James Turrell

by Jonathan Griffin

CAPE HOPE (S. Africa) Elliptical Wide Glass, 2015

CAPE HOPE (S. Africa) Elliptical Wide Glass, 2015


In the Skyspace meeting room at Kayne Griffin Corcoran gallery in Los Angeles, James Turrell is telling me about the Antikythera Mechanism. In the spring of 1900, a group of Greek sponge divers discovered the sunken wreck of a Roman cargo ship off an island in southern Greece. Among the coins, jewelry, glass and statuary that they recovered was a corroded hunk of bronze and wood, about a foot in width. An archaeologist at the time suggested it might be an astronomical clock, but its complexity did not fit with its estimated date—a century before Christ.

Research was abandoned and it languished, a mystery, in an Athens museum. Half a century later it caught the attention of a physicist named Derek J. de Solla Price, who believed that the mechanism was not only an orrery of the five visible planets but also a predictive calendar of the Saros—an eclipse cycle—and a clock. The sophisticated knowledge it contained was lost for years, Turrell says, and it was not until the 18th century that John Harrison invented a maritime clock that could chart longitude. “So we just came up to part of their ability only in the 1700s! They had this knowledge well before we did.” Today, the Antikythera Mechanism is considered the earliest known analog computer.

The Skyspace in which we are sitting is an appropriate place to meditate on technologies both ancient and modern. Titled La Brea Sky (2013), the room has a fiberglass canopy that slides back at the touch of a button to reveal a crisp square of Californian firmament. Installed by Turrell as a permanent feature in the gallery whose refurbished premises he designed with the L.A.-based firm Standard and which opened in 2013, the ceiling of the Skyspace is fitted with thousands of recessed LED lights that advance incrementally through a digitally programmed sequence of colors. The reliably blue SoCal sky, when edged with pink or green or mauve, seems to shift dramatically in tone. When the phenomenon is combined with sunrise or (more usually) sunset, the effect is nothing short of glorious.

“The color that is in the opening doesn’t actually exist,” explains the 72-year-old artist, reclining in his chair. Busier, perhaps, than ever in his career, Turrell is exhausted from traveling but patiently explains to me one of the major philosophical tenets of his art. The sky looks blue in part because of the anatomy of the human eye. The color, therefore, is actually within us. “To say it’s not there is to say that our perception is not real; I suppose that is true,” he says. “It’s what we use to assemble the reality within which we live.”

Turrell has been making these Skyspaces—which could be described in basic terms as frames for the infinite—since 1980. At first they consisted of pavilions or modified rooms with apertures cut in their ceilings, such as the well-loved Meeting (1980), which came to New York’s MoMA PS1 in 1986. (The title refers to the prayer meetings attended by Turrell’s Quaker parents, whose beliefs the artist credits as an influence.) Over time, the Skyspaces have become more elaborate, especially those made as private commissions. Some of the domestic iterations incorporate furniture such as dining tables or daybeds; others have been made in far-flung landscapes or in cities from wood, stone, metal and glass. It is his ambition, Turrell tells me, for the sun to be rising or setting over one of his Skyspaces somewhere on Earth around the clock.

In Santa Monica, he designed a Skyspace around a dining area beside a swimming pool for Richard and Suzanne Kayne, the parents of gallery director Maggie Kayne. Seeing the development of that commission and the transcendent work that resulted—titled Raising Kayne (2013)—made a powerful impression on Maggie, who in 2011 partnered with James Corcoran and Bill Griffin, already Turrell’s gallery representatives in Los Angeles. The first exhibition in the relaunched Kayne Griffin Corcoran gallery on La Brea Avenue was devoted to Turrell’s masterpiece-in-progress, the Roden Crater, a vast architectural earthwork nearly four decades (and counting) in the making.

The arc of Turrell’s career has seen him move from Quakeresque austerity through to spectacular projects that press against the bleeding edge of technological innovation. Advances in LED lighting over the past 10 years, he says, have made the biggest changes to his work. In the Perceptual Cell series begun in the late 1970s, Turrell creates immersive capsules in which single viewers experience changing artificial light effects. At Turrell’s LACMA retrospective, participants queued up to lie inside Light Reignfall (2011), a sphere fitted with hidden LEDs, where they witnessed a 12-minute cycle of rapidly flashing colors; many people reported seeing psychedelic patterns and experiencing feelings of disembodiment. A subsequent Perceptual CellInside My Head (2013), seen at Kayne Griffin Corcoran, is even more advanced, says Kayne. The technology is developing so quickly.

Turrell uses a palette of seven colored lights to achieve the richness he needs in these works: red, green and blue—the fundamentals—and then amber, then a warm white and a cold white, and finally a more saturated blue. In the large, wall-mounted ovals recently displayed at Kayne Griffin Corcoran, soft concentric rings of colored light wax and wane behind frosted glass. Each of these Elliptical Glass pieces is named for a southern cape, and is, in a sense, a portrait of that place: The composition for Cape Hope (S. Africa) (2015), Turrell explains, consists of large swells with occasional chaotic interruptions.

“Nature loves the ellipse,” Turrell has said. But he also tells me that these pieces were inspired by Aten Reign, the vast elliptical environment that he installed in the rotunda of New York’s Guggenheim in 2013. At Kayne Griffin Corcoran, depictions of that work were translated both into digital inkjet prints and woodcuts. Turrell is an artist just as open to traditional techniques as he is to the latest technology. His meditations on the vastest expanses of cosmic distance and time provide him with a long view of technology—he is neither phobic nor fetishistic. (Often he pulls out his iPhone 6s Plus to search for a reference to some archaeoastronomer or other.) His work has little to do with modernity, but modern innovations give him access to ever-finer degrees of perfectionism. This is what really excites him. When he says that he has OCD, I ask if he is being serious. “I’ve made a career out of it!” he laughs.


First published: Cultured, February 2016