James Turrell interview

“This used to be my studio!” announces James Turrell to the customers of Starbucks in Ocean Park, Santa Monica. The coffee drinkers seem nonplussed. Little do they know that this white-haired, extravagantly bearded figure has a triumvirate of retrospectives this summer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Guggenheim Museum, New York, as well as a solo exhibition at LA’s Kayne Griffin Corcoran gallery.

Turrell is widely known for his Skyspaces – specially built galleries, follies and pavilions in which holes in the ceiling isolate rectangles or ellipses of sky. Viewers often sit in contemplation for hours, especially at dusk, when the changes in light are most pronounced. One of his most famous Skyspaces is a circular stone shelter in Kielder Forest, Northumberland; another, at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, is made of wood.

Other Turrell installations exist only in galleries, and use artificial light. He progressed from works such as “Afrum (White)” (1966), in which light from a slide projector conjures a white cube hovering in the corner of a room, to the more recent “Space Division Constructions”, including “St Elmo’s Breath” (2013), in which a rectangular void of colour is cut into the wall like a monochrome painting.

“Generally we use light to illuminate other things,” says Turrell. “I like the thingness, the materiality of light itself. So it feels like it’s occupying the space, making a plane, being something that was there, not just passing through. Because light is just passing through. I make these spaces that seem to arrest it for our perception.”

In addition, the 70-year-old artist is still hard at work on his magnum opus, the Roden Crater. He spotted the extinct volcano near Arizona’s Painted Desert while flying over it in his single-engine plane in 1974, and purchased it five years later. Turrell has enhanced the crater with chambers and tunnels from which visitors will be able to witness the changing effects of solar and celestial light. He acknowledges the ambition of the project when he compares it to ancient monuments including Abu Simbel in Egypt and Newgrange in Ireland.

Turrell rented the Ocean Park studio from 1965 to 1974, after completing his studies in perceptual psychology at Pomona College and before decamping permanently to Arizona. “This street is so gentrified now,” he observes. “There were a few stores, but many were not rented. This was the last poor white beach in California.” Were these here, I ask him, motioning to the vast ficus trees that shade the busy street. “I planted the trees with Cho Kawai! And Sam Francis paid for them. He gave us uniforms, to make us look official. Mine said ‘Marv’ on it.” Kawai and Francis were artist compatriots of Turrell; of the three, Francis was the only painter, and hence the only one successful enough to finance their horticultural foray.

‘Afrum (White)’, 1966

In the 1960s, painting dominated the art scene in Los Angeles. Richard Diebenkorn made his famous “Ocean Park” series of abstract paintings in a studio building formerly occupied by Francis. Turrell, however, did not make paintings. Nor did he make sculptures. Instead, as part of the “Light and Space” movement that included West Coast artists Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler and Maria Nordman, he was one of the pioneers of installation art. Turrell’s artworks employed as their medium light itself, and, at first, demanded to be viewed in situ. (His first Skyspace, a rectangle cut into the ceiling of his studio, nearly got him evicted.)

Was there resistance, initially, to this new form of art? “Los Angeles didn’t have resistance,” Turrell replies. “I would describe Los Angeles as actually not having taste. In New York there’s taste. But you have to remember that taste is censorship. It’s a form of restriction.” In Los Angeles, he says, “there wasn’t any party line so you could do what you wanted.”

Like many Californian artists – and indeed like painters from Caravaggio to Vermeer, Turner to Monet – Turrell’s foremost preoccupation was light. As we squint in the abundant Pacific sunshine, he recalls how he was, ironically, more interested in the traffic lights and the taillights of passing cars outside his studio than by the sun. He turned his studio into a camera obscura that projected these events on to its walls at night.

One of Turrell’s Skyspaces, ‘Twilight Epiphany’, 2012

“We weren’t made for this light,” he says. “We’re made for the light of a cave, and for twilight. Twilight is the time we see best. When we dim the light down, and the pupil opens, feeling comes out of the eye like touch. Then you really can feel colour, and experience it.

“There’s truth in light,” he explains. “You can tell what elements a star is composed of and the temperature at which it burns by the light it gives off. The same way that, when I was young, you could walk by someone’s apartment and it would be illuminated only by a TV. In those days there were only about seven television stations, so you could see from the changes in the colours what station they were watching.”

Even while he was making his first camera obscura and cutting holes in the roof, Turrell was fascinated by advances in technology and science. In 1968 he collaborated with Irwin and the experimental psychologist Ed Wortz on experiments in sensory deprivation, biofeedback and the Ganzfeld effect – an experience in which the subject is immersed in an undifferentiated field of light, as if floating in a cloud. His retrospective at Lacma includes a new “Ganzfeld” installation entitled “Breathing Light” – a 5,000 sq ft, edgeless ovoid volume into which visitors can walk and experience pure colour, controlled by digitally programmed LEDs. At the Guggenheim, Turrell will unveil one of his most complex pieces to date, “Aten Reign”, which will fill the museum’s rotunda with a succession of vertically receding ellipses illuminated by both LEDs and natural light.

“When I was living here, we were going to the moon! I thought this would all be coming much earlier,” says Turrell of the new possibilities in technology. Today he has design studios in the US and in Europe that assist him with ever more ambitious installations. His private commissions, which typically involve architectural Skyspaces built in collectors’ homes or gardens, may take years to develop and cost millions of dollars. His largest recent work is “Agua de Luz”, a Mayan-inspired stepped pyramid in the Yucatán Peninsula, completed in 2012 for Mexican patrons Claudia Madrazo and Roberto Hernández.

Turrell, whose minimalism and spirituality is often attributed to his Quaker heritage, has come a long way from projecting lights on his studio wall. He is represented in blue-chip galleries around the world, including Gagosian in London and Pace in New York. I ask him whether he is conflicted over his work’s commerciality, when the dematerialisation of the art object was, for many of his peers in the 1960s, a political stance against the art market. “I didn’t feel I was doing anything dematerialised,” he responds. “I felt as if I was materialising something ... I wanted people to treasure light. We treasure things, and property, and gold. But now it’s proven that you can make light property also.”

The artist in front of the Roden Crater, which he owns, in Arizona

Turrell’s exhibition in Houston will be based around the museum’s unparalleled collection of the artist’s work, as well as a permanent installation he made for the building in 1999, a tunnel of coloured light he called “The Light Inside”. In LA, the retrospective will chart the development of Turrell’s oeuvre from his early Mendota studio projections to new sculptures, including a darkened metal sphere (a “Perceptual Cell”) for which visitors must book private 12-minute sessions.

Fans of Turrell’s work, however, are impatient to hear the latest news from the Roden Crater. Photographs and plans of the project will be included in both the LA and Houston exhibitions, as well as in his show at Kayne Griffin Corcoran, but for now the crater itself remains off-limits to the public.

Turrell’s late-life surge in activity is related, in part, to his determination to finish the project. “From 2008 on it was really hard to raise any money. We went back into a somnolent state, and are now awakening again.” He acknowledges that it’s grown far beyond the vision he had for it in 1974. “If there’s a lesson, it’s to give the money to the artist when they have the idea, otherwise the idea gets more complicated and more expensive!”

‘James Turrell: A Retrospective’, Lacma, May 26-April 6 2014, www.lacma.org;

‘James Turrell: The Light Inside’, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 9-September 22, www.mfah.org;

‘James Turrell’, Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 21-September 25, www.guggenheim.org;

‘Sooner than Later, Roden Crater’, Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles, May 25-July 20, www.kaynegriffincorcoran.com

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