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James Turrell:
The Wizard of Light

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I don’t claim to be an expert on James Turrell, but I’ve been aware of the Roden Crater—a large extinct volcano in Arizona he purchased in 1977 with the help of the Dia Art Foundation—for as long as I’ve been into art. It’s a preposterous notion, owning a volcano, but Turrell isn’t known for subtlety. At best, his works are immersive perceptual experiments that use light to test the boundaries of our minds. At the very least, they are alluring glowworms of soft pastel agreeability—mind tricks made of light.

Turrell is the subject of a flurry of intercontinental expos (two of which opened in Los Angeles last week) which serve to separate and divide the critics even more. If there were a Rotten Tomatoes for art criticism, Turrell’s retrospective at LACMA and his exhibit at Kayne Griffin Corcoran (as well as upcoming shows at the Guggenheim in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, the Academy Art Museum in Easton, Maryland, and Villa Panza in Varese, Italy) would get a 50% from top critics, but a “fresh” audience rating. Turrell is a crowd-pleaser, albeit a frustrating one, and the long lines for the exhibition’s one- and two-person capacity pieces are easy targets for cranky critics, who hate waiting around like the hoi polloi. But once you get in there, Turrell’s pieces reach for phenomenological notes in ways few other artists (Robert Irwin and Olafur Eliasson come to mind) can achieve.


Hermès’ fall/winter 2017-18
Photo by by Jean-François José

Especially divisive are the two “perception chambers” in Los Angeles. William Poundstone, on, called “Light Reignfall” (the LACMA one) the “‘Raft of the Medusa’ for our age of Google Glass subjectivity,” despite the $45 price tag, long waits, and “a waiver full of medico-legal scare talk.” (P.S. Mr. Poundstone: I know Hans Ulrich Obrist said “YOLO” once on his Instagram, but it’s really embarrassing and should be struck from art criticism forever. Kthxbai.) Conversely, the ever-cantankerous Christopher Knight of the L.A. Times dismissed the experience as a “12-minute bombardment of flashing light, [that] merely seem[s] grandiose.” It’s unclear whether Knight went into the chamber himself.

I’m somewhere in between. I like Poundstone’s attempt to link it back to hard science. Basically, the chamber, by overloading your sight path with flashing lights, tickles the cones into a hallucinatory state. It’s basically a drugless form of LSD, truly unsuitable for those suffering from epilepsy, creating an intensely filmic experience. I recorded myself on a digital recorder while in the chamber, and over the humming fuzz generated by the machine, I can hear myself saying things like “rapid blue bubbles” and “crystalline cityscape.” One particularly striking hallucination was a tessellated room of computers, but that says more about where my mind was at than the actual chamber. But I’m also wary of the lab coats, the long lines, and the waivers. Is it all part of the chef’s plating, making the piece de resistance seem all that much more interesting?

Berluti fall/winter 2017

Berluti fall/winter 2017.
Courtesy of Berluti.

The next evening, at Kayne Griffin Corcoran’s new gallery space in Hollywood, Maggie Kayne told me, “Our chamber is better.” It’s apparently a two-person chamber, and the flashing goes on for longer. Turrell graced Kayne Griffin Corcoran with a Skyspace (basically a ceiling cut with LED lights to help aid what amounts to gazing up at the sky, albeit with a new profound appreciation for the colors) in their conference room. Viewers at the opening took advantage of the large office chairs and reclined, looking up through the ceiling. The opening was full of high-powered collectors—who have turned Turrell into one of the most expensive artists out there—and a smattering of Turrell’s friends. Most interestingly, I met a former classmate of Turrell’s from high school named Margene who regaled me with a tale of Turrell taking her on an ice skating date, but never calling her back.

Turrell possesses the same long white beard of his aging contemporaries in the light-and-space field. He’s a bit more robust, his time working on the Crater in the San Francisco Volcanic Field near the Painted Desert of Arizona, has given him the relaxing frame of a rancher. I briefly shook his hand when he listened in on the conversation Margene (the high school classmate) and I had about politics. “Drones!” was the only thing Turrell said directly to me (he said it exasperatedly as if to say, “You’re at my art opening! Talk about anything but drones!”), but it felt magical, like a wizard casting a spell.

Berluti fall/winter 2017

Berluti fall/winter 2017.
Courtesy of Berluti.

A few days later, someone asks me to describe Turrell’s work in a nutshell. I think for a second, and then it comes to me. “He’s the Wizard of Art,” I say. “Oh, and he has a crater of light.”



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Go inside the worlds of Art, Fashion, Design and Lifestyle.


On the cover of our Spring 2021 New Era issue is Superblue, a new venture from Pace Gallery’s Marc Glimcher and Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst.


Go inside the worlds
of Art, Fashion, Design,
and Lifestyle.