Rise, 2002. Photo: Courtesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

Into the Light: A Conversation with James Turrell

The retrospective exhibition “James Turrell: Into the Light,” on view through April 2003 at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, showcases Turrell’s life-long investigations of light, space, and perception, including three pieces from the Mattress Factory’s permanent collection and models from his monumental Roden Crater Project. The show also features outdoor daylight works such as Sky Space (an antechamber constructed for viewing the sky and its subtle atmospheric changes at all times of the day and night), projection pieces with artificial and natural light, and “perception cells,” chambers that can be entered for perceptual experience (such as Gasworks, an optic light chamber shaped like a gas tank).

Gard Blue, 1968-2002. Photo: Courtesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

Turrell has been working with light and space since the mid-1960s, when he began using natural gas to create flat flames. He has used projected light to create perceptions of solid forms and employed artificial light to create various perceptions of light’s presence. Since the late 1970s he has been constructing a series of observation spaces on and in Roden Crater, a 390,000-year-old volcanic crater with a 600-foot-high red cinder cone. Located approximately 50 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, it overlooks the enigmatic expanses of the Painted Desert.

Turrell’s work induces introspection, prompting observers to look at their own viewing processes. His inquiries incite us to pause and probe our inner selves and encourage us to reconsider our own connection to and comprehension of the outside world.

Elaine A. King: I read that you are a Quaker. Has religion played a role in shaping your work?

James Turrell: I was raised a Quaker, and now I have come back to being active. I’m not sure whether that has impacted my art-making, because my work is not about specific issues—perhaps being a Quaker influences how I live my life and what I value. People tend to relate any work in light to the spiritual. I don’t think this is actually correct, yet, in terms of our lives, we greet light in three major ways that aren’t necessarily partitioned. There is a psychological aspect, a physical aspect, and a spiritual aspect. In terms of the physical, we drink light as Vitamin D, so it’s literally a food that has a major effect on our well-being. The strong psychological effects of light can readily be felt in particular spaces. One can feel this in Gasworks—it expresses the powerful quality of light. In terms of the spiritual, there are very few religious or spiritual experiences that people don’t use the vocabulary of light to describe.

EAK: Your work also focuses on an architectural relationship between perception and space.

JT: I’m interested in delving into and exploring the architecture of space created by light. Mostly we have dealt with space by displacement or massing of form. While there is an architectural vocabulary referring to the space between, this has rarely been enlivened—it’s more rhetorical than actual. The art that I make covers this ground between form and actually forming space using light. For example, when the sun is shining, we see atmosphere—we can’t see through the atmosphere to see the stars that are there. The same applies if you are on a stage with footlights and stage lighting—you can’t see the audience. However, if you step in front of the footlights, the audience is revealed. The space is architecturally the same, but the location of the light actually changes the penetration of vision such that some people see each other and others cannot. It is a structured space without a massing of form. This quality of working the space in between so that it limits or expands the penetration of vision is something that intensely fascinates me.

It means that the containing form has to be made somewhat neutral. What you’re looking at is that in-between zone, not formed or made by the massing of material. This has a lot of ties to architecture, but not the sort of architecture that we use to build everyday structures. It certainly isn’t how we light our buildings. Architects make a form and then they stick the lights in.

Gasworks, 1993. Photo: Courtesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

EAK: What criteria determine the structural configuration in relation to the selected hue or tone?

JT: That actually has changed over the years. I make this work for an idealized viewer. You might say that’s me. The idealized viewer has changed and matured. He has become more circumspect. Color has to do with the kind of work I’m doing—whether I want opacity or translucency or transparency. How I want it to penetrate or to be stopped. The milky colors of a Japanese kimono are very subtle; in contrast, Korean culture evinces a brilliance of color with very deep saturation. I work between those two approaches—each has enlightened me. It’s very different in light than with physical material; the first and most important thing one needs to do is to throw away the color wheel, because it provides misinformation. If you’re going to work with light, you need to learn the spectrum. We’re making an immense mistake by moving the color wheel into the computer. If you mix blue and yellow with the earth, which makes pigment and reflects color, you’re going to get something near green. But if you mix blue and yellow with light you’ll get white, which surprises most people. We really need to look at the spectrum and have a different way of thinking about light. In general, we’re a surface culture and tend to look at and speak about reflected light because of our tradition of painting.

EAK: How did you begin to use light as a medium?

JT: The history of art is a history of looking at light. Perhaps being American, I was interested in a less vicarious form that actually used light itself. I started out by dealing with a picture plane and the traditional presentation of light in painting. I can remember Malevich talking about how the paint was on the surface like the thinnest of membranes. If you put light on the surface, it’s even thinner. But plastically, it’s very effective in terms of the space it creates in front of it or beyond it. That was really a way to look at a more direct perception: rather than being something that’s about light, it is light. The light is actually turned and directed right to your eyes. The light inside that space is invasive and penetrating. This direct experience of light is the difference between watching football and playing it. I think that we’re an active culture in that respect, and
so it was an easy step for me.

Orca, 1967, as installed in 1998. Photo: Courtesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

EAK: Have your experiences as a pilot inspired your general fascination with light?

JT: Yes, absolutely. The flight experiences were memorable and influential. When you actually get down to the practical, how to do it, you have to see how light works in space. When you are flying you get acute insights into how light functions.

EAK: Do you think that the infinite horizons of sky contribute to your need to work on a larger scale?

JT: A lot has to do with where light is and where it isn’t. The way I work with light requires space. This was the biggest difference in approach between East Coast and West Coast artists’ attitudes in the 1970s. I make work that luxuriates in space, and it takes up a lot of space.

I need room because of how light works in a space. Close-up inspection with light is very difficult—it becomes more of an object light. My work has more to do with “thingness” than most things do. That is, my work questions what it takes to make a thing, whereas others don’t attempt to raise the issue. That’s the most sculptural way it is. Basically, I don’t think I work with sculpture because it feels to me to be coming out of a painter’s eye in three dimensions. So, in terms of questioning what is something that is, what makes this object quality, I deal with that issue, whereas most artists just assume it. They have a thing, and they make a thing. They are making a thing out of something. I’m making something out of a thing we don’t normally attribute thingness to.

EAK: You make something from nothing—an illusion?

JT: Yes; however, I don’t think it’s all that illusory. Although light exhibits wave phenomena, nevertheless it is a thing—it is optical material. But we don’t treat it as such. Instead we use it very casually to illuminate other things. I’m interested in the revelation of light itself and that it has thingness. It alludes to what it is, which is not exactly illusion.

I’ll give you an example. We tend to think the sun rises. In fact, the earth is actually sinking or spinning down the other way. You probably have been in a train when the train next to you moves, and you feel like you’re moving, but you’re not. It just appears that way. At Roden Crater, I have one space where I remove all reference to level, so your only frame of reference is the stars in a circular opening. Actually it’s elliptical but you see it as circular. That’s your frame of reference, so the strange thing is that you feel yourself tilting in reference to the stars. You can say this is an illusion, but that’s actually what’s happening. To get that sensation you have to have a different quality of light in there. In that way, they’re not illusions, because that’s actually reality.

EAK: In 1966 you leased the Mendota Hotel in Ocean Park. For two years you sealed up its rooms, painted out the windows, closed off its doors. This pivotal work became known as the Mendota Stoppages.

JT: That is where I made the first series of projection works. When you seal up a space, it can get a little stuffy, and if you open anything, light will come into this perfectly bare room in a very strong and amazing way. I then began to open up the space, particularly at night, to different areas of light. All forms of light were available—the path of the moon, cars, street lights, and shop lights. I made a series of spaces where I could change the space by virtue of how I let in light. I literally made a whole new space out of the same physical space, which remained the same, although that’s not what you encountered perceptually. The example I like to give is the experience of sound when you are wearing good earphones or have a good stereo system. You find yourself in a music space that’s larger than the physical space you’re in. It’s the same when you’re reading: you become so engrossed in the book that you’re more in the space generated by the author than you are in the physical space where you are sitting. This extension to so-called “real” space is the space that we operate in all the time. Just look next to you at the stoplight and see that kid rocking back and forth with the music on. Is he in the same space you are? I don’t think so.

This extension to the physical, awake state, a kind of daydream space that we superimpose on it, is the space that we should really discuss, because it’s actually the space of our reality. The arts, without a doubt, extend these spaces, whether it’s in literature or in music or visual art.

Amba, 1982. Photo: Courtesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

EAK: Were the experiments at the Mendota Hotel the beginning of your journey into researching light?

JT: The beginning of my lifetime investigation of light began in those Mendota spaces, but more specifically with the Projection Series. It was the ability to change the space itself by how light enters from the outside that began to extend my ideas and art practice. It also spread into its space-making abilities in terms of seeing the physical confines as having little to do with the space that you could involve and activate. The more architecture begins to do this—and there are a lot of ways to activate that, not just with light—the more it will extend our being. Right now, architecture is caught up in fashionable signature structures.

EAK: Several site artists from the time you began working, including Robert Irwin, Michael Heizer, and Robert Smithson, felt that science and technology propelled them to look beyond the earth.

JT: In the late ’60s, I became interested in James J. Gibson’s idea of ecological psychology. Learning to work with this material, light, to affect the medium of perception was something that I had to get used to. My technology is extremely simple. My work might inform a scientist about art, but it doesn’t in any way raise notions of science or technology.

Light is something that I had to learn how to mold and form, because it isn’t formed with the hand like clay or hot wax. It’s more like sound. You make instruments to create what you want. I learned to do that by trial and error. I used a big projector and at first, it was really hard to form and control light. Gradually, I began to understand light as a substance that I could shape. I could see the evolution in the work. However, neither science nor technology actually influenced how I learned to work this material. The late ’60s and early ’70s were a contradictory time. On one hand, we were going to the moon, and anything was possible. On the other hand, despite technological advancements and euphoric attitudes, we were conducting a war in Vietnam and my generation was up in protest.

Also, artists were zealously idealistic in thinking that people were going to buy and collect ephemeral work. There were a lot of losses along the way for artists who had amazing and wonderful talent but nowhere to actualize their ideas.

View of Roden Crater, Arizona. Photo: Courtesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

EAK: What expectations do you have of the viewer?

JT: I don’t have great hopes for the viewer. As I said before, I’m dealing with an idealized viewer. If you come up to that, fine. If you don’t, that’s your business not mine. Many people seek to like what they’re going to see—this is a terrible misunderstanding between artists and viewers. In no way do most artists I know seek to affirm the public’s taste. If anything, we try to push the envelope—change it, mold it, and hopefully destroy it. I don’t think you should have any other expectations than you do when you go to a movie—you go because you are interested. Think about this: we go to the doctor’s office and an hour or so later we’re still reading two-year-old magazines. Despite the wasted time and the fact that it’s going to cost you, you still patiently wait and at the appropriate time remove your clothes, lean back, and completely submit. We submit in a lot of places in our lives. If you can’t submit to art, to hell with you. You don’t have to do this, and if you don’t want to do it, don’t even ask me or bother me—I’m really not concerned. I feel that my art is genuinely benign; however, I have had problems and lawsuits. Placing work in public is risky, but artists have to do it.

EAK: Why were you sued?

JT: Someone fell to the ground in a piece at the Whitney Museum—because of the perceptual effects. It’s written up in Art Law, and it is a very interesting case. The woman who fell happened to be the wife of the Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice. Her testimony is literally this: “There was this wall, actually it was a receding wall, I leaned against it, and it wasn’t there.” I have to say that these things do have a feeling of materiality and solidity, but it still looks like light to me. They possess a quality that accords materiality to light, but I don’t think it substitutes for some opaque solid surface. I can come up with this different viewpoint partly because I don’t function in the same situation as the general public—I am the maker not the observer. This is essentially a problem shared by all people in art. There are other situations in which the actual physicality of art, whether it’s a work by Richard Serra or monumental construction by Mark di Suvero that moves, can actually injure someone. However, my work is just light and space. I think that people really ought to stand up to contemporary art. If they can’t stand up to contemporary art, what can they stand up to?

EAK: What convinced you to purchase Roden Crater?

JT: I saw it as an occasion to embark on the kind of work that I always wanted to do; its expansive site posed numberless opportunities to experiment with light and perception. I decided on it in 1976 but couldn’t buy it until 1979, when I bought an option to buy and then sought the funding. The Dia Foundation purchased it. When Dia failed for awhile, they returned the crater to me. I had to get financing for the surrounding ranch land. However, one can’t get a loan in Arizona on vacant land. So I got a loan as a cattle rancher. Curiously, I used agriculture to fund art. The Skyspace Foundation was founded so I could accept the crater portion from Dia. Now Skyspace owns the crater.

Model of Roden Crater Project, 1987. Photo: Courtesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

EAK: The crater is an extraordinary place. Its extinct cinder cone appears to be dead, yet you’ve brought new life and meaning to this barren and quiet spot. How long do you think a viewer will need to spend at Roden Crater in order to experience it beyond a superficial spectacle level?

JT: The main thing is to make a journey, so that you actually go to something purposely and have time to settle down and empty out the noise and distractions of daily life. Often we can shift gears more quickly in places such as a church or a library—perhaps because they are designated places of silence and reflection. Most people by the time they arrive at the crater are pretty well set up for it. It would be wonderful if visitors could spend at least 24 hours, but it would be better to stay longer.

EAK: When will the crater open to the public?

JT: Right now the projected date is some time next summer. I don’t know that it will be possible to stay for very long, because only a small number of people can be accommodated, and there will be a great demand by many groups wanting to visit the site. However, those things also change over time. You know how trends in contemporary art go—at first there is the barrage of interest and then gradually the newness tapers off. I don’t think that after awhile it’ll be too crowded.

EAK: When I was sitting in Skyspace I wondered why the very intense yellow light was chosen to illuminate the interior in contrast to the open sky.

JT: It is normal tungsten light that we’ve used in our houses for years. It was chosen in relation to the quality of blueness in the sky. There are different interior light choices in each of the pieces, but mainly we have the light on all the time, and you don’t notice it much during the day. But then as the light changes outside, the light inside affects the scene through this opening.

Four Models of Roden Crater Spaces. Photo: Courtesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

EAK: Will this be operative in the various chambers at Roden Crater?

JT: Only a few are like that. There are different combinations of light from inside to outside. There are places where you are changing as you come into the light, as in the dark spaces. There are places where the light is changing. There are also other places where the light inside is not changing, but the light outside is, as in Skyspace. And then there is space where everything is changing, as in Rise. I mixed it up in terms of the time-making quality. Sometimes we make the time, but other times things are slowed down, and something else makes the time. Time plays a crucial role in this work. I like things that take place over time, but then it’s interesting to know which things are stable or staying the same and what is changing. They all have that sort of a time sense, or sensibility.

EAK: Have you ever considered yourself as a type of
a shaman? People have to slow down and step into a different mind-frame if they really want to experience your work. Perhaps you are trying to show people that there’s another side of life. Is light symbolic for something other?

JT: I don’t traffic in symbolism. I’m no more a shaman than any other artist. Part of the role of the artist is to direct attention and to precipitate change.
It can also just be to make a nice piece. That is enough, definitely enough. In terms of spiritual context, I think you’ll find quite a bit of that across all the arts. Think of the work of artists and architects in constructing grand cathedrals or monuments, places such as Chartres, Notre Dame, or St. Peters. In some way, art has suffered for it a bit. Architects today get to make their cathedrals not as religious centers but as signature art museums. That’s one of the problems with religions—they’ve had this sort of brand name attached to them. Artists are dealing with different presences and powers, and this has always been true. It’s no more or less true now than at any other time.

Model of South Space at Roden Crater, 1998. Photo: Courtesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

EAK: Your work runs counter to our society’s attention span and to the art world’s need for trends.

JT: Someone has to do that. Maybe I just can’t keep up with constant change. I’m a slow guy. I like slow planes, so you can land in many places. There’s also a measure of safety if you land where you would crash. In a way, that’s true with art, too. Things that require more time give more back. I think it’s okay to take time. It seems more direct, actually.

EAK: Because of the absence of specific subject matter and your use of pure space, light, and color, some people have compared your work with that of Joseph Albers, Agnes Martin, and Mark Rothko.

JT: When you make the subject matter light and essentially use it as a pure entity, then you are showing its primal power. That is what the artists you’ve mentioned do. In Gasworks, light is the content and the form. However, if you then take light and try to use it to tell a story as film does, you lose all the power of the light.

View of East Portal, Roden Crater. Photo: Courtesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

EAK: It seems as if some of your earlier works were prototypes for the concept that architects are beginning to investigate regarding the consequence of light vis-à-vis space and form.

JT: There are some places that my work may inform architecture and is informed by architecture. I like places that you can enter and feel the presence of light permeating throughout. That bespeaks architecture, as does Plato’s cave. These things for me are analogies for perception. We are housed in the structures we create. In that way we’re like hermit crabs. We adopt one space, and then we go out and get into a movable one, a car, and we get out of that and move again into another one. It’s something humankind is very good at doing: we make shells. We are probably as aware of the shells we make in forming cities as the coral is aware of making the Great Barrier Reef. Recognizing what we are and that we have these modes of perception and protection, I’m interested in how we open those things out to perception and where we locate certain spaces within our dwellings. For instance, we tend to put the kitchen on the eastern side of the house in a single-family dwelling. I certainly am interested in what architects do. Still, I’m an artist, and I play a very different role when it comes to space, light, and structure.

View of East Portal Tunnel, Roden Crater. Photo: Courtesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

EAK: Do you feel cities might be more livable and pleasant places if more attention were given to light?

JT: Yes, and fortunately that change is slowly becoming a reality. I remember seeing mercury vapor lights when I flew over L.A., and now it’s all gone to sodium lights. The mercury vapor lights were greenish-blue, and now the illumination is a type of orange light because it’s more efficient. But it’s not a good quality of light. This will change again because of need and efficiency.

Eventually, we’ll begin employing light that actually is changeable. We’ll be able to select it knowingly, and, hopefully, traffic engineers who see light only in terms of the color wheel will not dictate city lighting in the future. It’ll be pleasant to interact with a different type of light—it will make a big difference in the comprehension of our environment, as well as our attitudes.

Elaine A. King is a freelance critic and curator.