James Turrell, The Natural, and The Artificial

The train rounds a corner.
The train rounds a corner (all images courtesy Station to Station)

Editor’s note: This original essay was commissioned by Station to Station and provided to Hyperallergic as an exclusive. Station to Station is an artist-driven public art project conceived by Doug Aitken and made possible by Levi’s.

I have been in the presence of the Grand Canyon four times so far, have been down the lip of the Grand Canyon a couple of miles, have seen it in a variety of seasons — spring, summer, and fall — in a variety of weather conditions — snowfall on the rim and desert heat down below — among a throng and in a stupefied solitude, and so far I have not depleted the Grand Canyon. Indeed, I have not yet made a start on it.

One reason the Grand Canyon defies consumption is to be found in the interaction of light and geology in the Grand Canyon. On the one hand, there are the layers of time, the earth cut through by the river, earlier geological strata farther down. And on the other hand, there is the way that the light illuminates these layers. How the canyon looks at noontime is not how it looks at dusk, and how it looks at either time is dependent on weather and season.

And there are also the different rims, north and south, and the different viewing spots along the rims. These interactions are so dynamic that they are impossible to predict, meaning that you will never know which Grand Canyon you are going to see. In fact, there are probably no Grand Canyons at all of the particular, discrete sort, because the process of change and the dynamics of context prevent the consumption of a stable entity known as the Grand Canyon.

The canyon is in motion. Over the course of millions of years. You cannot know about the Grand Canyon until you make the journey to the Grand Canyon, and you probably cannot know about it even then, except to say that in the first beholding you know a bit more about what you will never exactly know.

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Young people are sometimes not sophisticated enough to understand this about the Grand Canyon, that it looks back into you, that you are emptied out in it, because of scale and dynamics. Or at least I was not sophisticated enough to understand and have frequently misunderstood. This might also be said about other natural phenomena in the American Southwest, which are less celebrated, but just as powerful, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Flaming Gorge, Mesa Verde, etc.

The desert, by creating an idea of scale that is all its own, mocks the ready-to-be-consumed qualities of our picture postcards, makes its features impossible to be consumed, except as object lessons in time and light and geology.

In this way, I learned about the natural world by looking at visual art, precisely backwardly, the real world more influenced by the art than vice versa, and in a way, I learned about the natural world by looking at James Turrell (there were others, too, who had a similar effect, the effect in which they taught me about the natural world, and a partial list of the others would include: Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, Donald Judd, La Monte Young, John Cage, Brian Eno), and because the process was backward, as with watching the stars hurtling away for traces of the Big Bang, I want to catalogue my experiences with Turrell in reverse chronological fashion, so that the conversion and its epiphany come at the end.

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Recently: I saw the Turrell retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. I went a few days after it opened. I wanted to get there quickly because I didn’t want to be told about the show, though somehow it was leaked to me, perhaps through a stray New York Times headline, that Turrell had managed to transform the entire museum.

This sounds fine as a piece of rhetoric, transforming the entire museum, and one can imagine a museum curator getting excited by the line of argument or the ensuing press release, and, yes, part of what is heroic about sculpture and installation work after the seventies is when it traffics in scale, and this is especially true of the work of male artists — when they seem as grandiose as city planners. We are lucky to bear witness to this ambition. But this doesn’t describe the work in question for me.


True, the museum is transformed, and what was Frank Lloyd Wright before now seems somehow as much like James Turrell as it does like Frank Lloyd Wright (the “blank” sections of wall as premeditated as the installations, and very nearly as meaningful), the ligamentary passages not at all ligamentary but part of a creation in its entirety.

And the “old” Turrell pieces, the way stations in the retrospective, seem somehow like constituent pieces of a museum-wide act of creation (in the same way that the silences between performances of La Monte Young works are part of the works themselves), rather than like discrete units of “early work” to be consumed in some sort of amuse bouche.

*   *   *

Still, it is the entrance to the helix of the Guggenheim, the main floor,[1] that is the epicenter of the Turrell retrospective, in which, in a union of natural and artificial light, Turrell has made some kind of pulsing, flowing, spasmodic drama of sunset, a simulacrum thereof, that comes over the entrance to the retrospective in silence like a front line squawling across the desert in monsoon. I watched this piece, if that’s what it was, though it is less episodic, less consumable than a “piece,” in two 40 minute audiences, and throughout I was amazed as much by the context of Turrell, by the population attempting to come to grips with the work, as with the work itself.

Turrell always involves a debate about how to perceive Turrell. Is it ever the same experience for the people who wrestle with it? Is the experience not in constant motion? Never was this more true than on that day, for me, in the Guggenheim. It was June, it was summer in NYC, it was tourist season, it was hot. Fully two-thirds of the audience were not native English speakers, but travellers to the city from Europe and Asia, who were probably seeing the Guggenheim because that museum is a way station on any thorough trip to New York City. And many of the patrons likely knew nothing about Turrell, or only what they could find in Time Out New York on their way uptown. Is the experience the same for them? Is the experience stable and predictable in any way? For the traveller?

*   *   *

I did not stay the longest — I would like to stay for four or five hours and camp out on the section of the banquette where you might lie on your back—but I stayed at some length, while a good many of the young people came and went, chattering the whole time — or texting —before moving on. They got a good look at one color — the pink/salmon/red as it convulsed through the concentric rings above them — but they were too much in motion to do more. It would be easy to criticize this 21st century approach, but the Turrell experience is a midrash of responses, a sum total of all possible audiences.

Many of the visitors to the gallery were wordless, were stunned into a space outside of prevailing art historical channels, because being outside the language means that the viewers are free to create their own metaphorical relationship to the work. The best moments, for me, were when the space abruptly became darker, as with the experience of eclipse, with all the spiritual terror that we used to bring to the eclipse, back before there was any understanding of the heavenly bodies. In the early days of linguistic history, one had to concoct an angry god in order to describe an eclipse.

And this is my metaphor for Turrell, at least for the time being: that he summons the awe of the eclipse.

Part of the revelation of the Turrell retrospective was about the semantics of museum itself. The tourists were trying to treat the Guggenheim as though it were reliably a museum, but the very notions of ingress and exit were made uncertain by the placement of the Turrell at the beginning of the Guggenheim helix, rendering further investigation of the museum secondary, making it difficult, somehow to leave the space.

If the museum had left out a little food for the people on the ground floor, I’m sure there would be Turrelistas who would camp for days. The problem with this arrangement is simply that the light should be nourishment enough. The light is the conversation, the light is the nourishment, the light is a complete statement, the light doesn’t need any supplement to do its job.

*   *   *

Four or five months ago my partner, Laurel Nakadate, convened a sort of a performance event at MoMA PS1, in which she invited people to confess anything they regretted. In the genesis of the performance I had volunteered to call my mother and admit to the fact that I had skipped my one and only piano recital, as a child, to go to the town fair in New Canaan, CT.

I had instead eaten a lot of cotton candy, popcorn, rode several centrifugally spinning rides, gotten a migraine, and thrown up. I never confessed, at the time to my mother, and I never confessed to my piano instructor. I kept the whole story wound within, in some inglorious ball of shame. I intended to tell my mother this, by cell phone, from the lectern at Laurel’s performance event. It turned out a great many other people also showed up at MoMA PS1 for the privilege of detailing regrets.

Laurel had been blessed with a retrospective at MoMA PS1 a year or so earlier, and somehow, through sheer stupidity, while there we had never had a chance to see the James Turrell installation also on display at MoMA PS1, entitled Meeting. This was for me a cause for regret, because of the extremely warm feelings I harbored (and harbor still) about Turrell’s work. On the day of the confessional performance, though, we had an hour to kill before Laurel went on, and the Turrell installation, Meeting, was open. It was one of the Skyspace constructions, which I knew well, both from reputation and from personal experience.


This piece made excellent use of the elementary school interior of MoMA PS1, but with the usual luminous qualities of the Skyspace pieces. Among the audience, many of them people who would momentarily be confessing to significant regrets, there was, too, a public school vibe, a lack of high-art reverence, a slacker/hipster prove-it-to-me vibe, and while I loved the piece from the first instant of beholding it, I also understood how the PS1 interior prompted a public-school exchange of energies.

It is part of school that you have to deny school, only to embrace it retroactively. And: though it would be ahistorical to suggest that I had already begun thinking about the fact that Turrell came from a Quaker family and that the layout of the Quaker church was integral to the design of the Skyspaces, I felt some of this idea in a chrysalis state, the relationship between the Quaker model, and public school, the sense of community in each. Which means that the piece, precisely, had begun to instruct me.

Best at the installation called Meeting — besides the exquisitely framed borders of a blue sky somewhat mitigated by cloud cover — was the moment when a pigeon flew through the sky above us at MoMA PS1, mocking the often perfect abstraction of the Turrell piece. I don’t know if the other viewers at that moment understood the pigeon in the way I was thinking about it. It may have been simply a pigeon, from their point of view, not a little eruption of realistic painting in the field of abstraction, not a reductive metaphor for the holy spirit, not an indication of the idea of visual art, the transformative metaphor of visual art, but as I say the tutorial weight of the piece, and the burden of regret, was on people’s minds.

Do Not Use

I found myself made brave by the Turrell piece, since it rendered what was about the world, and not the panic of inchoate and unrealized anxieties, the panic of otherwise. Of course, my mother absolved me of skipping my piano recital, because so much time had passed (40 years), and if anything depicts the immensity of space and time in art it is the Skyspace pieces, wherein time is dramatized but in a stillness and gravity.

*   *   *

When I got out of graduate school in 1986, I had worked my way up to a pitch of alcoholism and youthful delusion, I thought I knew what literature was supposed to be, and I was willing to pronounce as such, even on occasions when I hadn’t really read the work under discussion.

And I thought I knew what music was good, and I thought I knew ethically what was what in the world, and you couldn’t tell me anything. That was the situation when I went to Santa Fe with my friend Dan, whose family — a family of real estate magnates from Dallas — had a great collection of modern art, and a remarkable understanding thereof. That was the situation when I made it my business to see the Southwest for the first time. Dan introduced me to his family and some friends down there as his token liberal friend.

The second day or so at his family’s summer compound in Santa Fe — an incredibly unusual town that you could only imagine with a completely different set of influences than the ones that give you New York, Boston, or Washington — he said there was an installation nearby that the museum had commissioned, and it involved sitting in a room for two hours, one hour before sunset to one hour after, and, he said, we should go, and I said, Really? 

I didn’t recognize the need to commit to a work of art in this way, I wanted to be a tourist of artworks, and I already thought I knew what I needed to know, which is a sign that I didn’t know very much at all. I didn’t know anything about this artist, Turrell, because, excepting the Northern Renaissance, I didn’t really need anything from art.  And I had a bit of a resistance to non-representational art, excepting maybe Kandinsky or Mondrian.

Still, we went out to this installation that in memory seems to be in an empty lot, by itself (Blue Blood, the piece in question, no longer exists), and we went inside, and it was just this little adobe space, appropriately smooth and Central American in its inflections, as if it were a church for penitentes. Perfectly site-specific. I thought: there is no way I’m going to last the two hours.

The interior was part school, part spa, part church, part funerary space, and none of these at all. The ceiling was missing, of course, and our attention was directed upward, and the performance of sunset was about the relationship to the colors of the sky to the walls of the space, and these were in some constant dance with one another, so that nothing was permanent, but was, rather, always unstable, permanently impermanent.

There were a few others there who were making the journey, and I realized how the sense of community played into the thing, like in a Quaker meeting, where the sense of mutual commitment to silence is essential to spiritual experience. The frame in the ceiling, made the performance of sunset into a pageant, an eighth wonder of the world.

Instead of being told to admire the natural world, because the natural world is worthy of admiration, an apparatus for pursuing this admiration was constructed, in a way that did not require undue amounts of technology. You go in the room, you look up at the sky. The sky performs its unspeakable beauty. (And in this way the sky is both natural and man-made.)

*   *   *

I’m not sure that we stayed the whole two hours. I think we stayed an hour and a half or so, until orange and indigo were the colors I remember best, and there was never a moment when I was distracted, and never was there a moment when I was less than enraptured by the brilliance of the conception, the frame of sky, the play of light, the simplicity of the piece, and its concealment of its conceptual grace. Never less than dazzling.

As I have said, a whole way of making art that had been somewhat lost on me, until then, but now I was like a convert. The apprehension of the artificial created the apprehension of the natural, and this led to esteem for the natural, as it also led to more esteem for certain conceptions of the artificial. It should go without saying that I had to travel to see the Turrell, too, and that was part of the experience. I had to put in the effort to be pried loose from my routine to see what was happening all around me every day: the light in the sky.

And so not long after I went for the first time to the Grand Canyon …

[1] I had this odd experience throughout and after the show in which the word atrium would not occur to me, though I might otherwise have referred to this space in the Guggenheim by that word. It was as if the show imperiled word choice in some way

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