My favorite artist and a living legend is coming to the Guggenheim in 2013. Gird your loins.
I only have one question for Turrell: How much acid have you consumed?
Here’s the Interview interview:
In the 1960s, by manipulating light rather than paint or sculptural material, James Turrell introduced an art that was not an object but an experience in perception. It examined the very nature of seeing. Over the next half century, Turrell has become known not only for his light projections and installations but especially for his continued work for more than three decades on his Roden Crater project—the conversion of a natural volcanic crater on the edge of the Painted Desert in northern Arizona into one of the most ambitious artworks ever envisioned by a single artist.
A pilot and rancher, and conversant not only in art, but equally in science, literature, history, and religion, the 68-year-old Turrell is one of the most multifaceted artists of our time. Having known his work since my own art studies in the 1970s and ’80s, I first met him when I became director of the Dia Art Foundation in 1994. Dia had been instrumental in helping Turrell begin work on Roden Crater but the organization soon abandoned the project for lack of funds. My intention was to rekindle Dia’s support for that artwork, which seemed to epitomize Dia’s founding focus on singular epic-scale artistic vision. Roden Crater is still under construction today, and I now maintain a support role from the vantage point of Los Angeles, where Turrell’s ideas and art first emerged. In fact, one could argue that Turrell’s upbringing in Southern California, as well as his religious rearing as a Quaker, play a large role in his work. But to limit the works to biography is to risk missing their purity and emotional resonance.
Currently, I am co-curating a retrospective exhibition on Turrell, which will be on view at my own Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2013, as well as at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. In the meantime, the prolific artist is appearing in a number of shows—including an installation at this summer’s Venice Biennale, and his first solo exhibition in Russia at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow.
Turrell helped nurture my own interest in aviation. This past May, after work on a clear evening in Southern California, I flew my own tiny airplane to Flagstaff and talked with Turrell at a famous Route 66 establishment, the Little America truck stop and hotel, not far from his nonstop work-in-progress,Roden Crater.
MICHAEL GOVAN: Everyone has trouble describing your work in words, because it is wordless work. Often, it’s been spoken about—and you’ve spoken about it—as making light palpable. But the more time I spend with the work, the more I really do feel that it’s about seeing.
JAMES TURRELL: It’s about perception. For me, it’s using light as a material to influence or affect the medium of perception. I feel that I want to use light as this wonderful and magic elixir that we drink as Vitamin D through the skin—and I mean, we are literally light-eaters—to then affect the way that we see. We live within this reality we create, and we’re quite unaware of how we create the reality. So the work is often a general koan into how we go about forming this world in which we live, in particular with seeing.
GOVAN: That’s one of the things that I always come away with. We often forget we are making all of this—all that we see in the world and in your work. Your work is very viewer-centered.
Turrell: Yes, otherwise it doesn’t really exist.
GOVAN: You studied psychology when you were in college in the 1960s at Pomona College in Los Angeles.
TURRELL: The psychology of perception.
GOVAN: When did it make sense to bring that psychology of perception into art?
TURRELL: I had an interest in art through several friends, [artist] Mark Wilson and Richard White, both of whom went to Yale [University School of Art]. I was hoping to get into Cooper Union [for the Advancement of Science and Art] at the time but was not accepted. So they were very influential, along with the teachers [at Pomona College], Maury Cope and, in
particular, Jim Demetrion. Demetrion was very interested in getting males involved in thinking about art, and he sort of attracted males to art classes because he thought that’s where the best females were. This he totally denies. That denial is perhaps even true, but at least that’s what we all thought at that time. [laughs]. And it was true because some of the nicest-looking and most interesting females were in these art classes. So we went there, and what we all thought would be an easy grade turned out to be quite tough. We were sort of seduced into this, and then we actually had to perform and learn the stuff.
GOVAN: Was that the moment it clicked for you?
TURRELL: Again, I had an interest in art, but my first interest was actually in light. I was always fascinated by light. Just like there are children who love fire, so they want to be firemen. If you love light, what do you do with it? One thing is that the history of light is littered with paintings about light. Like the great light school in Holland. And you have Constable and Turner, not to mention all the impressionists. Then there’s the more emotional, southern view of light, where you have Caravaggio, Velázquez, and Goya. I bought Goya’s Caprichoswhen I sold my boat. I had built a large boat that I didn’t complete, and I sold it and bought those, and that actually sponsored my beginnings in art. I made a little money on owning those prints. That affected my making Emblemata [a limited-edition black-and-white artist’s book on light forms, 2000], and in particular the First Light [a series of aquatint prints whose subject is the first body of light works, theProjection series (begun in 1967), which reproduce the bright form of light as it contacts the wall plane, 1989-90], and, even more so, Still Light [a series of aquatint prints that continue the examination of the effect of light projections by revealing the quality of light released into the space of a room, 1990-91]. So this interest in light became fused with the psychology of perception. If you take blue paint and yellow paint and you mix them, you get green paint. But if you take blue light and yellow light and mix them, you get white light. This is a shock to most people. But I was interested in math as well. Euclidian geometry is wonderful, but you can’t hit the Moon with Euclidian geometry. You have to use Riemannian geometry where in space the curved line is the closest between two points. You realize that you have to go to this next level if you’re going to talk about seeing. You have to talk about light, and not just light reflected off the surface, which has to do with painting. Rather than making something about light, I wanted something that was light, and that’s the biggest difference.
GOVAN: By doing that in the field of art, you just take the middle man out of it, right? You take away the paint and the sculpture, and for you, it’s simply directness.
TURRELL: Yes. [Art critic] Nancy Marmer wrote a very good piece about this idea to get rid of the object, and it had to do also with a political statement about value and worth and things like that. The truth is, I wanted people to treasure light as we treasure gold, silver, and, of course, paintings. And I’ve used light to construct an architecture of space—in the sense that if you think of how we look at night and day, when daylight’s the atmosphere, we can’t see through it to see the stars that are there. So generally, we use light to illuminate or to reveal, but light also obscures. I look at light as a material. It is physical. It is photons. Yes, it exhibits wave behavior, but it is a thing. And I’ve always wanted to accord to light its thing-ness. That was very important to me to do.
GOVAN: Is it fair to say that this interest in light had something to do with growing up in Los Angeles? I make the analogy sometimes that if you look at European paintings, you can see a difference in the work painted in Venice by Tintoretto, Titian, and Veronese, and their obsession with light. You can’t help but connect that to the omnipresent light in Venice as it’s reflected on the water.
TURRELL: Yes, but at the same time, you have Turner and Vermeer. They were in places where really amazing displays of light were rare, and so they treasured that. It can work both ways. In general, in the societies in Europe, it more often happened where light was rare. And then, when they got successful, of course, they went to the South of France. [laughs]
GOVAN: So they could have it every day—which is like Los Angeles.
TURRELL: Yes. This is what happened with L.A. [laughs] But you have to remember, when I came into L.A., L.A. was really exciting as this place that was involved in [outer] space. The rockets were shot off from Cape Canaveral [Florida] and they were controlled in Houston from the Lyndon Johnson Space Center. But almost everything was made in Southern California. That optimism of the space race and of aviation and of this venture into the skies really happened in L.A. And it was a time of tremendous optimism. [Artist] Bob Irwin and I worked on the Spacelab with Ed Wortz. [In 1968 and 1969, Turrell and Irwin worked on the Art and Technology program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with Ed Wortz, a scientist at a Southern California aerospace firm called Garrett Corporation]. We did this, and we were involved in the training of astronauts. This was quite a heady time.
GOVAN: So L.A. was an environment not just because of its physical quality of light, but because of that obsession of the aerospace industry with space and light.
TURRELL: Yes. And my father had some involvement with that kind of work too [Turrell’s father was an aeronautical engineer and educator], although not when I was alive. So I had some of that in my family. It was absorbed almost as revisionist history from my father’s library, which I did inherit.
GOVAN: Your father’s library was a library of aviation and space. That was a huge influence in itself. I like that we can reverse “light and space” as your art is sometimes referred to, to be about “space and light,” because now we are talking about space as something other than just physical space—it’s outer space.
TURRELL: There is the idea of how you make space within space, or this architecture of space created with light. You see that when you fly. Sometimes you’ll see a contrail, and a shadow comes down and it makes this division all the way from that contrail down to the earth. You see that plane of the shadow. That’s where I got into things like doing those planes like in the Wedgework series [rooms that have been constructed so that light falls in a way that divides the space along diagonal planes], or in particular in Virga [a site-specific work from Veils, which are variations on spatial division by means of artificial light, 1974]—those are directly out of that. It is sometimes difficult to do these things on a small scale. It objectifies too much if it’s too small. I like the quality where it seems like it’s ephemeral, but then it makes a solidity. That requires space. Now, we had cheap space for studios in L.A. back then. I rented a whole building [the former Mendota Hotel] for $125 a month. That seemed like a lot at that time . . .