A Turrell Trick of the Eye


Dissolve (Curved Wide Glass), 2017 Collection of Hudson C. Lee © James Turrell, Photo by Florian Holzherr


There really are only two types of Turrell people: The Believers and the Unimpressed. Even then, I remain unmoved in my theorizing they just haven’t met their Turrell moment yet.

My first experience with Turrell was at one of his Skyspaces.  No art adorns the walls; it was a simple white room lined with wooden benches. People causally strolled in with pillows and yoga mats, stretching out across the benches, positioning themselves comfortably on the floor.  And then the show started.

In a Turrell Skyspace, an aperture in the ceiling is slowly revealed, carving out a small piece of sky as the surrounding ceiling is cast with a symphony of light–colors soft and pale – intense yet warm, continually evolving. As they change so it seems does the color of the sky. We refer to them as Turrell colors–everything bathed in his light looks celestial, and surreal.

At some point, you lose your grip on what expanse is the sky or the boundary above your head. perception can lose its bearing and wander outside the realm of true north for however long Turrell intends his trip to last.  Turrell once said in an interview, “I can make the sky any color you choose.”

Raethro II, Magenta (Corner Shallow Space), 1970 Collection of Myffanwy Anderson
© James Turrell, Photo by Florian Holzherr


Off of Route 2, in the sleepy town of North Adams, Massachusetts, MASS MoCA is currently exhibiting Into the Light, a James Turrell retrospective bringing together light installations from every stage of the 74-year-old artist’ five-decade career.

Using his background in psychology and mathematics, and years of knowledge, exploring and manipulating the ways people’s eyes and brains process light and space, he reigns as a Master Welder of Illusion.

The relationship between perception, light and time is intimately explored in his installations. For some, the absence of physical art such as paintings or sculpture in his work, begs the question of whether it can really be considered as an art form. Turrell has often acknowledged this disconnect in contemporary art between the audience and the artist; “Generally, audiences are looking towards what they like, and I can tell you, that’s the last thing on an artist’s mind… I don’t know if I believe in art. I certainly believe in light.”

James Turrell: Into the Light (Installation view), 2017
© James Turrell, Photo by Florian Holzherr

There are nine Turrell rooms to experience in the expanded exhibition space of MASS MoCA’s newly opened, Building 6. Perfectly Clear (Ganzfeld), a two-story installation, is hands-down, the centerpiece of the retrospective.

Early in his career, Turrell conducted experiments based on the Ganzfeld effect, (from German, for “complete field”) where the viewer experiences a loss of depth perception caused by exposure to an unstructured, uniform field lacking aural or visual stimulation, as in a whiteout. To date, Perfectly Clear is his largest Ganzfeld room by volume.

Upon entering the room, you are given paper booties to wear.  Attendants escort you up a flight of stairs to a massive opening with curved walls. You step into a white void gradually filled with light and changing colors. It quickly becomes difficult to discern where the walls begin and the ceiling ends, creating a feeling of walking toward what seems a mesmerizing endless expanse.

Perfectly Clear (Ganzfeld), 1991 Gift of Jennifer Turrell
© James Turrell, Photo by Florian Holzherr


A Turrell trick of the eye remains far more scientific than the surreal calming meditations his spaces might suggest. The sensory deprivation experiment Hind Sight (Dark Space)1984, guides the viewer through a dark corridor with the help of handrails into an even darker chamber. Devoid of any visual stimuli it’s all at once disorienting. Once seated, (yes, those handrails lead to seats), the viewer spends 10 to 15 minutes waiting for their pupils to fully dilate, at which point they begin to notice the faint presence of a dim light. The space is not about what one is supposed to see but the experience of what Turrell describes as “seeing yourself see”.

Afrum, 1967, a projection on loan from the Guggenheim, is one of Turrell’s earliest works on view. The piece uses light as a sculptural medium. Light is projected from a corner of the room near the ceiling, casting a shape on the opposite side of the room, as a white cube seems to float in the corner of the room.

Afrum (Projection), 1967

Collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

© James Turrell, Photo by Florian Holzherr


Into the Light, will remain on long-term view at MASS MoCA. Making reservations for timed entry into Perfectly Clear, and Hindsight through the museum’s website is highly recommended.