James Turrell: Master Of Illusion And The Light Inside

James Turrell has made light his stock in trade. He generates it, channels it and colors it to create stunning visual experiences that alter our perceptions in ways that range, depending on the viewer, from the hallucinatory to the spiritual. Fifty years ago, Turrell was cutting holes in the walls of his studio in the defunct Mendota Hotel in Los Angeles, creating some of his earliest works with light. Today the 70-year-old Turrell is hoping to complete Roden Crater, a massive decades-in-the making project in which the artist is transforming a 400,000-year-old, two-mile-wide extinct volcano in Arizona into a naked-eye celestial observatory. He estimates it's 60 percent complete. And this summer simultaneous, retrospectives of his work are taking place in three institutions in three cities. There has never been a better time to see Turrell's work than right now.

Seeds for the current Turrell-a-thon germinated in Houston a decade ago with MFAH curator Alison de Lima Green and late MFAH director Peter Marzio discussing a possible retrospective of Turrell's work. They quickly realized the enormity of the undertaking would necessitate the involvement of multiple institutions. Showing Turrell's art is way more complicated than wheeling something into a gallery or sticking a nail in a wall. Your average Turrell work requires complex light-generating technology and precisely constructed rooms, often with winding, light-blocking entrances. James Turrell: The Light Inside is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "James Turrell: A Retrospective," is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through April 6, 2014, and "James Turrell" is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through September 25, 2013, for which the artist transformed the rotunda of the museum's iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building into one of his skyspaces — structures for viewing the sky.

We're very familiar with Turrell here in Houston, where we have three permanent installations by the artist: the 2012 Twilight Epiphany at Rice University, the 2001 One Accord at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House and the 1999 tunnel The Light Inside, which lent its name to the current show and connects the MFAH's Law and Beck buildings. Turrell has a lot of support here; his dealer, Hiram Butler, has been a dedicated advocate for his work for many years. For Houstonians it can seem like the artist's work is commonplace. But this is a misconception based on our good fortune. Until "James Turrell" opened at the Guggenheim last weekend, Turrell hadn't had a museum exhibition in New York since 1980.

The MFAH show presents seven immersive installations by the artist, all part of the museum's impressive collection of work by Turrell. The exhibition is free with general admission, but making reservations is recommended. Because each of the seven installations requires a certain amount of time to fully experience and can accommodate only a limited number of people, the MFAH is trying to stagger attendance.

The 1968 Acro (Green) is the second earliest work in the show. It's from the series of light projections Turrell was working with back at the Mendota Hotel. There, he'd blacked out all external light and was using projections to create forms. Inside Acro (Green), green light is projected into a corner of the room, giving the light a sense of rectangular, wedge-like volume. This illusion is enhanced by a flat, white painted angle of wood on the floor in the corner. It covers the dark carpeting and creates the illusion of a "base" for the light form. It's an entrancing and seemingly simple piece that still holds its own against later and far more technically complex Turrell works.

Acro (Green) is also a reminder of the precision that Turrell works require. The shape of the projected green light is just slightly off register in the top corner. The white painted base strip has a few tiny paint globs on its edges. These are minuscule issues, but in the elegant precision of Turrell's work, they can become strangely distracting.

Raethro II (Blue), 1971, is an early work that deftly pulls off its own perfect illusion and remains mesmerizing 42 years and a whole lot of advances in technology later. You walk into the darkened space and a blue pyramidal form seems to float in the space. Walking up close and risking the guard's wrath, you can see that the light's shape was created by building an obtuse angle of wall in the room. A pyramidal outline was cut into the corner of that wall and discreetly lit from inside the opening. However, glimpsing the man behind the curtain does nothing to dispel the luminous magic of the piece. It's an affirmation of the quality of the artist's vision.

The showstopper of "The Light Inside" is the 2006 End Around from Turrell's Ganzfeld series. "Ganzfeld" (German for "entire field") refers to the ganzfeld effect, the hallucinatory optical phenomena that occur with perceptual deprivation — snowblindness, for example. In End Around, Turrell has created an almost featureless field of shifting color — a kind of optically charged snowblindness. It's hard to describe but absolutely stunning to experience.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer