James Turrell, “Pink Mist (Space Division)” (1994) (Collection of Cooper A. Lee, © James Turrell, photo by Florian Holzherr, image courtesy MASS MoCA)

As a child, what captivated me was reading the poems myself and realizing that there was a world without material substance which was nevertheless as alive as any other.

—Mary Oliver

“Peoples call me Chip because of my small.”

That’s how the bright Vietnamese teenager introduced herself, as she penciled her name on a scrap of yellowbluepink paper at the start of our daylong walk around Hanoi. Her handwritten name has since faded with the intervening years. But the blended tints of color have survived.

Skip to a few months ago, when I saw “Pink Mist” (1994), one of nine light installations by James Turrell in an exhibition called Into the Light at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). Despite the differences of gender, generation, and geography, Turrell and his installation reminded me of her.

Sure, Chip was decidedly chipper, while “Pink Mist” is about calm. Also, Chip is physically small, while Turrell is not. Even his Santa Claus beard and the cowboy hats he wears are big, not to mention many of his projects, most notably the monumental “Roden Crater”his transformation of an extinct volcano into an observatory for experiencing celestial shifts with the naked eye. (A scale model for this still unfinished ambition after more than four decades, is part of Into the Light, which spans the artist’s five-decade career.)

Regardless the contrasts between them, Chip and Turrell could be singing from the same hymnal. You see, right after our illuminating, hectic walking tour, our teenaged guide inexplicably selected a “very traffic corner” as just the right spot for the three of us to say our goodbyes, and for her to offer up a melodic souvenir. Who knew she could sing like that. Or that such a delicate voice could quell such a motorized riot. Ultimately, Chip silenced the night. Such silence!

In the same way, “Pink Mist” quieted MASS MoCA. Turrell’s installation was so ephemeral that it seemed long ago, even while I was in it. Like memory, Turrell‘s work exists outside of space and time and sound.

And outside of any estimation of size: How big is “Pink Mist”? Smaller than “Roden Crater,” surely. Otherwise, who knows? How big is Stillness? Solitude? Song? Inching blindly through an entrance hallway, I found (or lost) myself within a daylong nighttime. It took a while, but as my eyes adjusted, a pink rectangle became visible.

The rectangle seemed to hover, as its light permeated the room, barely. Imagine being inside a Toni Morrison sentence, a Mary Oliver poem, a Rembrandt or Rothko painting, a dormant volcano.

Its (measureless) ethereality is a big part of its magic, which, even more than most art, is largely inspired by each viewer’s unique story, way of seeing the world, and being in it.

Part of James Turrell’s story is that he’s a licensed pilot. He says that seeing the sky — and flying through it — has had a profound influence on his art. This includes the creation of more than 80 “Skyspace” interiors worldwide, in which an aperture in a roof simultaneously directs our attention inward and toward the heavens.

Standing inside “Pink Mist,” I sensed the invisible presence of others, ghostly museum-goers brushing past. How many, I wondered, understood Turrell‘s technological wizardry or his manipulation of perception and optics? To my unscientific mind, researching the diffraction of light waves or photopic versus scotopic vision, is like reading a foreign language. Meanwhile, this small, exquisitely disorienting black hole of a meditative space dwarfed the massiveness of MASS MoCA.

After backing up to an unseen bench, my body strengthened in a special, power-of-art-to-heal way. “Don’t just do something,” the darkness urged, “sit there.” Hopefully, there’d be time to see the rest of the museum: the Wall Drawing Retrospective, Sol Lewitt’s geometric abstractions on view through 2043 (not a typo); the mysterious, psychologically gripping Louise Bourgeoise sculptures; Ledelle Moe’s gritty, haunting, monumental forms; the complex environments by Laurie Anderson; and many other contemporary works, both powerful and subtle.

Chip’s powerful and subtle singing had dimmed the headlights, sweetened the fumes, and muted the vrooms of surrounding cars, motorcycles, and scooters. I didn’t understand the words she sang, but I got the song’s meaning.

Even if you don’t understand how it happens, James Turrell’s art can move you. Eyes adjust. His chamber glows. Time slows.

“[. . .] it seemed all the clocks in the world had stopped counting,” Mary Oliver writes in “Such Silence.” A few stanzas on, she ends her poem this way:

I sat on the bench, waiting for something.
An angel, perhaps.
Or dancers with the legs of goats.

No, I didn’t see either. But only, I think, because
I didn’t stay long enough.

Stay long enough in a James Turrell installation and wait. I wouldn’t hold my breath for dancers with goat legs to show up. Or an angel. But count on it: Something will.

Darkness reveals if patience prevails. The colored light of “Pink Mist” casts an immersive spell. It’s the quiet of sight. It’s night and day united. It’s of this world, despite its scraps of yellowbluepink unworldliness. It’s science, magic, and mist. And it’s volcanic in scale. Despite its small.

James Turrell: Into the Light continues at at MASS MoCA (1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, Massachusetts) at least through through 2025.

Barry Nemett, Chair of MICA's Painting Department from 1992-2017, has exhibited his artwork in museums and galleries throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. He lectures internationally...

One reply on “The Measureless James Turrell”

  1. Immeasurability is not about the subject, it is about the observer. On the contrary, memory does not, and could not exist outside of space and time and sound, nor smell and touch or taste. Memory comes from somewhere. It does not exist nowhere. Some people will confuse my saying that with pedantic semantics but it is crucial for the meaning of Art to reference reality. It is not reality to assume memory is in any way disembodied simply because its expression is ‘reminded’. It exists because of the reality that created it even if that reality is only pigmentary. To divorce memory from reality is to deny it, and ones self, any verisimilitude or credibility, let alone measurability.

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