James Turrell 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. A pivotal environment Turrell developed from 1969 to 1974, for The Mendota Stoppages several rooms in the former Mendota Hotel in Santa Monica were sealed off, the window apertures controlled by the artist to allow natural and artificial light to enter the darkened spaces in specific ways.
Turrell is perhaps best known for his work in progress, Roden Crater. He acquired the crater in 1979. Located outside Flagstaff, Arizona, Turrell is turning this natural cinder volcanic crater into a massive naked-eye observatory, designed specifically for the viewing of celestial phenomena. His other works usually enclose the viewer in order to control their perception of light. 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.
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. In 2013, Turrell created another Quaker skyspace, Greet the Light, at the newly rebuilt Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting in Philadelphia.
In 1992, James Turrell’s Irish Sky Garden opened at the Liss Ard Estate, Skibbereen, Co Cork, Ireland. The giant earth and stoneworks has 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, 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).
Other Skyspaces include the Kielder Skyspace (2000) on Cat Cairn, England, Second Wind (2005) in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain, and the Sky-Space (2006) in Salzburg, Austria. Three Gems (2005) at the de Young Museum is Turrell's first Skyspace to adopt the stupa form. 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.
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. 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!"