Home Magazine Public art by James Turrell

My work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, although it is a product of my seeing. I’m also interested in the sense of presence of space; that is space where you feel a presence, almost an entity — that physical feeling and power that space can give” James Turrell.

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James Turrell was born in Los Angeles in 1943. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Mathematics from Pomona College in California, he decided to continue his academic career by specializing in a master's degree in art from Claremont Graduate School.

In the early 1960s, he decided to take part to the Light and Space Movement and since then he has dedicated his practice to what he has deemed perceptual art, investigating the immaterial qualities of light. Influenced by the notion of pure feeling in pictorial art, Turrell's earliest work focused on the dialectic between constructing light and painting with it, structured on the sensorial experience of space, color, and perception. These interactions became the key characteristics of Turrell's work, which evolved to an investigation of the immateriality of light itself.


Photography © Florian Holzherr, Paul Bardagjy, Fernando Ortega. All images Courtesy of Landmarks, the public art program of The University of Texas at Austin


Being a careful observer of the sky and manipulating light as a sculptor would mold clay, in 1970 Turrell began his most known series, namely Skyspaces.

“A Turrell Skyspace is a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky. Skyspaces can be autonomous structures or integrated into existing architecture. The aperture can be round, ovular or square”

Inside, spectators sit on benches to view the sky through the opening in the roof.

These site-specific works allow an intimate relationship with sunlight. Turrell's hope is that "those able to enjoy this work will experience a sense of serenity through the power of light". The formal sobriety and the soft choice of colors (limited to black and white) characterize these small buildings. No superfluous decoration, so not to overcome the sunlight, which is indeed the key subjects of these projects.

Turrell's artistic research focused on light as a tool for revelation and inner elevation. His works are conceived as places for meditation, where the individual can submerse himself in silent contemplation of the sky, both during the day and at night. Indeed, to Turrell starts as interesting as sunlight, stars that have always been observed by humankind with curiosity and, in ancient times, with a bit of concern.

His most far-reaching projects is the grandiose Roden Crater, which he has been developing since 1977 and whose opening date may finally be soon. It is an exceptional work of land art, a route of tunnels connected to openings overlooking the sky, created inside a volcano in the middle of the Painted Desert, in northern Arizona. A natural observatory for celestial events where the sensory effect is assured.


©2016 Skystone Foundation; all images © James Turrell


Cover image: James Turrell, Photograph by Florian Holzherr Copyright James Turrell.

Written by Giulia Cami


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