Light, Color, Space

Totally Turrell

Catherine D. Anspon
Posted:
June 24, 2013

The blockbuster James Turrell retrospective illuminates not one but four venues this summer, all happening simultaneously, coast to coast. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and even a memorable Las Vegas commission for the Louis Vuitton Maison CityCenter will all be aglow with vaporous beams or exhibiting images of light, futuristic skyspaces and paradoxical interjections of color-suffused rays into remote, often primordial structures around the globe, including the extinct base of a volcano, via his ongoing, 40-years-and-counting Roden Crater Project. Arts editor Catherine D. Anspon considers the West Coast master who redefined minimalism.

Points of Light

Aviator, Quaker, flag bearer for the West Coast Light and Space movement and perhaps its best ever ambassador, Turrell was born in Los Angeles in 1943, to parents who reflected both the rational and scientific, the meditative and spiritual. His mother was a practicing Quaker and trained as doctor; his father was an aeronautical engineer who worked as a teacher and junior-college administrator. The upright Turrell — an Eagle Scout, student body president and “Boy of the Year” in Pasadena — graduated from Pomona College with a degree in perceptual psychology and coursework in art, math and astronomy, all pursuits that foreshadowed his contributions to come.

After a stint in graduate school at the University of California, Irvine, he soon departed higher education to explore concepts on his own about light, sparked by a fascination with a slide projector as it flashed by art historical icons: Hudson River School, German Romanticists, Impressionists. Turrell was taken by the power of a simple beam in the darkened classroom. The epiphany was to spark his first investigations using pure light as subject matter, conducted from a leased building, the Mendota Hotel in Santa Monica — the birthplace of his first piece, Afrum, in 1966. (Afrum is included in the LACMA presentation, while a later lime-green permutation from 1968, Acro (Green): Corner Projection, is a seminal work from 1968 showcased in the MFAH survey.

The Mendota Hotel studio was also HQ for the artist’s Mendota Stoppages, a series made from cutting out parts of the building, which prefigured the skyspaces that would define his practice and focus during the following decades.

A year later, he was showing these early game-changing light works at the fabled Pasadena Museum of Art (today’s Norton Simon Museum), an institution whose avant-garde programming was humming thanks to its recent director, Walter Hopps, who would go on to be the founding director of The Menil Collection. Other high points along the way included a stint as an art and technology artist for LACMA, where he and fellow light man Robert Irwin collaborated with aerospace giant/NASA contractor Garrett Corporation, which was at that time engaged in the space race.

Intersecting it all was (and is) Turrell’s aviation avocation, which began when he flew with his dad as a boy. This early flight inspired the artist to obtain his pilot license at the age of 16. A highly skilled flyer, he airlifted monks out of Tibet during the 1960s, part of his peace work as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. His airborne prowess, along with a Guggenheim grant, led him to discover the location to do his life’s work in 1974: the Roden Crater, a vast extinct volcano outside Flagstaff, in the Painted Desert of Arizona. Seven months and more than 500 hours of flying time led him to the perfect site to continue grand discoveries in light, space and sky. His find and acquisition of the crater has resulted in an ongoing engagement with a volcanic form, into which the sculptor has been carving out and crafting rooms, tunnels and skyspaces in earnest since 1979, fabricating and honing the ultimate observatory.   

96 Hours in Beam Towns

Begin your Turrell trek at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the artist’s hometown institution presents approximately 50 works, reflective of his nearly five-decade career. Director and CEO Michael Govan and associate contemporary art curator Christine Y. Kim co-organize “James Turrell: a Retrospective” (through April 6, 2014), which goes on to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem next summer and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra (December 2014 – April 2015). Encompassing his earliest geometric projections, prints and drawings, installations probing sensory deprivation and the latest holograms as well as models, plans, films and photos of the Roden Crater, it’s a must for any Turrell pilgrimage.

Next, touch down in Vegas and make tracks to the spectacular Louis Vuitton Maison CityCenter, where the largest LV in North America makes a spectacular home for the ultimate ganzfield, a mystical permanent light environment — the third Turrell commissioned by the art-centric global luxury fashion house. Entitled Akhob after the ancient Egyptian (Amarna period) word for pure water, it’s an intimate experience limited to just six viewers at a time, with an appointment required; call 702.739.8520 to schedule.

Then jet back to Texas for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s ultimate Turrell sensory equivalence that takes over the Mies van der Rohe-designed Brown Pavilion, with light and space aplenty and 11 works total, plus a visit to The Light Inside, which connects the Law and Beck buildings. Designed for immersive and intense viewing, the exhibition, named after its most famous piece, “James Turrell: The Light Inside,” is organized by Alison de Lima Greene, the MFAH’s curator of contemporary art and special projects. Greene was instrumental in the acquisition and funding by MFAH patrons deluxe Isabel and Wallace Wilson of the impressive light tunnel — which she calls “both a passage and a destination” — a signature work of art among the MFAH’s encyclopedic collection, as well as one of the best-loved public art pieces in Houston. She, along with the late MFAH director Peter Marzio, spearheaded this exhibition which current director Gary Tinterow enthusiastically propelled forward, and Greene was also integral, along with Marzio, in the museum’s acquisition of the 11 “Vertical Vintages,” representing pivotal works gleaned from decades of Turrell’s oeuvre, to make the MFAH’s the largest trove in America of both the artist’s printmaking as well as his total output (on view June 9 – September 22). 

There’s more of the light maker in Houston, for our city also affords the most public Turrell commissions in the States. Besides The Light Inside at the MFAH, must-sees are the Live Oak Friends Meeting, a project launched by fellow Quaker, and the artist’s gallerist for museum, university and other public commissions, Hiram Butler, who toiled since 1993 to make the Leslie Elkins-designed Heights sacred space, topped by the skyspace One Acord, a reality. FYI: Turrell was so committed to the project that he designed it for free, and Butler waived his dealer commission. (Open for viewing every Friday at sunset and the first Sunday of each month at sunset, weather permitting.)

Finish with a flourish, sunrise or sunset, at the Twilight Epiphany Skyspace, Suzanne Deal Both Centennial Pavilion, Rice University, a double-decker skyspace from 2012, that marks the purest, and most dramatic too, distillation of Turrell’s principles, as well as evoking time travel and the space program. For reservations (free, required for sunset only), tap skyspace.rice.edu/cms/visit-skyspace. 

Then it’s off to Manhattan, to wrap your Turrell tour with the Guggenheim Museum, where the summer solstice inaugurates the artist’s first show in an NYC institution since 1980, and perhaps the most memorable transformation of the Guggenheim’s rotunda ever into one vast skyspace with modulating, vaporous light effects. The dazzling display is curated by “Picasso Black and White” organizer Carmen Giménez with colleague Nat Trotman (June 21 – September 25). 


Turrell Timeline in Houston

The Turrell American retrospective and its concurrent mounting in Houston didn’t just happen. Here are some key milestones and the players along the way, beginning nearly 30 years ago. For the complete chronology, navigate papercitymag.com.

1984: Turrell’s Deep Sky and Mapping Spaces shown in group exhibition at Hiram Butler Gallery.

1990: “James Turrell: First Light Series,” presented by Hiram Butler Gallery in conjunction with Williams College Museum of Art and MoMA, New York, marking the artist’s first solo in Texas.

1994: The MFAH acquires its first James Turrell, a portfolio of 20 aquatints published by Peter Blum Editions in 1989, donated by Ralph S. O’Connor.

1995: James Turrell arrives as guest artist and lecturer at the MFAH’s Glassell School Core Program; the artist’s drawings are exhibited at Hiram Butler Gallery. 

1996: The MFAH acquires The Peter Blum Edition Archive, 1980-1994, which brings the museum’s total Turrell holdings up to 137 prints, proofs and related books by the artist; Turrell’s drawings again are shown at Hiram Butler Gallery.

1997: Benefactors Isabel B. and Wallace S. Wilson step forward, and the MFAH commissions The Light Inside for its new museum tunnel connecting the Law and Beck. Construction begins two years later.

1998: The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston presents “James Turrell: Spirit and Light.”

2000: The Light Inside opens with the inauguration of the Audrey Jones Beck Building on March 25. 

2001: The Live Oak Friends Meeting, a Quaker meeting house with a Turrell skyspace, opens.

2002: Turrell’s 1990 photograph Site Plan Roden Crater enters the MFAH as a part of The Manfred Heiting Collection. Peter Marzio and James Turrell begin discussions about the MFAH hosting a major retrospective.

2003-2008: Conversations about the retrospective continue. After Michael Govan joins LACMA as director’s in 2006 and Richard Armstrong comes on as Guggenheim director in 2008, the three museums agree to an almost unprecedented triple showing of Turrell’s art in 2013.

2006: Turrell’s graphics showcased at the MFAH in “Singular Multiples: The Peter Blum Edition Archive 1980-1994.”

2007: “James Turrell: Still Light” exhibited at Hiram Butler Devin Borden Gallery. The MFAH acquires the Still Light Portfolio of eight aquatints.

2008: The MFAH purchases the seminal projection Acro (Green), 1968.

2009: Turrell suggests that the MFAH purchase “Vertical Vintage,” 12 light-based installation works spanning 1967 – 2010.

2010: “James Turrell: First Light” shown at Hiram Butler Devin Borden Gallery. The MFAH board approves the purchase of “Vertical Vintage.” This acquisition is funded by a substantial gift from the estate of Isabel Wilson in memory of Peter Marzio.

2012: Turrell’s third public commission in Houston opens — Twilight Epiphany, the Suzanne Deal Booth Centennial Pavilion at Rice University. “James Turrell: Six Holograms” exhibited at Hiram Butler Gallery.

2013: “James Turrell: The Light Inside” retrospective unveils at the MFAH.

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