The James Turrell exhibit now on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York—part of a three-city retrospective of the light artist’s career—is a curatorial marvel. Simple, early works representing the artist’s spare meditations on vision sit alongside his later, grander light sculptures. At the Guggenheim exhibit, the magnum opus is a color-changing behemoth called Aten Reign, which illustrates how Turrell’s art transformed mid-career as a function of technology and scale. If we look closely at Aten Reign, and consider it alongside the smaller works selected, we can pick up the thread of Turrell’s earlier inspiration, and see how he has woven that thread throughout all of his work.
Generally speaking, the lighting community reveres the work of Turrell. At the same time, we are not so fond of color changing. “Those who don’t know how to light do color changing,” is how one saying goes. There are mixed emotions, therefore, when considering a Turrell exhibit with a color changing work as the centerpiece. Stare at Aten Reign long enough, however, and something remarkable happens: the colored light recedes, and the sculpture becomes ambient light. The purity of line revealed at that moment is classic Turrell.Nobody can manipulate a more interesting line than Turrell. A perceptual psychologist by training, Turrell knows well what we see and what we don’t see. That gap in our perception is where he plays; that gap becomes, in effect, the canvas for his art.
Art of the Edge
In the case of ambient-lit Aten Reign and many of his other works, including his Skyspace series, Turrell employs an artifact of the sensory system called lateral inhibition as his main tool. In our world, there is way too much visual information for human beings to process. Lateral inhibition is there for the sole purpose of triage—to keep us from being overwhelmed processing every piece of information in our environment.
Turrell understands lateral inhibition, and he employs strategies to create heightened interest—mostly by expanding and contracting dimensions—around edges. For one Guggenheim piece, called Ronin, Turrell fillets the edge of what would normally be a two-dimensional cutout for a door. The curvature adds a third dimension and suggests a larger volume beyond. With Aten Reign and the Skyspace series—including his life work, the Roden Crater—Turrell contracts what would normally be a three-dimensional aperture in the ceiling to two dimensions. Our experience with standard skylights tells us that there should be another dimension, so we fixate on the edge. It is a compelling design strategy used in other venues such as infinity edge pools and the interior of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners.
The second strategy Turrell employs is to create dynamic peripheral conditions around those edges. In the case of Skyscape, for example, our focus is on the edge, yet there is a constantly changing sky behind it. All the visual information is relevant and the effect becomes hypnotic. The accumulate effect from looking at a Turrell piece is a heightened sense of awareness. People have the same reverential hush at Turrell installations that is usually reserved for houses of worship. That says something. Turrell’s work is transformative, like good art is supposed to be. Our sense of time and space and volume shifts slightly, and this is true for all of his work. Understanding Turrell’s strategies doesn’t make it any less interesting. If anything,
it makes it more so.
Don Peifer is a lighting and product designer. The founder of Lunera Lighting, his credits include lighting for photographer Annie Leibovitz and the design of the lighting in Apple stores. Currently the director of lighting at Sensity Systems, his website is donpeifer.com.