of and reactions to the space and to experience the transcendent, ever-changing elements (both natural and manipulated) that affect it.

A snazzy photo of the artist in his younger years

Turrell is currently represented by Pace Gallery in New York. A selection of his works are currently on display at the 54th Venice Biennale, which will run through June 2011, within the ILUMMInazioni pavilion curated by critic and art historian Bice Curger.

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