The Francis Files
Art Hearts: James Turrell's Mastery of Light
FEBRUARY 28, 2023 - Written by Kevin O'Gara
James Turrell is a boundary-breaking artist known for installations that involve light, both natural and artificial. I studied his work as part of my final project at the Oxbw School in high school, as his work is such a striking study of both color psychology and space. I am amazed by the ways in which his installations leave viewers with deeply emotional experiences, which really speaks to our foundational relationship with light and color that really defines our primary experience with the world. His work is found in museums, architectural installations, and private collections.
Turrell is a pioneer of Light and Space movement, along with Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler, which arose in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, often defined by architectural interventions that challenge your visual perception. Despite his stunning originality, Turrell has maintained a reclusive persona since 1981 when he moved to a cattle ranch near Flagstaff, Arizona, to turn an extinct volcano into a sculpted, many-chambered observatory of celestial phenomena, the Roden Crater. His work challenges the traditional relationship between art as an object and viewer by using light as his artistic medium, often altering the viewer's perception of the sky, seemingly bringing it down to the plane of the viewer.
I was able to experience one of Turrell’s installations at the Mattress Factory museum in Pittsburgh, but his work is part of permanent collections in America at MOCA in Boston, LACMA, the Guggenheim, and the deYoung Museum as well (and I hope to get a chance to visit them all). His art has no physical presence; instead, his manipulation of light and color creates a completely immersive experience. The installation I saw in Pittsburgh was especially subtle, taking a few minutes for your eyes to adjust to the effects of the lighting, and in the end completely erasing your depth perception. By drawing attention to the perceptual mechanisms at work in the act of seeing, Turrell instills the awareness that subjective experience shapes our understanding of reality and the world around us.