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James Turrell
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Wikipedia About James Turrell

James Turrell (born May 6, 1943) is an American artist primarily concerned with light and space. Turrell was a MacArthur Fellow in 1984. Turrell is best known for his work in progress, Roden Crater, located outside Flagstaff, Arizona, where he is turning a natural cinder volcanic crater into a massive naked-eye observatory. Full Wikipedia Article

essay James Turrell, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

James Turrell is the master of light. Early in his career, he was part of a Los Angeles cadre of artists (Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler, primarily) who were drawn to the phenomenology of light and space, to realms where things were experienced, not simply perceived. Over the years he has created a variety of environments in which the holistic merger of light and color provides hypersensualized contexts for human experience. There are Wedgeworks and Skylights and Skyspaces and Perceptual Cells, all of which offer a kind of total immersion associated more with the landscape than with a gallery. Turrell has also created spaces that offer a permanent alternative to the torpor of the known and, instead, invite the visitor into minimalist environments that are baths of real light and gelled light and real space and illusionistic space, combined to create an experience of almost spiritual transcendence.

Since 1977, Turrell has been working on his Gesamtkunstwerk, the Roden Crater. Situated northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, the now-dead volcanic crater is one in a gigantic field of eleven such formations. Each year he draws ever closer to an almost impossible dream wherein “the visitor will be guided through a system of guided paths, corridors, and steps to several rooms that all have a specific light quality of their own. Not only did the artist arrange the rooms and their apertures on the basis of natural light and its rhythmic change according to the time of day and the season of the year, he also took into account the astronomical constellation of the sun, moon, and stars.”1

In a 1990 interview about the project, Turrell was asked if, ultimately, his romance is really with painting. His reply tells it all: “At the crater, I’m moving a lot of earth, but actually I’m affecting huge amounts of sky. It really changes the shape of the sky… . The crater’s spaces will be filled with starlight. For me this has a very elegant quality because there are stars that are billions of years old and there is starlight that is fairly recent, maybe only twenty light-years old. Other starlight has taken millions or billions of light-years to get here. So you can mix this light of different ages that has a physical presence, which speaks of its time. That’s the content I work with.”2

In 2003, Turrell was commissioned to design a Skyspace for the new garden on the Walker Art Center’s expanded campus. A square chamber open to the elements and only visible above ground as a simple cube, Sky Pesher (2005) is entered through a ramp that gently descends underground. Once inside, visitors experience the changing appearance of the sky as it is framed by an approximately 16-foot-square aperture in the ceiling. The work responds to the ambient light outside, transforming the sky into a living painting that is just out of reach.

  1. Jiri Svestka, with Alison Sarah Jacques and Julia Brown, eds., James Turrell: Perceptual Cells, exh. cat. (Düsseldorf: Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, 1992), 55.

  2. Richard Flood and Carl Stigliano, “Interview with James Turrell,” Parkett 25 (1990): 98.

Flood, Richard. “James Turrell.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center