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James Turrell, The Architect of Light

Updated: Jan 1, 2023

James Turrell has built a prestigious career spanning five decades through his works that transform the sense of perception. He is an artist of light and space, whose on-site works can be found in 29 countries. These installations are large-scale and aim to generate in the viewer a different notion of reality. His works are universes in themselves but it is not a matter of contemplating them but a unique sensory experience.

Video by Guggenheim Museum

Born in 1943 in Pasadena, California, Turrell managed to blend in his works his extensive knowledge, from his work as a cartographer at the age of sixteen, his vocation as an experienced pilot, and his studies in psychology, mathematics, geology, and astronomy at Pomona College in Claremont. It was not until 1966, when he took the step to artistic studies at the University of California, making his first works based on the projection of light. It was then, in 1967, when he had a solo exhibition of his work Projection Pieces at the Pasadena Art Museum, in which he used high-intensity projectors to modify spaces through light.

His fascination with the phenomenon of light relates to his personal, inner search for humanity's place in the universe. Turrell's art demands great self-awareness and discipline in terms of quiet contemplation, patience and meditation. He is considered one of the pioneers of Light Art, a collective of artists influenced by elements of Op Art, Minimalism, and Geometric Abstraction. Focused on altering the perception of light, volume, and scale, these artists used glass, neon, natural and artificial lights, resin, and plastic sheets to create works and installations.

Video by Los Angeles County Museum of Art

RodenCrater is their longest-running and most ambitious work to date. Begun in 1979, is an observatory located on a dormant volcano in the Arizona desert. Still unfinished, it is closed to the general public, and permission must be requested to enter. This installation is part of his best-known series called "Skyspaces" made up of camera-observatories. The artist created different immersive architectural designs conceived to observe the sky when the tonality of the lights changes our vision of the sky, constructing our own experience through perception. As of 2013, more than 82 skyspaces have been installed worldwide, including Dividing the Light, Skyspace Lech and Live Oak Friends Meeting.

For the Venice Biennale in 2011, Turrell presented Apani in which visitors entered the space and perceived a flat projection, a colored wall that was actually a room filled with light. The central focus of this work is the Ganzfeld Effect, the complete loss of perception of reality, discovered by a German psychologist in the 1930s. The flat, minimalist style of Breathing Light (2013), which alters perception in such a way that the viewer believes they are in this state of zero gravity, served as inspiration for Drake's "Hotline Bling" music video.

Turrell's light installations have participated in numerous exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, MoMA, the museums of contemporary art in Los Angeles and San Francisco, etc. Even in the north of the South American country, Argentina, there is the only museum not only with works by the artist, but also designed by him.

Video by National Gallery of Australia

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