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Updated: May 26, 2020

James Turrell was part of the Southern California Light and Space movement in the late 1960s like Eric Orr, the artist behind Electrum. 2013 was a big summer for Turrell with concurrent shows in Los Angeles at LACMA, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, TX, and the Guggenheim in NYC - and this was his first solo show in New York City since 1980.

For a time (around the turn of the millenium, after completing the Electrum documentary) I was obsessed with Turrell’s Roden Crater project, and made queries about helping to document the creation of this monumental and notoriously secretive work. At the time it seemed like a huge undertaking that would never see completion; now it is nearly finished and open by invitation to generous patrons of Turrell’s work.

L: Portrait of Turrell by Chuck Close on the cover of New York Times Magazine (June 20, 2013) via; R: Roden Crater, satellite photo USGS

This Fall, when a friend called with an extra ticket to the sold out James Turrell Symposium at the Guggenheim I jumped at the chance to go -- the show was to come down in less than a week. After securing our symposium tickets, we were met at the museum’s side entrance, VIP style, and taken to see the Turrell works. The works we saw, First Light Turrell’s aquatint renderings of light cubes, were so luminous that on first impression I thought there actual lightboxes lit from within; only upon closer inspection I was amazed to find that they were paintings. They were sublime. Wow. In two adjacent galleries there were light works, one a light projection into the corner of a room Afrum I (White), and another projected onto a flat wall. On our way down the ramp, there was a long line to see Ronin a very tall light work maybe two stories tall that juxtaposed walls to create the perception of an entire wall being ajar. We wandered through Aten Reign in the Guggenheim rotunda on our way to the symposium taking place in the basement level auditorium.

We took in talks by scholars of art history, religion, and modern art as they discussed the way Turrell’s life experiences have influenced who he is as an artist, and the rituals and philosophies of light and perception apparent or inherent in his works. Nat Trotman, Co-Curator of the Turrell exhibition, moderated a conversation among the three presenters.

I got to experience Aten Reign for myself while my pals waited in the long line (45 minutes) for Iltar in the highest exhibition room. I found a spot on the chaise bench that circled the perimeter of the room and got comfortable. The light gradient shifted so slowly it was initially imperceptible. The light intensity and color gradient change with the passage of time. 

Aten Reign in the Guggenheim rotunda, September 2013

Iltar was to be experienced in small groups of fifteen or less, hence the long wait. The room was quite dim. There was a rectangular piece on the wall which initially seemed like a grey rectangle painted on the wall, but was in fact, an unlit opening to another room. So really it was nothing. But we waited so long to see it so I stayed for a while. It made me think of the Emperor’s New Clothes, but I did enjoy it very much.

Amazingly, I got another chance to see Turrell's work at his retrospective at LACMA over the holiday break while visiting with family and friends in LA. It was a much more extensive show than that in NYC, and more experiential. For one piece, we donned booties and entered a large room transformed into a color wash chamber with a group.

Unbelievably, on our day to visit the Turrell show at LACMA, there had been a couple of cancellations and we got the hottest tickets in town -- sold out for the entire duration of the show: Perceptual Cell and Dark Matters. Each 20-minute appointment to see these works (individually and in pairs, respectively) is spoken for; most of the museum staff hasn't even had the chance to experience these works.

Turrell's Perceptual Cell is reminiscent of the isolation tank (aka sensory deprivation tank) popular in the 1960s, developed by John C. Lilly. The attendants (sporting A Clockwork Orange-like black derby hats with their white labcoats) give you the option of color wash or strobe effect (I chose strobe). After signing a waiver, you remove your shoes and lie on the narrow bed, with noise cancelling headphones on. An emergency panic-button is placed in your hand. Like a drawer, the bed with you on it, is rolled into the chamber, sealing the opening. Once in the chamber, the strobes created fractal-like mathematical patterns in my vision, almost inside my head it seemed. I was uncertain whether my eyes were open or closed. After a time, the assault of the strobing multi-colored light on my perception was dizzying. Here, the results of a googleimage search for 'Sierpinski carpet' can help me share what I experienced (minus the small headache.)

"Fast Fourier Transforms, Diffraction Patterns, and J" by Ned W. Allis (, Jeffrey P. Dumont (, Flynn J. Heiss (, Clifford A. Reiter ( Source:

In contrast, Dark Matter is quiet and calm: you grope your way into a pitch dark chamber (using the railing as your vision is useless). The chamber is anechoic (dampened for noise so there is zero sound). You feel for a chair and settle in to gaze at nothing, again unsure whether your eyes are opened or closed. What is vision in complete darkness? After a while a faint glow emerges in your peripheral vision. 

While I've tried to describe these works by James Turrell, its cliche but words really don't do justice. These are perception-altering works which must be experienced. I chalk it up under the category of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and my mind's eye revisits them often. 

The show at LACMA is in its final days - coming down and the end of April 2014 - definitely go see it if you get the chance. (I personally plan to visit The Color Inside, Turrell's Skyspace at UT Austin this summer, as my timing to see Turrell's Meeting at MOMA PS1 has always been off...)

And I'll close with a Hollywood anecdote: an artist friend of ours has a friend who works at LACMA. One morning, early, before the museum doors opened to the public, Brangelina were spotted climbing into the Perceptual Cell together. 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: James Turrell page on James Turrell website by Peggy Weil Roden Crater website (implements a changing color wash effect - check it out!) Doug Aitken INTV w Turrell in the NY Times T Magazine Website Visit The Pace Gallery London James Turrell: Recent Works through April 5, 2014

TOP OF PAGE: Two separate shots side-by-side looking up toward the ceiling in the middle of the Guggenheim Museum in New York during James Turrell's light exhibition Aten Reign. Photos by Adam Shankbone. From

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