James Turrell: Master Of Illusion And The Light Inside

James Turrell bends light to his fancy, deceiving and delighting our eyes at the same time.

Goofy booties in place, you ascend a three-sided, temple-like flight of stairs. There are no rails, so you may be tempted to walk up along the wall. This is not allowed. You must walk up the center of the stairs, but more guards are there if you need assistance. As I saw the guards making elderly people with canes remove what looked like orthopedic shoes and put on booties, I was sure there were people who needed assistance.

But it's all worth it once you reach the top of the stairs. You enter a glorious mist of color, and the floor slopes away from you towards a large back wall (?) with curved corners. The room has no edges, and the floor gently curves into the walls; the light never catches anywhere to delineate the space. Strips of light surrounding the opening to the room emanate an evolving range of color into the space. The light moves through oranges, reds, pinks, purples, blues, lavenders...You can not only see the visual shifts of the colors, you can feel their emotional shift.

The colored light seems to hang in the air like a fog; it's a glorious and disorienting environment. What appears to be the back wall isn't. According to one of the guards, the floor simply drops eight feet; the "wall" is an optical illusion. Turrell's illusions are masterful, so convincing that people have tried to lean against some of them, fallen and sued the artist. (FYI, folks, you aren't supposed to lean against the walls in the museum period.)

Aurora B: Tall Glass, 2010, LED, a gift of the estate of Isabel B. Wilson in memory of former MFAH director Peter C. Marzio.
Thomas DuBrock
Aurora B: Tall Glass, 2010, LED, a gift of the estate of Isabel B. Wilson in memory of former MFAH director Peter C. Marzio.

Location Info


Museum Of Fine Arts, Houston

1001 Bissonnet St.
Houston, TX 77004

Category: Museums

Region: Kirby-West U


"James Turrell: The Light Inside"

Through September 22 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

Like many Turrell works, End Around is the kind of space that would be wonderful to have all to yourself so you could lie on the floor (not allowed) and give yourself over to the space. Barring that, lounges and cocktails for you and the dozen or so other visitors would have been great.

A lot has been written about Turrell's Quaker upbringing in California. There was no TV, no kitchen appliances — not even a toaster — and art was considered a vanity. Much, understandably, has been made of the fact that his grandmother used the phrase "go inside to greet the light" to describe their religious practice. A kind of ascetic Protestantism cuts Turrell's lush visual experiences — viewer comfort is not a big part of the equation. Works like Aurora B, 2010-2011, from the "Tall Glass" series, which actually requires two and a half hours to fully experience, are accompanied by a bench. Turrell's skyspaces usually have sculpturally elegant concrete or granite benches with angled backs to allow you to look up at the sky for their 40-minute-plus durations.

According to a recent New York Times count, the artist has created 82 private and institutional skyspaces all over the world. Apparently they are quite popular in the homes of Los Angeles collectors. If you've got a couple million, you too can have your own skyspace; each is particularly designed for its setting. The skyspaces, while helping to fund Turrell's herculean Roden Crater project, are also a form of research for the artist, who incorporates his optical findings into the crater project.

I found a photo in the Turrell exhibition catalog of what appears to be a private L.A. collector's skyspace, Picture Plane, 2004. There are leather lounge chairs in the room. I wonder what Turrell thinks about that. The seating lacks the clean aesthetic of the benches, and in the photo it makes Turrell's work seem more like an interior design feature. But I bet the viewer's actual experience of the installation is pretty amazing.

A big part of Turrell's work relies on the artist or the institution controlling the way it's experienced. Turrell quite rightly knows exactly the best way for his works to be viewed, where the viewer should sit or stand and for how long. He knows how to give us an unparalleled visual experience. But the problem is that controlling people too much can ultimately detract from their experience.

Maybe it's because the show just opened, but the MFAH's host of apparently newly hired twentysomething guards seemed to go beyond protecting the work and the visitors to micromanaging their experience. There are always rules with art; the open-air pavilion of the Twilight Epiphany skyspace at Rice University doesn't allow food or drink or talking or cameras after the show starts, and quite rightly so. But it also doesn't allow anyone to lie on the inviting, grassy slope that surrounds the pavilion, as one student attempted to do. I don't know if this is Turrell so much as it is the keepers of his work. I just wish viewers were allowed a little more leeway to be human. Perhaps the Live Oak Meeting House is a perfect situation. In a place of worship, you expect to be quiet, sit still on a bench and be reverential. And in fact, the Quakers are the most relaxed and welcoming keepers of the Turrell sites I have visited. They invite viewers to get up and walk around and children to lie on the floor to view the skyspace. On a recent visit, I observed practically supine couples lounging on the padded church pews, contemplating the darkening sky.

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Is it me, or is there some quantum effect among art critics whereby their writings are so grossly affected by other critics as to nullify their observations? Spiritual optics a la NYT? Wow, I'll never look at a bunch of electrically excited rare gases the same way. If I want to find god there are two places I won't look, a church, and a Turrell show. When i went, the minions swayed by the press' effusions, deployed their plagiarized vocabularies (so peaceful, calm, contemplative blah blah blah). Meanwhile, anyone with a modicum of spatial sense ran from the visual equivalent of water boarding. Black light neon blue hung like a picture frame, heavy orchestration as to seating and suggested "contemplating" of the ginned up barroom lighting by museum handlers--that's what i took away. 

Let's get real, if you want a twilight epiphany don't go to the artificial skylight warrens of MFAH or Rice, take a trip to the country on a cloudless day and watch the last gasp of green from the sun on the horizon and stay to count the stars.


I went yesterday and they were letting us put the booties over our shoes. But, the stairs to the ganzfeld piece were closed off because they were recently painted, so you could only stand on the white bench and stare into the piece. What a waste.