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James Turrell – Dividing The Light

James Turrell’s installations are made of empty, titanium white painted rooms where embedded LED and fiber-optic lights project an array of programmed changing colors on the walls. Photography is never allowed.

Others, like the one I am bringing you today called Dividing The Light, are constructions with an opening cut-out in the ceiling (skyspaces).

James Turrell, Dividing The Light, Pomona College, CA

Spectators can view the sky by day and night, observing its variable color as time progresses but also as the colors of the inside walls change.

And that’s where you almost cannot believe your eyes : seeing the sky a given shade of mid-blue one moment, how can it suddenly look grey and diaphaneous as the walls turn purplish red?

How can it shift to a darker blue when the walls go from white to yellow to brown, turning the sky almost black and opaque in the process ?

With other installations such as Breathing Light (which has unfortunately now left LACMA), Turrell in turn collapses then expands space with each color switch applied to a luminous rectangle facing viewers in a room bathed in subtly contrasting light.

A brain overload is common when looking at homogeneous fields of color for a length of time. This is called the Ganzfeld effect and results in vision confusion, possible hallucination and a « dislocating experience¹ »: this is exactly how Turrell makes the surrounding walls disappear around viewers.

Turrell’s art is neither sculpture nor painting: it is nothing tangible, if you come to think of it. So is it Minimalism on the verge of Emptiness? Is it a colorful and color-full illusion tricking you into touching a wall that you see but is not there ?

When Turrell declares his skyspaces are « a space where I want to bring the space of the sky down to the top of the space you’re in so that you feel at the bottom of the ocean of air», why is it different from the illusionistic still-lives of Memling, Chardin and Hoogstraten where your eye is tricked into wanting to touch?

Isn’t the sky brought to the plane of the skyspace’s ceiling actually more real than the « realistic » representations of objects in a still-life ? Surely, bringing the viewer closer to the sky trumps a painted recording of what was seen.

One main contention is that Turrell uses a radically different medium. His Art is made with Light and « is Light ». Hence, the sense of emptiness as light is not a visible or palpable object : we only perceive its effects. Yet, isn’t it high time that Light be given center stage in Art ? After all, without light, nobody can really appreciate any Art since it would not be revealed to us.

James Turrell, Dividing The Light, Pomona College, CA

Turrell reinstates Light and « values it as we value gold, silver, paintings, objects² ». Yet, Turrell’s Conceptual or Land Art is hard to value, buy or sell, and as such makes for more democratic viewings available to museum visitors, students on university campuses but rarely to private individuals (the exception being Jim Goldstein’s residential skyspace in LA).

Light regulates life so surely the invention of artificial light brought us more life, right? Except that in a world where seeing and breathing are underrated to the point most people are rarely aware of performing these actions, Turrell orchestrates the ultimate luxury experience for the time-depraved.

James Turrell, Dividing The Light, Pomona College, CA

His installations force the viewer to slow down to stillness, to see, look and feel what we take for granted. Perhaps the Southern California laid-back attitude percolated Turrell’s work, demanding a time commitment from viewers (« the price of admission³») instead of marching through a gallery full of paintings, barely looking. With taking the time comes the ultimate reward : « seeing ourselves seeing 4».

James Turrell, Dividing The Light, Pomona College, CA

Admittedly, this is quite an ambition for empty spaces and light bulbs to deliver… Yet Turrell’s engineering of color fields is more than a scientific light show as he managed to make optical sciences masterfully aesthetic.

James Turrell, Dividing The Light, Pomona College, CA

We know from Chevreul’s color theory (1839) that:

1/ the juxtaposition of contrasting colors makes them appear more intense than if seen individually and

2/« colors present in the field of vision at the same time mutually modify one another ».

Turrell orchestrates a tension between the colors observed and the emotional response they trigger based on « contingency». As the adjacent color changes, the spatial illusion created by the light sequence starts shifting.

According to Nancy Marmer, sustained awareness and constant contradiction are maintained between the « authentic » perception of reality produced by the installation, the realization there is illusion and the cognicent unravelling of how such distortion happened… until everything shifts again, making sure the desequilibrium is permanent.

Yet, such perceptual installation makes for a very personal and individual experience as viewers « understand their seeing », declared Turrell to Michael Govan in Interview Magazine. And as the viewer is fully involved, comes the empowering feeling that « this world that we have around us is not a world that we receive but more a world that we create and make » (Turrell).

James Turrell, Dividing The Light, Pomona College, CA

In a sense, Turrell developed the concept and promoted the viewer to being the other artist in his installation.

Drawing from the « lost horizons » Turrell experienced on flights, he suppressed the horizon line from his skyscapes while the desequilibrium caused by color fields in his installations is an attempt to « overwhelm the ability to reason5 », none other than the definition of the sublime.

By doing so, Turrell facilitates a spiritual experience reminiscent of a 3-dimensional Rothko painting. He aims at the sublime, much like J.M.W. Turner blurring the horizon line where sky and sea met in his paintings to reach beyond the merely « very beautiful », aiming to paint the « immensity » of the elements that makes « our senses no longer accurate6 ».

Similarly, Turrell triggers a very personal sensory experience which can lead the spectator towards a dynamic meditative state but he does so without being didactic. Religious paintings probably had the same sublime objective but were clearly more about imposing a given religion than getting the spectator « to the next level», which is what Art is all about according to Turrell.

By choosing light as a medium, Turrell uses its immateriality and mostly invisible nature to make viewers feel they are bypassing the medium and the artist’s interpretation of the subject all together.

As you may have gathered from this article, I am a big fan of James Turrell’s works but I would like to conclude by contrasting the vastness of Turrell’s idea and ambition with the apparent minimalism of the materials used.

Born in the Quaker faith, it would have been surprising to find Turrell’s style anything other than pared down in terms of aesthetics. His artistic development in Los Angeles in the 1960-70’s only served to reinforce his natural tendency at a time where Southern California’s light was inspiring Perceptual Art and the Light and Space movement, both fully uninterested by any prevalent art traditions.

The constant dichotomy between the intangibility of the medium and the scale of the objective as Turrell « tries to imagine how to bring (the stars) light inside a mountain7 » (at his lifetime project, Roden Crater) is transcending in many ways.

James Turrell, Dividing The Light, Pomona College, CA

It’s not about Turrell’s view of the world or a beautiful landscape he wants to immortalise as a moment to behold in the Impressionists style. Nor is it about religion or even about colors per se: I experienced Turrell’s Backside of The Moon on Naoshima Island and let’s put it this way, he found a way to blind all senses while making sure you experience 50 shades of black.

You could almost say there is no subject, much like there is no palpable object besides the viewer…Still, Turrell is aiming for the stars, a monumental undertaking achieved by « poetry out of emptiness8 ».

And as such, Turrell makes it about the viewer and his/her place within the surrounding universe. Then he selflessly tips it all inward to allow each and everyone to explore the realm of perceptions and consciousness.

There is simplicity in the sky, the light and their colors that makes for enduring appeal. This cannot be anything but Art as long as one is prepared to « welcome the light » as Turrell’s grandmother told him.

Robert Hugues saw this early, back in 1981, when he summarised Turrell’s work as such : « The art, it transpires, is not in front of our eyes. It is behind them9».

You can visit Dividing The Light on specific days and times at Pomona College. Clic the link for more information.

© 2018 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.


¹ Nancy Marmer, On Turrell at the Whitney 1980-81, from Art in America, May 1981
² ART21, 2nd meeting video,
³ Sensing Space, essays by Richard Andrews, 1982, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle
4 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
8 Time Magazine article, Robert Hugues, 1981
9 Ibid.
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