Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
Turrell white and light room

James Turrell, or the Works of Light


The work of this US artist insists on showing more than demonstrating: it is not representation but rather presentation itself that is offered to the viewer.

On his deathbed, the poet Johann W. von Goethe exclaimed: “Light, more light!” Perhaps light is the most complex and ungraspable thing by definition. And it is even more difficult to work with it directly, without metaphors. Light implies everything in existence, and it is the possibility of existence itself: what appears does so via the vehicle of light, as with the god Phaethon who, without creating anything at all, makes everything appear.

In communities located in the polar extremes a very peculiar phenomenon with light occurs: in summer, the sun almost never sets, and in winter, the days are one long night. But our lives – social life in the West – are illuminated in an invasive way, with an illumination that flattens, a police-like light, like that of an interrogation room. The Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki wrote, around 1933, the now-classic In Praise of Shadows, in which he makes a distinction between the East and the West based on the illumination of spaces. James Turrell (b. 1943), a California-born artist, works, essentially, with light and space. In other words, he works with space inhabited by light.

At the age of 16 he obtained his pilot’s license and carried out aerial cartography; at the age of 22 he graduated in perceptual psychology (with a thesis on the Ganzfeld effect), and later studied mathematics, geology and astronomy. It is evident that, by viewing his work retrospectively, his education clothes it with meaning. In an interview with Art21, Turrell commented that “normally we don’t see light, but we see something that James Turrell Skyspace, Yorks Sculpture Parklight reveals to us.” This phrase is concise for interpreting his work. According to the poet Ben Lerner, the grammatical function of the eye is to assign values where there are none – and that, in the case of Turrell, is done with light.

Turrell Skylight

The light touches down at the same time as it floats dispersed. Turrell’s works lend themselves to installations and present themselves as a kind of postmodern temple, where only the light enters and captures our gaze. In relation to that, the art historian Georges Didi-Huberman has written a meticulous essay on Turrell’s work. In The Man Who Walked in Color, the Frenchman touches on the ontological dimension of art, of which, among other things, this idea of the atemporal temple forms part. Emptying and desertification: there where before there was nothing, Turrell invents places; where the sky changes color by being framed, as occurs with Space that Sees. What is present in that space is an absence, and it is the sky that enters to contemplate us. In Blood Lust, visitors are faced head-on by a red rectangle that refers to nothing, and which circumscribes itself to nothing but the light. What Didi-Huberman alerts us to, and this is very important for art and contemporary society, is that this does not represent anything, but that it is something that is presented to us, and that in some way flattens us, leaves us emptied or desertified as the artist did with that space, with that light.

Said very plainly, at the heart of his works, as well as creating art, Turrell also creates places that alter perception. We are inside the work while the work looks at us, it envelops us; the light encloses the spectator in an improbable space, in a space that only makes reference to itself, like a desert, or the sky, or the night and the subtle band of light on the horizon at dawn. When light awakens.


Turrell Stairs

Let’s return to the year 1979, when James Turrell acquired the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in Arizona, and a work-in-progress that is his most important. The work is unfinished and there is no access to it. This work is the process of transformation of the interior cone of a crater in an observation with the naked eye, just to appreciate the light of the sky and cosmic phenomena. The work only wants to show something and not demonstrate something. Turrell is an artist who has taken the work out of context, or he has replaced the place with the work, making space and light his materials. Turrell is one of the most interesting and radical artists of recent times, and it is worth mentioning one of his unavoidable references, the Venezuelan Carlos Cruz-Diez. This is how, beyond the rhetorical and conceptual ideas that can be invented around his work, James Turrell brings us something essential: to perceive the space in which we live, its qualities and its gifts, highlighting the miracle that these physical conditions not only allow us to live but also offer themselves to us to be appreciated.

Related Articles