James Turrell is an American artist born in Los Angeles in 1943 to his father, a school administrator, and his mother who was a medical doctor. His parents were of the Quaker religion and thus did not believe in art, thinking it to be a show of vanity. Turrell received his pilot’s license at age 16 and served for the U.S in the Vietnam War, where he registered as a conscientious objector and instead used his flying skills to fly Buddhist monks out of Chinese-occupied Tibet.
His first studies were at Pomona College in mathematics and psychology. His initial art studies began at the University of California, Irvine where he studied Art Studio. This was interrupted in 1966 when he was arrested for teaching young men how to avoid the draft. Later, he received a Masters degree in art from Claremont Graduate School.
At the time of Turrell’s burgeoning art career, the Light and Space movement was beginning in Los Angeles. This loosely connected group of artists focused on perceptual phenomena such as light, volume and scale with materials like glass, acrylic, neon and fluorescent lights.
Turrell’s original studies in mathematics and psychology helped in incorporating techniques from Southern California’s engineering industries to assist in developing the art movement’s works.
In 1967, Turrell moved into a building that was formerly the Mendota Hotel. Here, he began to experiment with ways that light could manipulate the perception of space. His first works covered windows to allow only small amounts of light from outside in. As he continued his creations, he created groups of works including similar structures and effects.
Examples of his work involve Cross Corner Projections, where a glowing cube appears to be suspended in the corner of the room but is in reality a simple projection of planes of light. In the 1970s, Turrell began a series of “Skyscapes”; a project that has been repeated numerous times globally. This series occurs in an enclosed room of specific proportions with an opening to the sky, and colors of light directing the eye upward.
In 1974, James Turrell left Los Angeles for Flagstaff, Arizona. Here, he acquired an extinct cinder cone volcano called Roden Crater. Since then, he has explored light and nature, working to build his magnum opus, a naked eye observatory. The opening date for this has been repeatedly pushed back as he continues to move tons of dirt and build tunnels.
Turrell’s works are often installations in major gallery spaces, where the physical space of the white gallery wall is transformed with planes of light. Some works explore the Ganzfeld Effect, a form of sensory deprivation created by oppressive fields of light.
His oeuvre also includes some works on paper, where he explores the qualities of light he could potentially transmit.
Art critic John McDonald has called Turrell’s works “dull to describe but magical to experience”. From his first solo exhibition in Pasadena in 1967, Turrell has had solo exhibitions from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam to the Whitney in New York City.
He has received multiple awards, such as the MacArthur fellowship, and continues to create and exhibit his work today.