James Turrell Reimagines the Sky

Florian Holzherr

The artist attempts an epic conquest in the Arizona desert.

The sound of a party in full clatter reaches the rising elevator two moments before it stops at Pace Gallery above Manhattan’s 57th Street. The crowd is downtowny, with scads of dark-clad youths who rustle and chatter like a roost of grackles, migratory scouts attuned to the culture’s seasonal changes and larger climactic shifts. A group presses around the night’s honoree, 69-year-old James Turrell, to get their version of the celebrity autograph, an Instagram photo with the artist. Turrell—luxuriantly bearded (Old Testament white) and becalmed like a spiritual leader—assents, long accustomed by his success in Europe to the adulation that greets him now, belatedly, at home. He has been making works with, from and about what he calls the “delicacies of light” across six decades, starting when he was a Pomona College student in the early 1960s; this year he gets a three-museum retrospective with coordinated exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

“This is the drumroll for what’s coming,” says Pace president Marc Glimcher of the night’s opening, Turrell’s fifth solo show with the gallery. Compared with what will follow, the Pace show is geeky, focusing on preparatory materials (drawings, blueprints, plaster architectural models) related to Turrell’s magnum opus, Roden Crater, a 600-foot-tall extinct volcano in Arizona that he has reshaped into a pharaonic artwork meant to function as, in his words, a “naked-eye observatory.” Work began at Roden Crater in 1979, with initial support from Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil of the Dia Art Foundation, and continues as funding permits. The site is only one project in a career now reckoned to be among the most innovative of the past 50 years, but it looms and exerts a unique spell as Turrell’s Xanadu, risen from the myth-laden southwestern desert. A side-by-side comparison of drawings from 1983 and today shows that his vision has become more complex—and more expensive—with time, the summary and result of a lifetime of radical art-making. “I guess the moral is to give the artist all the money when he starts out,” he says.

At a dinner after the opening, Turrell sits between Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong and lacma curator Christine Kim, the focal point of a tableau that also includes a longtime studio assistant, architect Maya Lin and collector-wives with facelifts and furs. Pace founder Arne Glimcher rises for a toast, in which he notes that Turrell’s relationship with Pace dates back to 1967 (albeit inconsistently, as Turrell will allude to in his speech). Glimcher also repeats the idea that the present festivities are only a modest tucket to grander celebrations to come.

“Tonight is a preview,” he says, “before James splatters himself across the country.”

Perhaps because Turrell is a Quaker, or because he has granted few interviews, or because he works in the great American desert on an artwork of Miltonic ambition, or because even his smaller, room-sized installations are plain (if astonishingly beautiful) and soundless as light—for these reasons, I imagined that Turrell would be a reticent subject. The opposite is true. He is cordial and voluble, although the pacing of his speech is somewhat odd by contemporary standards. Punctuation receives its full measure: a pause for commas and for periods, full stop. The effect is antique precision. He says that Roden Crater is situated on a working cattle ranch because the bank would not loan him money to buy the empty land, but it would fund him to establish a cattle business.

“It was a 20-year loan [pause], but it didn’t take 20 years,” Turrell says as we sit in Pace’s conference room on the day of the opening, with the sunlight entering a window at his back to set his beard aglow like a cloud snagged on a peak. “Those sweet ladies [pause], the mother cows [pause] have paid off the loan in 16 years [full stop].”

When the conversation turns toward the fugitive ideas around his work, Turrell’s comments at times take on the quality of compact public address, as his paragraphs open with a light observation, touch upon personal anecdote, pull in learned references and arrive finally at the point he intends to convey. His manner brings to mind Quaker religious practice, in which a congregation, or Meeting, sits together silently until one member is moved to speak aloud: Private illumination builds toward shared insight.

“I always thought that people who live in the desert are a little crazy,” Turrell says at one point. “It could be that the desert attracts that kind of person, or that after living there, you become that. It doesn’t make much difference. But now I’ve done my 40 years in the desert. Joshua and Caleb made it into the Promised Land after 40 years. With Christ it was 40 days. We have this thing about the desert. Two of my great mentors were Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin [both lived in remote northern New Mexico], two women who participated in art at the highest level but found their source out there. They kept the faith with their source. That keeping the faith was important to me.”

One might say, in a colloquial way, that Turrell’s decades-long work at Roden Crater has also been a matter of “keeping the faith.” He’s just stuck to it, despite the odds, with a stubborn intent to get it done. But I’ve wondered if Turrell sees himself as a keeper of the faith in some more precise sense. For the past 12 years, he has described himself as an “unlapsed” Quaker, and he has designed two Quaker Meeting houses, in Houston and outside Philadelphia. (“At this end of life, you are involved in the support of things,” he says.) The critical exegesis around Turrell’s work usually notes that his grandmother told him that a congregant engaged in the group meditation of a Meeting is meant to “go inside to greet the light.” Turrell named one of his Skyspaces, rooms with ceilings open to the sky, Meeting (1986), and the historical referents for Roden Crater include structures once reserved for revelatory ceremonies: Celtic stone circles, the pyramids and temples of the ancient world, Meso-American monuments, Gothic cathedrals. Is Roden Crater, then, a sacred place?

“Well, I think so,” says Turrell in a noncommittal tone that suggests he means to modify the proposition even as he makes it. “But I think that of many places others might not say that about.” By way of analogy, he describes a desert cactus, the night-blooming cereus, which grows in the wildest canyons of the desert southwest and blooms once a year, on a full-moon night, with flowers that track the moon across the firmament just as sunflowers track the sun. Now, he continues, imagine seeing the same night-blooming cereus in a wealthy plant collector’s greenhouse attached to his penthouse, where you are finely dressed and holding a chilled cocktail. “You have the same object of perception,” he says, “but a different experience.”

Turrell’s art functions in the space between those two experiences, between revelation and commodity, and, like the wild-growing cereus, his major late-career works are hard to get to. Many of his 65 Skyspaces are far from art hubs: in Norway, in New Zealand, at the end of a five-hour drive to Colomé, Argentina. (Some are nearer: at PS1 in New York, the de Young Museum in San Francisco and at collectors’ homes in L.A., Napa and Texas). Turrell’s most recently completed big work, a 48.5-foot-tall pyramid in the Yucatán, also requires a long drive down bumpy roads—plus the permission of the wealthy owners. Turrell says he chose the spot in order to connect the pyramid via tunnel to a natural underground cavern called a cenote. He has compared another cenote he worked on to Delphi, where a stone known as the omphalos, or navel of the earth, bridged the world and the underworld.

If Turrell had his way, which he often does, a physical journey would be the necessary precondition to experience his artwork. He believes that the pilgrimage itself—with its phases of pregnant expectation before setting out, boredom en route and heightened attention during final approach—expands the vital space between revelation and commodity, the space for his art. Expand it wide enough and you can fit in a volcano.

Turrell was born in 1943 in L.A. and attended Pomona College, where he studied psychology and mathematics. lacma director Michael Govan, who worked closely with Turrell as president of Dia Art Foundation from 1994 to 2006 and co-curated lacma’s upcoming exhibit, believes Turrell’s intellectual scope distinguishes him as an artist: “His art is born of concerns that intersect with the art world but originate from a place outside it.”

In art-history terms, Turrell is usually linked to the Light and Space artists, including Robert Irwin, his senior by 15 years, or the Land Art movement. Govan dislikes both associations. The former he “tries to avoid at all costs,” he says, because the Light and Space artists, after a few initial shared inventions, diverged too far to constitute a coherent group. In the latter case, Roden Crater happens to share Land Art’s topographic scale and out-west setting, but Turrell’s art is “involved with the sky and not the earth.”

Easier to define is Turrell’s subject, which has remained constant and unites his various bodies of work: light. Earlier artists strove to capture the effects of light in their painting—Turrell’s short list of his predecessors includes Caravaggio, Vermeer, Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, the Hudson River School, the Impressionists, Hopper, Rothko, Irwin—but Turrell skipped painting altogether and began to work with light itself, says Govan. An early gesture as a student artist was a historic one: to project light on a wall.

Marc Glimcher tells the story about a night in 1967 when Robert Irwin, Turrell’s instructor at Pomona and an established Pace artist, took Arne Glimcher to see that early work. The two older men arrived at Turrell’s studio—studio in the sense of studio apartment—on Venice Boulevard and were made to sit in the darkened room. “James stood at the window,” recounts Marc, “and as a car would come down Venice Boulevard, he would move the Venetian blinds into shapes, and the headlights would project a form into the corner, which would immediately assume a three-dimensional volume.”

Turrell continues to project shaped light—cubes, pyramids, wedges—into darkened corners to make weightless solidities. He often likens the light in his works to the radiant, suffuse, particulate light of dreams, and he says he aims to “materialize” light so that it ceases to be a reflected quality that illuminates other things and takes on a “thingness” of its own. For his “Ganzfeld” series, Turrell drowns rooms with lakes of light that play havoc with viewers’ perceptual certainties; people sometimes fall down in them, thinking they are going to lean on a wall that isn’t there. He has removed ceilings to bring the sky down to the viewer; he has lit painting-sized holes in gallery walls to conjure the presence of art in a physical absence. His experiments include ways to provoke “behind- the-eyes” seeing (such as the afterimage caused by exposure to bright light), and his 2010 work Bindu Shards, displayed at London’s Gagosian Gallery, had viewers comparing the experience inside the artwork’s enclosed “perceptual cell” to a psychedelic trip. The MacArthur, Guggenheim and Lannan foundations have honored him. “James has been responsible for a lot of innovation during a period when innovation was considered important in the art world,” says Govan.

An avid pilot, Turrell first spotted Roden Crater while flying over Coconino County in northern Arizona (in a plane he built in his garage, legend has it). The truncated cinder cone (a natural pyramid) rises dramatically above the mile-high plain on which it sits, an offering to the sky. He compares the cone’s height to a 78-story building, and in fact it works out to be some 150 feet taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza. It also means the tunnels and observation chambers that Turrell has carved into the Crater are, although subterranean, airborne.

The Uniform Building Code of Coconino County designates Roden Crater as a Class 4 building, and it meets local fire codes and most standards for handicap accessibility. (Chuck Close has visited in his wheelchair.) Turrell has graded the crater’s bowl and rim in such a way that a visitor looking up from within it experiences intensely an optical illusion called celestial vaulting. The daytime sky, says Turrell, looks like a “soap bubble;” at night it is a sphere.

After 30-odd years of work, Roden Crater is about half done. Elements of the second design phase are now built, and the Crater’s basic “functions” are operative. They are, in Govan’s words, to “reshape the sky”—the celestial vaulting part—and to “bring the sky into your space of experience.” In other words, celestial light is precision-channeled into an observation chamber dug into the volcano. From within, a viewer can watch solar and lunar events; one moon alignment occurs every 18.61 years. Turrell and his team open Roden Crater to friends, collectors, curators and other potential donors, but it is not yet accessible to the public. Maya Lin, who has visited twice, said at the Pace dinner: “It is a great artwork, and it transcends that to become something that hasn’t been built in a few thousand years.”

Future elements will include more interior chambers, an amphitheater and visitor lodges. Richard Andrews, a longtime studio collaborator and now the president of Skystone Foundation, a nonprofit that supports Roden Crater, noted that the amount necessary to complete this second stage is equivalent to what a “modest Rothko” would cost at auction, but he refuses to project a finish date in part because so many have been blown before. Funding remains an issue, despite the acclaim. “It’d help to be more financially connected to the art world,” Turrell acknowledges. Marc Glimcher calls Turrell’s work among the “least commoditized art our society has created”—it can be traded, although not easily. Turrell’s fee for a Skyspace commission is about $1 million, with construction costs adding $1 million to $4 million more, and he lives well, with homes in Flagstaff, Arizona, New York and coastal Maryland. “There aren’t many artists who can feel sorry for me,” he says. Still, unlike Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst—artists whose work exemplifies the commodity aspect of Contemporary Art—Turrell’s great achievement is not wealth but persistence, the fact that he endured long enough for the climate of the art world to shift in his favor. He tells an illustrative story: One of the first pieces he sold went to Jasper Johns, who asked what else he could do to help the younger artist. Turrell wanted his address list. Johns agreed, but gave it with this advice:

“He said, ‘Some of the people who supported my art think that your art is the death of what I do,’” recalls Turrell. “He said, ‘You have to find someone who likes your art, writes about it well and buys it. Put them on your address list. That’s what you’re responsible for. You have to make your own audience.’”

And so Turrell has, aided by his natural salesmanship. Handsome, manly and charismatic, he has created a personal mythology as the art world’s Quaker in cowboy boots; this is the performance-art aspect of building Roden Crater. The immense scale of the project adds to his gravity. Turrell has been described as mystical, but he might also be called messianic, gentle but absolute.

“I once argued with him and he objected,” recalls Janet Olmsted Cross, a great-great-granddaughter of Frederick Law Olmsted and the architect who has made Turrell’s plaster studio models for 25 years. “He said, ‘Do not argue with me.’” She hasn’t again. Cross describes Turrell as restrained, heartfelt and fastidious—“like a king’s valet.” She has found his presence addictive. (Turrell jokes that all his long-term collaborators are members in the Turrell Rehabilitation Group and that Roden Crater is their form of “mainlining.”)

A sky watcher, Turrell allows for the possibility of extraterrestrial life that we fail to perceive due to our physical limitations, “the way a naked mole rat can’t see a cow” in Cross’s words. In the movie version of his life, Turrell’s actor equivalent would be Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master. The day after the Pace opening, I remembered that Quakers once controlled Nantucket’s whaling industry, and that Starbuck, the steady first mate of the Pequod, was Quaker—as was Ahab himself.

Turrell has elements of each in his character, and Roden Crater is a monomaniacal American masterpiece on the scale of Moby-Dick: Both are learned, difficult, grandiose and sometimes weird. As a sculpture, Roden Crater relates in obvious ways to Spiral Jetty, The Lightning Field and Double Negative, but also to the nationalist kitsch of Mount Rushmore and the folk-art nuttiness of the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota. Neither can one avoid thinking of Turrell in terms of the New Age cults that flourish in the desert southwest around charismatic leaders who venerate the sun and wait for flying saucers—Roden Crater as an earthly oculus to watch the heavens as we wait for Them to arrive.

A great artist points to where the culture is going,” says Bill Griffin, Turrell’s West Coast dealer and a partner in the L.A. gallery Kayne Griffin Corcoran, on the phone one day. “Turrell’s work has to do with the creation of reality and creating alternate or virtual realities. That’s what the culture is moving toward, and Turrell has been doing it for 40-plus years.”

On the eve of Turrell’s three-museum retrospective, the question arises: Why now? Why has the art establishment chosen 2013 to celebrate him in such grand manner? Some of the answers are practical: Turrell hasn’t had a major U.S. museum show since 1980, and he’s now of an age to merit fuller consideration.

Art also moves on a pendulum, in response to itself and larger cultural phenomena. As Griffin notes, Turrell’s investigation into realities built from light prefigured our current handheld, LED-illuminated age—he is a techno-visionary whom the Apple generation is now catching up to. But Turrell is also an archeo-aesthete, and the time aspect of his work countervails the present culture’s Twitter-length attention span. Roden Crater is, says Turrell, the “playing out of the music of the spheres in light, on a stage set of geologic time.”

An axiom holds that great art is in dialogue with the past, and Turrell’s sense of the past is more expansive than most, because he’s not just dialoguing with Turner and Vermeer. He’s also thinking about the sun cults and sky watchers of lost civilizations, and the tectonic forces that shaped the landscape, and the truly ancient stars lit billions of years ago.

For all that, Turrell’s work has a sense of lightness—of joy—that can only be called spiritual. Throughout our conversation, he often seems amused, as if privately enjoying a pleasant eternal truth too subtle for others to grasp. Richard Andrews describes an important detail embedded in an observation chamber at Roden Crater: The alignment of the moon through a particular tunnel is purposely skewed. The moon will align precisely 2,000 years from now. At the moment it’s off by a magnificent micro-measurement, the careful imprecision of a fastidious man. It’s Turrell’s literal cosmic joke.

Turrell U.S.A.

This summer James Turrell is receiving a cross-country retrospective—the first major survey of his work since 1980. Until now, Turrell’s Skyspaces and immersive environments have been widely known but rarely seen. Joint exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Guggenheim New York will be joined by several smaller shows across the country, from Santa Monica to the Chesapeake. And if that’s not enough, there’s a new permanent installation to check out in Las Vegas. —Maud Doyle

LACMA: “James Turrell: A Retrospective” promises to be the most comprehensive, showing some 50 works across nearly five decades, from his early, seemingly tangible geometric projections to unearthly fields of colored light to recent two-dimensional holograms. May 26, 2013, to April 6, 2014; 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; lacma.org.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: Named after the MFAH’s famous Turrell work The Light Inside, “James Turrell: The Light Inside” showcases seven light installations the museum acquired in 2010. All but one have never before been on public view. June 9 to September 22; 1001 Bissonnet; mfah.org.

Kayne Griffin Corcoran: “Sooner Than Later, Roden Crater” inaugurates a renovated gallery with a new permanent Skyspace. Notes, drawings and models will chart the Crater’s evolution. Meditation Room, a new immersive installation, will also be on view. May 25 to July 20; 2902 Nebraska Ave., Santa Monica; kaynegriffincorcoran.com.

Solomon R. Guggenheim: Turrell’s first exhibition in a New York museum since 1980, “James Turrell” will turn around a glowing installation that transforms Frank Lloyd Wright’s gleaming atrium into a volume of shifting light. June 21 to September 25; 1071 Fifth Ave.; guggenheim.org.

Louis Vuitton: Vuitton’s Las Vegas flagship commissioned Turrell to create what will be his largest, privately-owned permanent “Ganzfeld “installation to date: two chambers of saturating light, viewable by appointment. Opens April 30; 3720 Las Vegas Blvd.; louisvuitton.com.

Academy Art Museum: The three-part “James Turrell Perspectives” includes models and drawings for Roden Crater, a site- specific “Aperture Space” and a gallery of ten holograms. April 20 to July 7; 106 South St., Easton, Maryland; academyartmuseum.org.