This is the year of American artist James Turrell. Three major museums collaborated to give this one man thousands of square feet of exhibition space. Turrell's work is all about space, and light and perception. Indeed, the three big shows in New York, Los Angeles and Houston are kind of a tease for his major life's work — the open air spaces at a volcano crater in Arizona.
Turrell fills Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum rotunda with light that slowly changes from purple to tangerine to turquoise and more. It surrounds and washes down on the viewer.
"He's so sincere and he believes in art," says art critic Deborah Solomon after seeing the New York show. "He's a believer, he's not ironic or cynical and he's not making art about the loss of faith in images, as artists have done since the '60s."
Turrell believes in Big Themes: Nature. Peace. Perception. The heavens. He was raised a Quaker and when he went to meeting houses he was told to "Greet the Light." He grew up in Pasadena, surrounded by the open space and light of Southern California. In art history class he was just as interested in the beam of light from the projector as he was in the slides.
"You know, there's truth in light," Turrell says as he walks through his retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Turrell says his work furthers the explorations of light, done for centuries by artists, such as Vermeer and the painters of the Hudson River School.
"Here, there's not too much difference, except this idea that I want to look at light, rather than have light illuminate another thing," he explains. "I'm interested in the thingness of light itself, so that light is, is the revelation."
Turrell looks the part of the prophet who wants to take you somewhere. He's tall, with long white beard, flowing white hair, deep eyes, gravitas and purpose.
He and a visitor slowly ascend ziggurat-shaped steps, as though walking up into an ancient temple — entering what he calls a light-filled void. From the outside, it looks like a rectangular space large enough for 20 people, but once inside, the ways Turrell has hidden the light sources and cast light of uniform color and brightness all around, makes the walls, floor and ceiling seem to disappear in subtly shifting fuchsias, aquas and pinks. It's the light you see inside closed eyelids.
"We know light like this, but we just don't generally see it with our eyes open," Turrell says. "However, everyone that talks about the near-death experience, or enlightenment or samatha, always does this in a vocabulary of light. "
Turrell flies airplanes out to where the horizon seems to curl up and he loses the sense of up, down, left and right.
"I've always been interested also in this idea of a new landscape without horizon," he says. "You have no feeling of gravity."
Forty years ago, Turrell flew over the American West, spied an extinct volcanic crater in northern Arizona and bought it. He's spent more than 30 years moving earth to create light-filled spaces and a naked eye observatory to convey the vastness of the universe. It's called Roden Crater and could be a contemporary Stone Henge or Machu Picchu. Christine Kim, co-curator of the LACMA show, hopes that Turrell, who just turned 70, can see it completed.
"When it is finished, from 20 different chambers and tunnels, a viewer can look down a tunnel, look out at an aperture, can look at the sun, the moon and the stars, and find these experiences that are acoustically tuned as if on inside of a flute," she says. "... I hope it will be open in our lifetimes."
In the meantime, visitors wait on line to pack into the Turrell exhibitions in New York, Houston and Los Angeles. The LACMA show is the most retrospective of the three, from early projections onto walls, to some that offer the absence of light, to a faint glow, to a large metal sphere Turrell calls the Perceptual Cell.
You lie on your back as two young technicians in white lab coats slide you in. "There's two programs you can choose from," one of the technicians explains. "You can either choose the light program or the hard program. The light one is going to be a little less intense; the hard program is probably going to take you to a more ... transported state."
Inside the Perceptual Cell, the light gets darker, becomes a deeper blue, and starts flashing. The flashing feels like pulsating energy, like something from a 1950s sci-fi flick, like bio-feedback.
Some see Turrell's work as spectacle, no more profound than a Las Vegas Cirque de Soleil LED extravaganza. Critic Jed Perl wrote: "Turrell is a minor poet with the ambitions of a megalomaniac. And the art world is his enabler."
"He's having an incredible moment," says critic Deborah Solomon. "I think because people are glad to see an artist who actually believes in what he's doing and is not just playing off the cynicism of the moment. We have another show in New York, Paul McCarthy's, do you know about that? His Snow White installation in which all the dwarfs are apparently having sex with one another, and have names like Humpy and Dumpy. So I think people are tired of art that pokes fun at its uselessness, and James Turrell really has air of integrity about him."
Leaving the Turrell exhibitions, one might regret that the serenity his works can offer is but illusion. Experienced on earth, all too rarely.