James Turrell: A Retrospective

February 7, 2015
James Turrell, Afrum (White), 1966, cross-corner projection: projected light. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © James Turrell. Photograph © Florian Holzherr.
James Turrell, Afrum (White), 1966, cross-corner projection: projected light. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © James Turrell. Photograph © Florian Holzherr.

Light is the crucial element for almost every great painter, from Caravaggio to Turner to Monet. Manipulating paint on canvas to convincingly reproduce the effects of sunshine or darkness is a skill that separates the master from the amateur. In Australian art one thinks of the blaze of light in Streeton’s early paintings, or the subtle shadows of William Robinson’s rainforest pictures.

Many artists have tried to go the next step and eliminate the medium, creating works with pure light. No-one has been more ambitious in this regard than Californian, James Turrell (b. 1943), whose international reputation is now up in the stratosphere. It may not be the high point of Turrell’s career to be given a retrospective at the National Gallery Of Australia in Canberra, but it is extremely rare for any contemporary artist to be the subject of a ‘blockbuster’ at an Australian museum.

James Turrell, Sight Unseen, 2013, Ganzfeld: LED light. Villa e Collezione Panza, Varese (Italy). © James Turrell. Photograph © Florian Holzherr.

James Turrell, Sight Unseen, 2013, Ganzfeld: LED light. Villa e Collezione Panza, Varese (Italy). © James Turrell. Photograph © Florian Holzherr.

One remarkable aspect of James Turrell: A Retrospective, is that it runs for more than seven months, not finishing until 28 June. One suspects this is not an unprecedented tribute to the artist, but a testimony to the state in which retiring director, Ron Radford, has left the NGA. With money squandered on plundered Indian sculptures, and a profligate attitude to acquisitions in general. One gets the impression of an institution short on funds and ideas.

Incoming director, Gerard Vaughan, has a big job ahead, separating the sound acquisitions from the dodgy ones. His next task will be to reignite the NGA’s capacity to initiate quality exhibitions. Too many shows over the past few years have been concocted in haste, with an abundance of hype concealing a fundamental lack of substance.

The Turrell retrospective is one of the NGA’s bolder initiatives, although it’s unlikely to be a crowd-puller. Those who go will almost certainly be impressed, but it will not be easy to draw people to Canberra to see work by an unfamiliar artist. Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic but the likely scenario is one of those unhappy races in which the revenue from attendances barely keeps pace with the cost of advertising.

Another startling realisation is the high percentage of the show that has been acquired for the NGA’s permanent collection. Why so many? It must have been one of those ‘captain’s picks’ we keep hearing about.

None of this should detract from the unique experience of Turrell’s work, which would be as much at home in a science museum as an art gallery. I saw a larger version of this retrospective at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art at the end of 2013. The NGA show manages to capture most of the major strands, with the exception of those installations in which the viewer enters a pitch-dark room and waits for about five minutes for an image to appear, as the retina slowly adjusts.

One addition to the display is a “perceptual cell” called Bindu Shards (2010), which resembles an elaborate medical imaging machine. A volunteer lies on a bed and is sent into a spherical chamber in which he or she undergoes a 15-minute cycle that includes “high-speed flashing, ever-changing patterns of stars, crystals, galaxies, quasars and nebulae.” I’m relying on curator, Lucina Ward’s description, as a session must be booked well in advance of a visit.

James Turrell, Bindu shards, 2010. Perceptual cell: fiberglass and metal. Light program 420.8 x 653.1 x 607.1 cm (sphere) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2014 Image: National Gallery of Australia

James Turrell, Bindu shards, 2010. Perceptual cell: fiberglass and metal. Light program 420.8 x 653.1 x 607.1 cm (sphere) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2014
Image: National Gallery of Australia

This apparatus is among the works acquired by the NGA, so there may be opportunities to experience an altered state, even after the exhibition.

Turrell has been referred to as an artist who sculpts in light. His earliest experiments were conducted from 1966-74, in the Mendota, an abandoned hotel in Santa Monica. He began by staging projections in a darkened room, before creating apertures in the walls, turning the building into a gigantic pin-hole camera.

The NGA is showing a number of these pieces, which are just as arresting today as they must have been in the late 1960s. One enters a darkened room to be confronted with a luminous, geometric shape suspended in a corner. The shape appears to be three-dimensional, although we soon realise this is only an illusion.

James Turrell, Shanta II (blue) 1970 Cross-corner construction: fluorescent light, built space Dimensions variable: 106.6cm (max height of aperture) – National Gallery of Australia

James Turrell, Shanta II (blue) 1970 Cross-corner construction: fluorescent light, built space Dimensions variable: 106.6cm (max height of aperture) – National Gallery of Australia

Such studied ambiguity is typical of the work that follows. We stand in a room gazing at a brightly coloured rectangle suspended in air. It’s not apparent whether we are looking at a projection or a rectangular space cut into a flat surface. Viewers are always trying to get a little closer to Turrell’s floating shapes, as if one had to touch his light effects to make sure they are not solid.

We get a better taste of the action in Virtuality squared (2014), part of a series called Ganzfields. These pieces allow viewers to walk up a set of steps and into an immersive colour installation. Look ahead and one sees a rectangle of bright turquoise, look behind for a complementary shade of orange. The colours change slowly, taking us through an eight-minute cycle. This is the largest and most absorbing piece in this survey, but Turrell is capable of working on a much grander scale.

Although his installations use minimal means they can occupy vast spaces, the ultimate example being his ongoing work on Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in the Arizona desert. Turrell bought the crater in 1977 and has been renovating it ever since, turning it into an underground observatory that tracks the movements of the sun, moon and stars. With a base that he estimates as “the size of Manhattan”, it is the world’s largest work of art. Turrell declines to set an end date, but he has produced such detailed plans the project could now be completed without him. The estimated cost of construction is US$20 million.

No Turrell show is complete without an extensive section on Roden Crater, including photographs, diagrams, maps, prints and models. It’s fascinating but also frustrating, because one would like to physically experience the crater itself, not simply look at the photos.

This is the case with the majority of Turrell’s works, which are dull to describe but magical to experience first-hand. A series of works called Skyspaces are architectural projects with an opening that frames the sky, creating a window through which we witness the passages of the sun and moon, the effects of weather, and the colours of dawn and dusk. There are now 86 of these pavilions in 29 countries, including Within without, installed on the grounds of the NGA in 2010. Most of these structures draw on archaic forms of architecture such as pyramids and Buddhist stupas. Within without combines both of these templates, featuring a domed interior surrounded by a square mound covered in greenery.

James Turrell , Within without, 2010 Skyspace: lighting installation, concrete and basalt stupa, water, earth, landscaping National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © James Turrell photograph: John Gollings

James Turrell , Within without, 2010 Skyspace: lighting installation, concrete and basalt stupa, water, earth, landscaping National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © James Turrell photograph: John Gollings

It’s a serene, meditative space that has the atmosphere of a temple while remaining resolutely secular. This mixture reflects Turrell’s own origins in a Quaker community that allowed for acts of unprogrammed worship to be conducted in silence. He points out that the Quakers have also been referred to as “the children of light”.

Although Turrell is more closely aligned with science than religion his work has a powerful sense of the sacred, tapping into a deep-rooted need in the human psyche. Even the most fervent atheists and sceptics may be moved by the experience of nature or the spectacle of the stars at night. Turrell distills that feeling into a series of simple, pure works that have an uplifting effect on the senses, making us pause and become alert to the slightest changes in perception.

I thought of Turrell last week when I saw an exhibition of work by an artist with whom he is often compared – Mark Rothko. Among the Abstract Expressionists, Rothko is usually held to be the most spiritually profound of artists. Yet the show I viewed at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, felt flat and depressing. This is partly because the acrylics that Rothko used are slowly deteriorating and losing their translucency, but also because there is a misery that became chronic as the artist grew more famous and more introverted. Turrell, by contrast, is using materials that can never fade, in installations that dispel and penetrate darkness. He is the ideal artist for a world riven with religious hatred that still feels the need for transcendence.

James Turrell: A Retrospective
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Until 28 June 2015

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 7th February, 2015