Artist James Turrell Shines His Light in Israel

For Turrell, whose work is on display at an acclaimed new exhibition at the Israel Museum, light is the one and only medium to work with.

Ariel Krill
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James Turrell’s “Ramer Pink White” (1969).
James Turrell’s “Ramer Pink White” (1969).
Ariel Krill

“You never forget the place where you saw your first James Turrell.” So replied Brazilian designer Humberto Campana when asked about his memories of Israel, sweeping aside with one cogent sentence the Western Wall, the nightlife of Tel Aviv and all the other attractions that are constantly touted as reasons for visiting the country.

Campana was referring to “Space That Sees,” the small structure tucked away in the sculpture garden of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem: a square-shaped chamber made of Jerusalem stone, with a rectangular opening in the ceiling that reveals the sky. On the face of it, it’s hard to imagine how such a simple space could produce such an unforgettable experience. But once you enter, it’s hard to leave, so gripping is the sight of the sky, which seems to be glued to the ceiling.

“I can’t remember my first Turrell,” joked Turrell himself upon hearing the Campana story, when we talked at the Israel Museum last month following the opening of his exhibition “Light Spaces,” which runs until October 18. “I do, though, have early memories of looking at light. As a child, I was just fascinated with it, and now I simply create spaces that somehow contain it, harbor it, and arrest it for our perception.”

When it comes to the visual arts, light is the medium par excellence. It’s the medium that makes all other media – painting, sculpture and so forth – possible, for the simple reason that these are perceived first and foremost by the eye. It’s a matter of physics: Vision occurs when light enters the eye after being reflected from the object being observed. Thus, light is the basis in which all works of visual art are grounded.

“Afrum (White)” (1966). Photo by Florian Holzherr

Turrell’s breakthrough lies in his transformation of this meta-medium – light – from a fact so basic that it is almost theoretical, into a material, tangible medium; from a necessary condition of every work of art as such, into raw material from which works of art in their own right can be created.

“That’s what’s amazing about James’ work,” says James Snyder, the museum’s director, joining the conversation. “Light is his medium. This is completely revolutionary. Take J.M.W. Turner, for example. What Turner did in the 19th century was to try to invent a way to depict light, and in order to do so he dropped narrative depiction and moral message from his paintings.

“That was very courageous,” Snyder continues, “since at the time these were what art was about, these were part of the medium. And then what this guy here did, just a 100-plus years later, was, instead of looking for another way to depict light, simply use light itself as the medium.”

Turrell can only agree: “What I am basically trying to do is to work with light and with our reaction to it and our looking at it without seeing all else. Generally, we use light to illuminate things, but I actually appreciate the ‘thingness’ of light itself: I like to see it occupying space, as if it were a ‘thing.’”

This is the crucial point: Light is not only the raw material from which Turrell creates his works; it is also their subject matter. He does not use light in order to present us with images of something else, something that isn’t light, but in order to present us with light itself, in its full materiality. His works are divided into “Skyspaces,” such as “Space That Sees,” which employ celestial light, and installations based on man-made light, such as the five room-size works in the current exhibition.

One could have said that he sculpts in light, except that in a slightly odd way, his works are endowed with a certain painterly quality. Not only because light was always a problem that occupied painters rather than sculptors, but also at the experiential level. Despite the vast scale of his installations, which one usually enters by way of pitch-dark serpentine corridors, and even though the whole space is an integral element of each work – our gaze often focuses on only one of the walls or on the ceiling, as though a painting were hanging on it and on it alone. These reciprocal relations between two dimensions and three are the mechanics that underlie the experience Turrell’s works generate.

Jailed for a year

Brought up in a devout Quaker family, and still active in the Quaker community, Turrell grew up in Pasadena, California, where he was born in 1943. At university, he studied mathematics and perceptual psychology; thereafter, he enrolled in a graduate art program at the University of California, Irvine. In 1966, he was arrested and jailed for a year for his activities protesting the Vietnam War. After his release, he moved into an abandoned hotel in Santa Monica, where he planted the seeds that continue to nourish his work today.

He experimented with projectors and slides; painted over the hotel windows and scratched slits in the paint to allow sunlight to filter in; built double walls and hid electric light bulbs between them; cut holes in the walls and the ceiling – all in an effort to endow light with materiality, with mass. After seven years of experimenting he was evicted from the hotel, but the reputation he had acquired by then was sufficient to land him a Guggenheim fellowship.

Turrell bought a light airplane and spent seven months flying across the western United States in search of a small mountain upon which he could apply on a large scale all he had learned in the abandoned hotel. Finally he found Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in the Arizona desert near Flagstaff. He persuaded the site’s owner to sell it to him, and the Dia Art Foundation to finance the purchase.

A few years later, the foundation ran into financial difficulties, and Turrell discovered that the only way the banks would agree to loan him the money necessary to transfer the crater and the surrounding ranch to his ownership was if he bought another ranch – one that had a chance of generating a profit – as well as a third ranch situated between them. Thus, at the age of 36, he became not only an artist whose name was beginning to mean something, but the proud owner of an extinct volcano and a 155-square-mile piece of land that today feeds 2,500 head of cattle.

As for the crater, it became Turrell’s magnum opus: a grandiose work of art comprised of an extensive network of tunnels and “Skyspaces” that have been cut into the rock, each adapted specifically for viewing a different celestial phenomenon. He has been working on the crater for more than three decades, yet the date of its opening to the general public is still nowhere in sight.

The need to enhance his public profile in order to raise funds to complete the project prompted Turrell to celebrate his 70th birthday last summer with a major retrospective that spanned three venues: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The triple-headed exhibition drew critical acclaim and large numbers of visitors, and is considered by many the most important art event of the summer of 2013.

James Turrell. Photo by Florian Holzherr

According to Snyder, , the initiative to bring to the Israel Museum some of the works that were exhibited in the Los Angeles portion of the retrospective came from Turrell himself: He wanted to conclude his birthday celebrations at a place that had been one of the first to acknowledge his work. As early as 1982, the Jerusalem museum held an exhibition of his works – at the time, only his second show outside the United States. Exactly 10 years later, the museum commissioned “Space That Sees,” one of the first in his “Skyspaces” series. Today there are 82 “Skyspaces” scattered around the world. And, finally, in 1998, he returned to Israel to receive the Wolf Prize in Sculpture.

It would be wrong to read anything political into this long acquaintance with Israel. For despite his past activism, Turrell no longer voices his political opinions publicly – on any matter, not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, just as he has never acceded to calls to boycott Israel, so he did not flinch from going to Ramallah during the second intifada in order to help renovate one of the city’s two Quaker schools, which was damaged by Israeli shelling.

“It was after the Palestinians lynched two Israeli soldiers and dumped them out of a police station,” he recalls. “The Israelis rocketed the police station, which happened to share its back wall with the school. I came to help with the repairs, and I can’t say it was a pleasant experience, especially not crossing the border back to Israel. I was strip-searched and laid down on top of the hood of the car every time.”

These days, his political activity is limited to campaigning for the implementation of tighter “dark skies” ordinances around Flagstaff, in order to reduce light pollution and “keep the light of cities from diminishing our view of the sky and the stars.” Generally, he says, “I like to stay away from political involvement now, because I don’t feel like paying other people’s prices for my opinions.”

Archaeological discovery

Interviewed last year for an extensive article on Turrell in The New York Times, painter Chuck Close observed concisely, “He’s an orchestrator of experience, not a creator of cheap effects. And every artist knows how cheap an effect is, and how revolutionary an experience.” And yet the question remains: What is it that makes the Turrell experience unique?

The conversation with Turrell and Snyder returns to “Space That Sees.” “There is a feeling that the way you enter the piece is in a certain sense archaeological,” Snyder says to the artist. “The whole thing about Jerusalem is this notion of ascension: You ascend to get here, always moving closer to the sky. But you created the approach to the piece so that you descend, as if into an archaeological discovery – and that discovery is the sky.”

“It’s like Herodium,” Turrell replies, referring to the hill-shaped fortress built by Herod the Great in the Judean Desert, “or like what I am doing at Roden Crater: You don’t go up [from the foot of the hill to the top of the crater] and then down the hole, but go up [to the bottom of the crater] and into the sky through tunnels. You go inside to see out, just like in meditation – or like the old Volkswagen ad: ‘It’s bigger on the inside than on the outside.’

“In meditation you go into the cosmos your own way, through the self; you go inside to gain access to the outside. And, really, why would you go inside to see the sky? It’s all there anyway. But to have it concentrated in form in order to make it part of one’s perception – sometimes it’s good to go inside to see out.”

The comparison to meditation underlines the necessary condition for experiencing Turrell’s works: time. To flit by them means not to see them. In addition, it reflects the fact that the impact of his works is frequently described in spiritual terms, raising the question of what part religion plays in them. He is, after all, a religious man, a practicing Quaker.

Turrell, however, is not prone to talk about the connection between his art and his faith, between his lifelong devotion to light without and the central place given in Quaker doctrine to the cultivation of the divine light within. The reason, one may presume, is that he is wary of his art being all too swiftly reduced to his faith; or perhaps it is the Quakers’ injunction against preaching in favor of their religion.

“My religious nature is my own personal business,” he says. “In terms of my art, however, I am interested in bringing forth things that art can bring, that art does, whose possibility art carries within it. Art is not without its power. It’s not rock and roll, but it certainly has a place in the world.”

He does not deny, of course, that art and light have spiritual aspects, but he reiterates that his interest in light lies above all in its physicality, and maintains a healthy skepticism toward any attempt to subordinate his art to any experience exterior to it, be it spiritual or otherwise.

“Every time you use light, people are going to talk about spiritualism,” he explains, “but the big thing is that we operate in a physical world where light has a powerful physical effect. We ‘drink’ light, absorb it through our skin as Vitamin D. It’s an important food group. There is also the psychological reaction: the effect of different colors on our mood, for example. And then there is the spiritual quality: whether it’s Saul’s revelation on the road to Damascus, Elijah’s ascendancy in flames, or near-death experiences that are always described using the vocabulary of light – the spiritual is something we are all involved with, and art was at its service for a long time. Look at how it was used in Catholicism, Tibetan religion, Zen Buddhism.

“So light is present physically, psychologically and spiritually; all these aspects are operative in it. And when my art touches on the latter – I am happy to hear it. I, however, like the physicality, and think that the physical, everything that exists in this realm, can only deliver you up to the spiritual. It can’t take you into it. That’s my belief.”

Ariel Krill is a writer, translator and editor.