James Turrell

James Turrell (born May 6, 1943) is an American artist primarily concerned with Light and Space. Turrell was a MacArthur Fellow in 1984. Turrell is best known for his work in progress, Roden Crater, a natural cinder cone crater located outside Flagstaff, Arizona, that he is turning into a massive naked-eye observatory.

James Turrell
Born (1943-05-06) May 6, 1943
Los Angeles, California, US
Alma materPomona College
Known forInstallation art
Notable work
Roden Crater, Acton
MovementLight and Space


James Turrell was born in Los Angeles, California.[1][2] His father, Archibald Milton Turrell,[3] was an aeronautical engineer and educator. His mother, Margaret Hodges Turrell,[3] trained as a medical doctor and later worked in the Peace Corps. His parents were Quakers.

Turrell obtained a pilot's license when he was 16 years old. Later, registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he ended up flying Buddhist monks out of Chinese-controlled Tibet.[4] Some writers have suggested it was a CIA mission; Turrell called it "a humanitarian mission" — and that he found "some beautiful places to fly". For years he restored antique airplanes to support his "art habit".[4]

He received a BA degree from Pomona College in perceptual psychology in 1965 (including the study of the Ganzfeld effect) and also studied mathematics, geology and astronomy there. Turrell enrolled in the graduate Studio Art program at the University of California, Irvine in 1966, where he began making work using light projections.[5] His studies at the University of California, Irvine were interrupted in 1966, when he was arrested for coaching young men to avoid the Vietnam draft. He spent about a year in jail.[6] He later (1973) received an MA degree in art from Claremont Graduate University.[7] In 2004, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Haverford College.

Artistic career

External video
James Turrell, Skyscape, The Way of Color, 4:40, Smarthistory[8]

Early work

In 1966, Turrell began experimenting with light in his Santa Monica studio, the Mendota Hotel, at a time when the so-called Light and Space group of artists in Los Angeles, including Robert Irwin, Mary Corse and Doug Wheeler, was coming into prominence.[9] By covering the windows and only allowing prescribed amounts of light from the street outside to come through the openings, Turrell created his first light projections.[10] In Shallow Space Constructions (1968) he used screened partitions, allowing a radiant effusion of concealed light to create an artificially flattened effect within the given space.[11] That same year, he participated in the Los Angeles County Museum's Art and Technology Program, investigating perceptual phenomena with the artist Robert Irwin and psychologist Edward Wortz.

In 1969, he made sky drawings with Sam Francis, using colored skywriting smoke and cloud-seeding materials.[12] A pivotal environment Turrell developed from 1969 to 1974, The Mendota Stoppages, used several rooms in the former Mendota Hotel in Santa Monica which were sealed off, with the window apertures controlled by the artist to allow natural and artificial light to enter the darkened spaces in specific ways.[13]

Roden Crater

Turrell is perhaps best known for his work in progress, Roden Crater. He acquired an extinct cinder cone volcano located outside Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1979. Since then he has spent decades moving tons of dirt and building tunnels and apertures to turn this crater into a massive naked-eye observatory for experiencing celestial phenomena.[4]

Although he works in the American desert, Turrell does not consider himself an earthworks artist like Robert Smithson or Michael Heizer: "You could say I'm a mound builder: I make things that take you up into the sky. But it's not about the landforms. I'm working to bring celestial objects like the sun and moon into the spaces that we inhabit." He added: "I apprehend light — I make events that shape or contain light."[4]

The completion date for the Crater has been pushed back several times for funding and construction reasons, with the artist missing early targets in the 1990s. The last time Turrell or his team went on record talking about a completion date, the goal was 2011; but according to a 2013 article in the Los Angeles Times, "nobody volunteers a date any more."[14]

Access to Roden Crater is limited to friends, though devoted fans can gain access by completing the "Turrell Tour", which involves seeing a Turrell in 23 countries worldwide. During May 2015, Roden Crater was open to a select group of 80 people, as part of a fund raiser, by allowing visits of 20 people per day during the course of four days, at a cost of $6,500 per person.[15]

As Roden Crater has been long shrouded in secrecy, fans have attempted to sneak in without the artist's permission. Some have succeeded.[16]


In the 1970s, Turrell began his series of "skyspaces" enclosed spaces open to the sky through an aperture in the roof. A Skyspace is an enclosed room large enough for roughly 15 people. Inside, the viewers sit on benches along the edge to view the sky through an opening in the roof. As a lifelong Quaker, Turrell designed the Live Oak Meeting House for the Society of Friends, with an opening or skyhole in the roof, wherein the notion of light takes on a decidedly religious connotation. (See PBS documentary). His work Meeting (1986) at P.S. 1, which consists of a square room with a rectangular opening cut directly into the ceiling, is a recreation of such a meeting house.[17] In 2013, Turrell created another Quaker skyspace, Greet the Light, at the newly rebuilt Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting in Philadelphia.[18]

In a New York Times article on L.A. collectors building skyspaces in their backyards, Jori Finkel describes a skyspace as a " celestial viewing room designed to create the rather magical illusion that the sky is within reach -- stretched like a canvas across an opening in the ceiling."[19]

In 1992, James Turrell's Irish Sky Garden opened at the Liss Ard Estate,[20] Skibbereen, Co Cork, Ireland. The giant earth and stoneworks has a crater at its center. A visitor enters through a doorway in the perimeter of the rim, walks through a passage and climbs stairs to enter,[21] then lies on the central plinth and looks upwards to experience the sky framed by the rim of the crater. "The most important thing is that inside turns into outside and the other way around, in the sense that relationships between the Irish landscape and sky changes" (James Turrell).[22]

Since 2009, Turrell's Third Breath, 2005 is part of the permanent exhibition of the Centre for International Light Art (CILA) in Unna, Germany. It is a Camera obscura, consisting of two rooms: In the lower, cubic room (Camera Obscura Space), the visitor sees an image of the sky which is being reflected through a lens on the ground. In the upper, cylindrical room (Sky Space), the sky can be seen directly through a hole in the ceiling.

Other Skyspaces include the Kielder Skyspace (2000) on Cat Cairn in Kielder, Northumberland, England; Knight Rise (2001) at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art; Second Wind (2005) in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain; the Sky-Space (2006) in Salzburg, Austria; and The other Horizon (2004) in Vienna, Austria (MAK-Branch Geymüllerschlössel).[23] Three Gems (2005) at the de Young Museum is Turrell's first Skyspace to adopt the stupa form.[24] At Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the Marquess of Cholmondeley commissioned a folly to the east of the great house. Turrell's Skyspace presents itself from the exterior as an oak-clad building raised on stilts. From the inside of the structure, the viewer's point of view is focused upwards and inevitably lured into contemplating the sky as framed by the open roof.[25]

His 2007 Deer Shelter Skyspace at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England, commissioned by The Art Fund, was awarded that year's 2007 Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture.[26][27]

In september 2018, the Skyspace Lech was opened to public. It is located in Oberlech in Vorarlberg (Austria).[28]

Other Work

Turrell is also known for his light tunnels and light projections that create shapes that seem to have mass and weight, though they are created with only light. Turrell's 1968 projection of a suspended luminous pink pyramid, Raethro Pink, was acquired by the Welsh National Museum of Art.[29] His work Acton is a very popular exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It consists of a room that appears to have a blank canvas on display, but the "canvas" is actually a rectangular hole in the wall, lit to look otherwise. Security guards are known to come up to unsuspecting visitors and say "Touch it! Touch it!"

Turrell's works defy the accelerated habits of people, especially when looking at art. He feels that viewers spend so little time with the art that it makes it hard to appreciate.

I feel my work is made for one being, one individual. You could say that's me, but that's not really true. It's for an idealized viewer. Sometimes I'm kind of cranky coming to see something. I saw the Mona Lisa when it was in L.A., saw it for 13 seconds and had to move on. But, you know, there's this slow-food movement right now. Maybe we could also have a slow-art movement, and take an hour.[30]

Art critic John McDonald writes that Turrell's works are "dull to describe but magical to experience."[31]


Turrell was given his first solo show at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1967.[12] Solo exhibitions have since included the Stedelijk Museum (1976); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1980); Israel Museum (1982); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1984); MAK, Vienna (1998–1999); Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh (2002–2003).

The Wolfsburg Project at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Turrell's largest exhibition in Germany to date, opened in October 2009 and continued through October 2010. Amongst the works featured in the Wolfsburg Project was a "Ganzfeld" work, which is a light installation that covers 700 square meters in area and 12 meters in height.[32] Also in 2009, the opening of the artwork Third Breath, 2005 at the Centre for International Light Art in Unna, Germany,[33] was accompanied by the four-month exhibition James Turrell - Geometry of Light.

James Turrell: A Retrospective, a major exhibition spanning the artist's 50-year career, was exhibited from May 26, 2013 to April 6, 2014 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and travelled to the National Gallery of Australia.[34]

From June to September 2013 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presented James Turrell,[35] the artist's first exhibition in a New York museum since 1980. The exhibition focused on the artist's explorations of perception, light, color and space. A new project, Aten Reign (2013),[36] recast the Guggenheim rotunda as an enormous volume filled with shifting artificial and natural light.[37]

In early 2017, his work was featured in the solo exhibition, Immersive Light, at the West Bund Long Museum Shanghai.[38][39] Into the Light, an installation of nine Turrell works, is on view at MASS MoCA from 2017 until at least 2019.[40]

James Turrell's work has been exhibited at public art spaces as well as commercial galleries around the world. He is represented by Häusler Contemporary, Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Pace Gallery, Hiram Butler Gallery, Almine Rech Gallery, and Gagosian Gallery.[41]

James Turrell Museum

In April 22, 2009, the James Turrell Museum opened at the Bodega Colomé in the Province of Salta, in Argentina. It was designed by Turrell after Donald Hess, owner of the winery and several of Turrell's works, told him he wanted to dedicate a museum to his work. It contains nine light installations, including a skyspace (Unseen Blue, 2002) and some drawings and prints.[42][43]


Turrell's work is represented in numerous public collections including the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams;[44] the Tate Modern, London; the Centre for International Light Art, Unna; the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the de Young Museum, San Francisco; the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis; the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; the Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, Kansas; Academy Art Museum, Easton, Maryland; [45] and Hansol Museum, Wonju, Varese (Italy) Panza Foundation and Welsh National Museum of Art, Cardiff.[29][46]

In Japan, Turrell's works are in the collections of several museums, including the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa[47] and at the Chichu Art Museum at Benesse Art-Site in Naoshima, Kagawa. The Chichu Art Museum holds three works by Turrell, which are on permanent exhibition: the projection piece Afrum - Pale Blue (1968); Ganzfield work Open Field (2000); and skyspace Open Sky (2004).[48] As part of the Chichu Art Museum's Art House Project, architect Tadao Ando designed a building named Minamidera ("Southern Temple") to accommodate a sensory-deprivation work by Turrell, Backside of the Moon, (1999).[49] House of Light, (2000), which is a work commissioned for the first Echigo-Tsumari Art Field Triennial, is a building completely designed by Turrell that mixes traditional Japanese architecture with his signature light installations.[50] House of Light also has a skyspace, whose view of the sunrise has been described as "the almost imperceptible change into deep blue was incredibly moving".[51]


Turrell has received numerous awards in the arts including The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1984 and the National Medal of Arts in 2013.[52]


  • Adcock, Craig: (1990) James Turrell: the art of light and space Berkeley: University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-06728-2
  • De Rosa, Agostino: James Turrell: Geometrie di luce. Roden Crater Project
  • Didi-Huberman, Georges: L'homme qui marchait dans la couleur (The Man Who Walked in Colour) ISBN 978-2-7073-1736-0
  • Turrell, James: (1999) Eclipse (Documents The Elliptic Ecliptic and Arcus, two temporary installations accompanying the last total eclipse of the 20th century), Ostfildern-Ruit [Germany]: Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art, London in association with Hatje Cantz ISBN 3-7757-0898-7
  • Turrell, James: (2001) mit Beiträgen von Daniel Birnbaum et al., herausgegeben von Peter Noever The Other Horizon, An overview of Turrell's development from 1967 to 2001 Ostfildern-Ruit: Cantz ISBN 3-7757-9062-4
  • A Companion Guide to the Welsh National Museum of Art. Cardiff: National Museum Wales Books. 2011. ISBN 978-0-72-000613-1.
  • Govan, Michael and Christine Y. Kim: (2013) James Turrell: A Retrospective Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Prestel, USA, ISBN 3791352636


  • Passageways DVD first published by Centre Pompidou 2006 then published by C.A. Productions 2017 Paris : a presentation of James Turrell's work and the Roden Crater project[53]
  • Art 21: James Turrell, Live Oak Friends Meeting house, PBS Documentary, Biography in text and online clip.[54]

See also


  1. Birthplace sometimes given as Los Angeles (for instance, see Adcock, Craig, James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space, Berkeley/Los Angeles/Oxford : University of California Press, 1990, p. 2). Pasadena is given in a biographical note to the introductory leaflet for the 1993 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London, UK.
  2. "James Turrell". James Turrell. May 6, 1943. Retrieved April 7, 2017.
  3. Adcock, Craig, James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space, Berkeley/Los Angeles/Oxford : University of California Press, 1990, p. 2.
  4. Finkel, Jori. "James Turrell Shapes Perceptions. The Los Angeles Times. May 11, 2013.
  5. Belcove, Julie L. "Incredible Lightness", Harpers Bazaar, April 19, 2013.
  6. Wil S. Hylton (June 13, 2013), How James Turrell Knocked the Art World Off Its Feet New York Times.
  7. Biographical note to the introductory leaflet for the 1993 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London, UK
  8. "James Turrell, Skyscape, The Way of Color". Smarthistory at Khan Academy. February 16, 2016. Retrieved February 20, 2016.
  9. James Turrell Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas. Archived November 27, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  10. James Turrell: Early Light Works, November 13, 2004 – February 12, 2005 William Griffin, Los Angeles. Archived November 16, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  11. James Turrell MoMA Collection, New York.
  12. James Turrell Guggenheim Collection.
  13. Christopher Knight (May 28, 2013), Art review: The light through James Turrell's eyes Los Angeles Times.
  14. Finkel, Jori. "James Turrell Shapes Perceptions. The Los Angeles Times. May 11, 2013.
  15. H. Miller, M. (February 19, 2015). "James Turrell Allowing Limited Visitors to Roden Crater for $6,500 a Person". ARTnews. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
  16. Finkel, Jori. "Shhh, It's a Secret Kind of Outside Art," The New York Times, November 25, 2007
  17. James Turrell: Meeting, 1986 P.S.1, New York.
  18. "The Skyspace". Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting. Retrieved August 28, 2014.
  19. Finkel, Jori. "Five Bedrooms, Pool and Custom-Built Skyspace." The New York Times. April 24, 2005
  20. "The Estate". Liss Ard Estate. Retrieved July 18, 2013.
  21. "Gardens". Liss Ard Estate. Archived from the original on May 30, 2013. Retrieved July 18, 2013.
  22. <http://www.orbit.zkm.de/?q=node/310>
  23. "James Turrell: MAKlite Reloaded - MAK Museum Vienna". www.mak.at. Retrieved June 7, 2019.
  24. James Turrell: Three Gems, 2005 de Young Museum, San Francisco.
  25. Donald, Caroline. "The new garden at Houghton Hall, King's Lynn, Norfolk," The Times (London). May 11, 2008.
  26. "Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture". Marsh Christian Trust. Retrieved April 2, 2019.
  27. "James Turrell - Deer Shelter Skyspace". Retrieved April 2, 2019.
  28. "About • Skyspace Lech". Skyspace Lech. Retrieved April 9, 2019.
  29. "Raethro Pink by James Turrell". Art Fund. Retrieved January 19, 2018.
  30. Sarah Douglas (October 24, 2005), In Their Words: James Turrell and Andy Goldsworthy, BLOUINARTINFO, retrieved April 21, 2008
  31. McDonald, John (February 6, 2015). "James Turrell - a sculptor in light". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved September 6, 2017.
  32. Baker, Tamzin."James Turrell / The Wolfsburg Project." Modern Painters, November 2009.
  33. "James Turrell: Third Breath, 2005/2009". Center for International Light Art Unna. Retrieved January 19, 2016.
  34. "James Turrell: A Retrospective at LACMA". LACMA. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
  35. "James Turrell". Web.guggenheim.org. July 6, 2004. Retrieved April 7, 2017.
  36. "How the Guggenheim Installed James Turrell's Aten Reign". Blogs.guggenheim.org. Retrieved April 7, 2017.
  37. "James Turrell: June 21-September 25, 2013". guggenheim.org. © 2013 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF). All rights reserved. Retrieved May 8, 2015.
  38. "A tour through James Turrell's epic Immersive Light exhibition - Art". Time Out Shanghai. Retrieved April 7, 2017.
  39. "Long Museum". Long Museum. December 18, 2012. Retrieved April 7, 2017.
  40. "James Turrell: Into The Light". MASS MoCA. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  41. James Turrell Studio, personal communication, January 28, 2019.
  42. "Colomé". Bodegacolome.com. Retrieved October 17, 2013.
  43. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on July 11, 2011. Retrieved January 5, 2010.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  44. "James Turrell: Into The Light". massmoca.org. Retrieved January 19, 2018.
  45. "James Turrell Perspectives". Academy Art Museum. Retrieved July 31, 2019.
  46. "James Turrell Public Collections". Pace Gallery. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
  47. "James Turrell at 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art". kanazawa21.jp. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
  48. "James Turrell at Chichu Art Museum". bennesse-artsite.jp. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
  49. Willis, Jackson (October 15, 2016). "Changing Perceptions: Contemporary Art on Naoshima Island". thepolitic.org. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
  50. Mitsumoto, Mickey (August 15, 2016). "The House Of Light - A Design Masterpiece by James Turrell in Niigata". matcha-jp.com. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
  51. Rawlings, Ashley."Staying in James Turrel's House of Light." PingMag (Tokyo). August 21, 2006
  52. Hoye, Matthew. "Obama admits boyhood crush on Linda Ronstadt". cnn.com/. Retrieved July 29, 2014.
  53. "Passageways". Centre Pompidou.
  54. "ART21 | PBS Programs". PBS. Retrieved April 7, 2017.

Further reading

  • Nancy Marmer, "James Turrell: The Art of Deception", Art in America, May 1981, pp. 90–99.
  • Wolfgang Metzger, "Optische Untersuchungen am Ganzfeld" Psychologische Forschung 13 (1930) : 6–29. (the first psychophysiological study with regard to Ganzfelds)
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