In the midst of setting up three simultaneous museum retrospectives—at the Guggenheim, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston—James Turrell sat down with Alex Bacon to discuss his beginnings as an artist and his perspectives on a range of issues: art historical, cultural, technological, aesthetic, and even ethical. The Guggenheim show closes September 25.
Alex Bacon (Rail): You are one of the first postwar American artists not to feel that you had to wrestle with painting, its history and legacy. For example, Robert Irwin spent more than a decade investigating perceptual problems on canvas before arriving at his practice of intervening in a specific site and altering it. Slightly younger than Irwin, you skipped that step and went straight to manipulating light, and working with actual space.
James Turrell: Irwin definitely came up through painting. He had a very beautiful studio, where he could be one-on-one with his paintings, in ways that many artists never are with their work. He would literally look at them, stare at them, contemplate them, for hours. He was always interested in the idea of dematerializing something into its luminous aspects. He still does this with the current re-installation of his Whitney piece from the ’70s.
For me, as a young artist I was just interested in light, I didn’t have any investment in painting. To move slowly from painting into sculpture, as the Minimalists out East did, well they had taken off the chains, but they were still European as far as I’m concerned. And that’s how I looked at it from the vantage I had on the West Coast. Painting is a European art. I wanted to do something that is uniquely ours, American, part of this new culture that we’re making, and that’s how I felt about it in the ’60s, though I don’t anymore. Those nationalistic arguments are old and over, but they were very present to someone like Clement Greenberg, and the critics of that time.
I discovered art making through my teachers at Pomona College: John Demetrion, the sculptor John Mason, and Maurice Cope, another artist. I remember that we saw art history in slides, such that the “Mona Lisa” was projected the same size as Barnett Newman’s “Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?”Often, when I saw the actual work, it felt small because I had first seen it on a screen, projected at a Newman-esque scale, and expressed in terms of light. In person, paintings often struck me as rather dull, and not very luminous, even the lines that were supposed to be.
I remember as a child, my aunt, a New Yorker, taking me to MoMA, and they were showing this light artist who made a light box, Thomas Wilfred. He used mechanics that make reflections, so in his work things are constantly changing, and that was fascinating to me. It was the only thing that seemed up-to-date. But art history is littered with artists who have dealt with light, maybe not as the work’s total subject, but certainly in creating the drama of what they depict, and you had that fantastically with Turner, of course, and Vermeer, and all of the Dutch light school, and the Impressionists, and others, like Goya and Velázquez. So light in art isn’t something new.
Rail: So you were equally, if not more, struck by the technology of the slide projections in art history class, as you were by the artworks you were seeing in person?
Turrell: Well slide projections are very low tech, even more so than some of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen techniques. As far as technology, there’s no technology there at all. But I will say about technology, and the time I came up, that it was the one time our nation had a single cultural goal, which was to go to the moon. And that may have all been controlled in Houston, and shot off in Florida, but it was definitely all built in L.A. So in terms of technology, and things that were going on, there was that glorious celebration of the future.
Rail: Did light seem to be an aspect of that exploration?
Turrell: It certainly did, both in terms of the laser controls that were beginning to happen, and fiber optics—all of the period’s commercial, industrial, and scientific applications of light. But also, basically, the whole thing was an event, it wasn’t something that had the same physicality and permanence of traditional ways of, quite literally, building a culture, or an idea of what your nation is. We weren’t building the Acropolis, or the pyramids. Instead we were doing things like going to the moon.
There was this euphoria that was about to collapse because we had to pay for our use of military force, which we are still doing to an amazing degree. We gained nothing from these demonstrations, and haven’t since World War II. We have just spent money and made other countries dislike us. Seeing our country as a bully is one thing, but the true cost is what it did to this idea of our future—the notion that we were going somewhere, and the peak of that utopian ideal was probably 1969. I look at that as the height of our culture.
Rail: It’s interesting to hear you talk about how the space age mythos, so central to American cultural identity in the ’60s, was based in, and driven by, technology, both literally and figuratively. I wonder if, even just subconsciously, there wasn’t a sense for you, in that cultural mythos, that questions about perception had implicitly entered the national consciousness, and could thus be appropriate subject matter for a work of art? This would seem to lie behind your decision in college to major in psychology, rather than art history. Perceptual psychology must have felt more relevant than the Old Masters.
Turrell: Right. It was different then, and it was difficult because the classes in art were backward. They were teaching color-mixing, for example. That works if you’re mixing paint. If you mix blue paint and yellow paint, you’ll get green. But if you mix blue light and yellow light, you’ll get light, which is a shock to many people. Today we are still working in these same outdated terms of subtractive color, which characterizes even supposedly up-to-date digital technology like Photoshop.
Rail: What would you say is your own relation to technology? In your work you have always used relatively simple means, in terms of things like bulbs and projectors. Having cutting-edge technology is not important to you, and is certainly not the subject of your work, as it is for certain other artists. I wonder if there’s not an ethical position in both you and the viewer being able to see and understand the materials involved, and their ramifications, physically, conceptually, and above all, aesthetically.
Turrell: Well, now at least, I do use computers to better control my lights, so there’s some technology involved. But basically I deal with what I’m able to obtain, and use, myself. I don’t have other people do it for me. And it’s nice that we’ve come to this place, technologically speaking, where it is possible to use color in this way, which was more difficult back when I didn’t have LED, because, for example, when I used neon, it could be hard to control, and difficult to get the precise effects I wanted. That was something I had to learn in order to get a handle on my craft. It was true for Bob [Irwin] as well, even though he is involved in getting light into a box, or a scrim, or some other material. I was just going with the light itself as my sole subject, so I had to get into how to mix that particular entity, and how to create the light in the first place—technologically or otherwise.
Rail: Would you say that is the most time consuming aspect of your process?
Turrell: At the beginning it was. That’s why there were three versions of “Afrum”—because I was trying to get projectors that had enough light. For example, if you cut out a large part of the spectrum, to get, say, a blue, which is only about eight percent of the spectrum, while red is right around 12 percent, it means that with a 1000-watt bulb, which was still a big thing in the ’60s, you would only get about 60 watts of light, which is not very bright.
For a while I was dealing more with darkened rooms without images and, because perception is the work’s only object, there’s no particular place of focus. If that’s the way it’s perceived, what’s left? And part of the work is its relationship to you sensing how you sense, or you seeing how you see.
I felt that in using light as material, there had to be something physically felt, and seen, to then work with the medium of perception. Even that is slightly limiting in the sense that my work has a lot more to do with experience, and that was something that was criticized on the East Coast because it was seen as too theatrical, in that it took on, and dealt with, the whole environment. You know, I come from L.A., it’s not a city of culture; it’s a city of entertainment. So my answer to the criticism of my work being too theatrical is to say, “of course it is, I’m doing a show and artists are exhibitionists.”
Rail: [Laughs.] In a certain way, while people get down on L.A. as a place with no culture or taste, not being hung up on theatricality means that in L.A. you have an audience that is more sympathetic to having a direct, unmediated experience. They’re ready to be immersed in a room—an experience for which an East Coast, or European, “fine” art tradition doesn’t necessarily prepare you.
Turrell: That’s very true. It’s thinking in the mindset of another time. For me, the world here on the East Coast is terribly old-fashioned. All you need to do is go to Japan or any Asian city, and New York seems an antique.
Related to the issue of theatricality is that of submission, which I also don’t mind. When you go to the doctor’s office, you disrobe, or sit back in a dentist’s chair and open wide. We really submit in those cases. I actually always thought Irwin was much more controlling about his work than I was—particularly with things like photography. This could be a fantasy though, because both of us are strangely involved in making a comment about the system, but that’s easy to do when you’re outside of it. I see both of our work as investigations of light-holding spaces. Bob would take a space or an object and use light to dematerialize it, and I would take light and materialize it. So we work from opposite ends, in a way, but we both have the same joy in exploring the conditions and possibilities of light.
Rail: For me, the Guggenheim show is so radical, not only because there are so few works, but also because there is so much of what you would typically call “empty space.” Like the ramps you have to walk up to get from one piece to the next, and which are closed off from the atrium by lengths of scrim fabric that block out everything but the empty, unadorned ramp. A lot of the show is not just the individual works, but the experience of moving from one to the next. In this way, the viewer is led to experience a familiar space like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim building in a radically different way than most people ever have, or will. You were able to produce this quite interesting effect where the viewer examines not only the works, and the rooms in which they are installed, but also the architectural space of the museum as a whole.
Turrell: That’s true. Of course the Guggenheim is not an easy space, it was one of the first museums designed by a famous architect. It was more about the building than accommodating the art, which is pretty much how they make museums these days. The piece in the Guggenheim atrium, “Aten Reign,” was a big-ticket project. Six people worked on it. We started in December in New Jersey so it could be brought in and then go up quickly. We had to get it done in three weeks.
Rail: Which is amazing, seeing the scale.
Turrell: And it looks effortless, which is how it should look—light and airy and not heavy and labored.
Rail: Seeing the Guggenheim installation, I think I finally looked at the early projection pieces the “right” way. Before I had considered them in too relational a manner, which I think you’d call an outdated East Coast or European way of looking. I wanted to see the light in relation to the wall, to the projector, etc. Because of this, those works always seemed very flat to me—just light thrown up onto a wall.
Experiencing “Iltar,” upstairs from the projection pieces, made me realize that what I needed to do was allow the light to fill my entire field of vision, and let my eye rest, focusing neither too intensely nor loosely. Seen this way the light takes on a very particular kind of substance, which I take to be the point. You can’t allow your attention to dissipate into the room in which the work is located, but instead you have to surrender and let the work dictate the operations of your perception. If you do this, then the fields of light in these works vacillate between depth and flatness. It’s quite stunning and sophisticated.
Turrell: They suggest a different way of looking—glazed eye seeing. Like when you look into the fire in the fireplace, and you sort of drift off. Looking at the Grand Canyon, you can take a picture here, and then here, and then here, and then over here. They are all equal. Agnes Martin had this, a vision of the Southwest where everything is stared at and equal because there is no particular place of focus. In a way it’s also what Pollock did in his all-over drip paintings.
Rail: Ad Reinhardt is an artist who also seems related to this notion of glazed eye seeing. He was, of course, very close to Martin.
Turrell: Reinhardt is one of the great underrated artists. The dark color coming out of darkness is amazing in his work.
Rail: You had this incredible education as a young artist, because while you were in college you saw Duchamp lecture, Reinhardt’s paintings, and John Cage play a concert.
Turrell: I actually met them.
Rail: Did you meet Reinhardt?
Turrell: I did. At a lecture at the Pasadena Art Museum in which he so tightly defined what the artist was that John Altoon shouted from the back, [The Pasadena Art Museum became the Norton Simon in 1974. The Pasadena Museum of California Art is something else, it opened in 2002] “Now wait a second here it seems like you are defining art like you are the only artist there is.” To which Reinhardt said, “You know, I think you have a point there.” [Laughs.]
It’s interesting, Mark Rothko was more hit or miss, but when he hit it, boy did he. Demetrion had a good show where a very beautiful Rothko was shown, this orange one, which really had light coming from it. But I think that part of the investigation of perception I was involved in came through Reinhardt. I don’t know what his personal message was, or how he did all that he did, but the work was quite remarkable, and you know he was looking at his paintings for a long time, and under different light conditions.
Rail: Similar to Reinhardt and Martin’s paintings, and related to this notion of glazed eye seeing, a lot of your work seems to create a meditative experience.
Turrell: Yes, some of it has to do with what they talk about in the Egyptian and Tibetan books of the dead—a presentation of lights before going through a tunnel. This is related to the beginning of meditation, when you have to go through the process of leaving behind all images, which is hard to do, because we often think in terms of images. It is difficult to understand this until you’ve tried meditation, and you see how much detritus enters the mind.
Rail: This relates to the idea that our perception helps create our particular sense of reality. That’s the magic of your work for me: In experiencing it, I become aware of certain things that are happening unconsciously, like the twitching of a finger in response to a particular stimuli. This is true of meditation as well. We become aware that we’re constantly, if mostly unconsciously and intuitively, interpreting the perceptual material that the world delivers to us via our senses.
Turrell: That’s definitely true. But for me it’s also about the opposite—seeing how plastic a medium light can be, which became clear when I put light on the wall, and found that the light couldn’t be read as lying on the same surface as the wall. Later it was this idea of not using, or needing to use, so much light. I could get it to a place where the light occupied and inhabited a space, and have this sense of screening, or of closure at the front of the space. This was, I think, the biggest thing, finding all the ways light can itself affect perception, rather than simply be affected by it.
Rail: Do you think that, in the way your works re-articulate the spaces in which they are installed, the viewer, by having a changed sense of his or her perception, then also perceives other people, things, and relationships differently? This would give your work a political and ethical dimension.
Turrell: I certainly want to believe that. I try to make something that you enter, a situation that you come into. Some of the pieces, such as those currently at LACMA, are ones you physically enter, or are somehow a part of. While in there you bathe in the light. For a while after the 1980 Whitney show, when I was sued, I didn’t allow people to go into the work.
Rail: Was this because people were falling over from disorientation?
Turrell: One person. It makes for interesting case law. The woman who fell, her testimony was that there was this wall and it didn’t support her weight when she leaned on it. But, of course, it wasn’t actually there, there never was a wall, it was just an illusion of the light. It was blue, and her blue hair matched the piece. This is the case with the “Wedgework” pieces. I used to have people walk through those, but I stopped that in the U.S. This is such a litigious culture that I only allow that to happen in Europe and Asia, where people can actually stand up to contemporary art.
Rail: Literally. [Laughs.] What seems to be behind this court case, as well as the critical injunction against theatricality, is the idea that the viewer is being manipulated in some way, that they come in and can only do one thing.
Turrell: In my work I’m going to make my point. Sometimes people don’t want to accept what that point is, so they pass on through, and that’s fine, that’s self-selecting. I feel my work is more self-selecting than totalitarian—if it’s not your deal, and you’re out of there, then that’s okay. If it is, though, and you are willing to take the time, then I think it rewards the time you spend.
Rail: Do you have an ideal viewer?
Turrell: Yes. I think it has to do with who I think I am addressing my work to, with who I want to see my work. For example, I was very pleased when David Whitney and Jasper Johns came out to my studio and bought a piece. It must have been ’68, one year after the show I had in ’67 at the Pasadena Art Museum. That was a big thing for me. I also remember that Demetrion was wonderful, as was Walter Hopps, and John Coplans. Of the Dia crowd, I was close to Judd, who traded me for a work early on, and also Walter De Maria. He saw pictures of the Guggenheim installation, even though he was sitting in a hospital. He had a massive stroke, and couldn’t speak, but he looked at the photographs and was able to communicate, asking, “Does it change color?” That was his question. Those are the kinds of people I think about when I’m making the work—the ones I want to address.
Rail: People in the art world that you knew. That you respected very highly?
Turrell: Yes. Though many close friends are gone now: John McCracken, Kenny Price, Craig Kauffman. Others.
Rail: I know one of your teachers quite well: Barbara Rose. She wrote about your work very early on. Was she an example of an ideal viewer?
Turrell: Yeah, she did, and she was. She visited my studio early on when she came out West with her husband, Frank Stella. He was going to teach at University of California, Irvine, but he refused to sign the loyalty oath, but she would, so she taught there, and he had a studio. I worked as Frank’s assistant because I knew Tony DeLap very well, and he had a studio in the same building as Frank. I helped Tony with some of his work, and I did a lot of the stretcher bars, and things like that, for friends. Stella needed help with this one painting.
Rail: The large, 41-foot Copper painting, “Sangre de Cristo,” [the title is a reference to the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, in Colorado at the base of the Rockies.] that he made in 1967 in his Irvine studio?
Turrell: Yes, on the stretcher bars. There were about six of us building those. That painting was not a small endeavor! [Laughs.]
Rail: Related to this notion of an ideal viewer, I think that in your work the viewer is given an opportunity to raise his or her level of awareness, to refine and expand the range of his or her perception. In that way, everyone has the potential to become an “ideal” viewer if he or she allows the work to show him or her how.
Turrell: In some ways I have an even more populist view than that, because I don’t think that you need to have any knowledge of art to appreciate my work.
Rail: Are you interested in forms of aesthetic expression outside of the traditional scope of “fine” art?
Turrell: Yes. For example, I was very interested in the people who made large exhibitions of big camera obscuras, panoramas, and dioramas. There have been some very big panorama paintings where you come up from underneath onto this sort of viewing platform, and this thing is out in front of you, and is very much a kind of painterly space. I’ve always felt I was more of a painter in three dimensions than a sculptor. I change and work with dimensionality—flattening and opening up from that—through a picture plane. In my case the picture plane is usually the plane of the wall of the space you’re in, or the top, or, with the gas work style pieces, it is the chamber. In those works you’re sort of taking that picture plane like a t-shirt over your head, and entering it in that manner.
Rail: Would you say that your own process is traditional, as a form of aesthetic investigation, even if what you end up with is something very new and original?
Turrell: This will be primitive art in just a few years. [Laughs.] I don’t worry about that. Look at what happened from Giotto to Canaletto in their depiction of space. It became so sophisticated, our ideas and thoughts about Cartesian space, and the picture frame, and vanishing points, and all of that, but yet, Canaletto had no less light than Giotto, and I think that’s really important for us to look at. In the end you are an artist, and there have been thousands of artists along the way, and hundreds of thousands today, so you are just one of many.
Rail: It seems that part of what you’re getting at is a relation to a sense of time, that you have a real sense of your work existing in a larger span, a duration lasting longer even than your own lifetime. “Roden Crater” is interesting because it’s an ongoing project, extending over several decades now. How does it feel to be an artist working in a space that, in a certain sense, has been in the process of being made for thousands of years, millions of years, even, before you were born?
Turrell: I look at Roden Crater, or the pyramid down in the Yucatán, as premade ruins. They have that temporal aspect, a longer sense of time. When you’re at Roden Crater you’re surrounded by an area in the Painted Desert that exists in geologic time, and boy is that different from the constructions of mankind. But if you look at the cathedral, St. John the Divine, here in New York, or the pyramids, they took over 100 years to build. Those are projects that took time, a long time, but it’s still a kind of time that is not infinite, or even indeterminate. This is also true of celestial events. But we’ve gotten away from the joy of appreciating that sense of time. We want things delivered to us immediately. It is interesting how much more demanding we are than we used to be.
ALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.