TWO BOOKS ON TURRELL (2013 & 2018)

For those that need an introduction to American light artist James Turrell (°1943), I’ve included two short YouTube documentaries at the very end – both worth viewing if you’re familiar with the man too. This post will be part book review, part essay.

Turrell rose to general public fame as Drake stole his visual approach for the video of Hotline Bling in 2015, and when I visited a site-specific installation of Turrell in a burial chapel on the grounds of Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin in July 2016, the crowd was massive, and, surely, some teenagers took out their smartphone and filmed each other making gestures like Drake in his clip. Regardless of the crowd, the experience was spiritual and uplifting – about 40 minutes of carefully programmed shifting lights to be started at the onset of dusk. Luckily, most teenagers didn’t have the meditative stamina to sit it out fully, so we had the place to ourselves at the end. After the book reviews I’ve included some pictures I took, and one that a friend took featuring some other friends and yours truly in summer outfits.

For starters, a book from my favorite art book list I posted in 2017 – I included it back then on the strength of the visuals, but I hadn’t fully read it. The second book is a bit more recent, published in 2018, and has much less text.

“My work is about how we construct reality. The real illusion is that we aren’t aware of how we give reality to things. We have awarded them concreteness of reality and are unaware of how we’ve done that.”

JAMES TURRELL: A RETROSPECTIVE – Michael Govan & Christine Y. Kim (2013)

Turrell cover James Turrell: A Retrospective was published for a major retrospective exhibition in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Guggenheim in New York. The retrospective also traveled to Jerusalem and Canberra. It has 304 pages and 250 illustrations, in a lavishly published hardback.

I always wonder whether people that haven’t experienced Turrell firsthand can truly get the idea of how revelatory & moving his work actually is. I’ve been luckily to live nearby one of his Skyspaces in Antwerp, and catch the Turrell exhibition in De Pont in Tilburg in 2015, as well as his permanent installation in that Berlin cemetery.

Art books are rarely substitutes for the real deal, but it is doubly so for Turrell, as the spatial aspects of perceiving light are so hard to translate in a 2D medium. As such, my experience of these books obviously is colored by my real world experience with Turrell. Having said that, this book does a spectacular job, and it shines especially in the accompanying text – essays and an interview. It made me realize that I’ve only seen a glimpse of his oeuvre, and his work is much richer and more diverse than I thought.

The book starts with a 20-page introductory essay by Michael Govan that provides a broad overview, embedding Turrell’s practice in history. It is followed by an in-depth 10-page interview with the artist by Christine Kim that covers his entire life. After that there are 9 chapters, each focusing on a specific area of his work, each with an introductory text of a few pages. There’s also a 11-page essay by E.C. Krupp, astronomer and director of the Griffith Observatory in LA, and a 14-page essay by Alison de Lima Greene, a curator. There is quite a lot of text to digest, but I liked it all. Repetition is kept to a minimum and the quality of the writing is high: this truly is the definitive general monograph on the artist so far.

Throughout the book not only the depth of Turrell’s engagement with his subject matter became clear, but also his status as a contemporary artist. Much of his work is expensive to build, and his massive Roden Crater project – near Flagstaff, Arizona – defies all commercial laws. It illustrates how much money there’s floating around in the world, with billionaires, donations and Kanye West a prerequisite for the project – the 2008 financial crisis delayed the opening of the Crater for a few years. Even though it is not about ideology or anything else but the perception of light on our planet, it seems Roden Crater could not exists outside the capitalist system, and as such it is maybe a fitting 20th and 21st century version of similar monuments like Stonehenge, as it seems like that was a more communal, egalitarian project. At the same time, in the end, Roden Crater will cost less than certain Picassos. Not a defense per se, only a remark that again points at our social structures. While Roden Crater might be a sign of the times, Turrell designed it for the long run, as its optimum will be 2000 years from now. He started the building project in 1974, and the latest word is that it will be completed in about 5 years – I hope to visit it someday, if entry fees will be democratic that is.

Delivered without narrative or ideology, these encounters are not reacquisitions of a lost observation skill or reinventions of celestially tempered monuments but timely opportunities for familiar, if uncommon perspective on life, the universe, and everything through the visual experience. (E.C. Krupp)

The universe is in the business of redistributing energy, and one of its primary strategies is light. Light was part of the story from the very beginning, about 13.7 billion years ago. The hot subatomic particles that filled the universe scattered all of the light so fast and so often that seeing would have been impossible, had there even been an eye to see. After almost 400,000 years of this impenetrable fog of light, the cosmos cooled enough to let the soup of protons and electrons combine into atoms. That lifted the curtain and left light free to fly. The game was afoot. There still were no eyes in the universe, but seeing had become an option. (E.C. Krupp)

Turrell often notes that there is no difference between so-called natural and artificial light, since all light is something burning. (Michael Govan)

It goes without saying that this book is highly recommended for anyone interested in art that deals with perception in general.

“I use no object as such because I don’t want to have light lighting things, I want to make a thing-ness of light. Therefor, there is no object because perception of light is the objective – perception is the object….I also like no focus, no one point, no one where to look, so that literally you begin plumbing the space with vision, and, in a a reduced light area, you are able to have feeling move out of the eyes. Our eyes are normally closed either with the protective eyelid or the tight pupil….I believe that there is a time when the eyes, being the most exposed part of the brain, have feeling move out of the so that there is a sensual sensing this happens only in rather reduced light levels. It may seem that there is a lot of light in some of my works. But in fact, there is very little. It’s just that I control the rest of the situation.”


James Turrell Extraordinary Ideas - RealizedThis book comes from privilege, as it was instigated by Frieder Burda, who in 2004 opened a $20 million building in Baden-Baden, Germany, to house and show his own collection. Burda’s father, a publisher, also collected art, notably German Expressionists.

At 198 pages and 178 illustrations, this is the thinner book of the two. It was published by Hatje Cantz on the occasion of a Turrell exhibition in the Museum Frieder Burda, and there’s also a German edition.

Both this book and the one from LACMA are complementary, as the number of same works that are featured is very, very small. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but I’d say the quality of printing is even better in this book, and as such the reproductions of Florian Holzherr’s photographs are a bit more lush – even though the difference is small.

The book has a whole lot less text: a 4-page discussion between Turrell and Krupp, a 4-page conversation between Turrell and Michael Govan, a 2-page introduction by Richard Andrews, president of the Skystone Foundation, the organization responsible for the realization of the Roden Crater Project, a 2-page essay by Arthur Zajonc, a physicist, and a 3-page essay on the healing powers of light by Martin Meuli and Michael Grotzer, both medical professors in Zurich.

As for the art shown, this book too features a broad sample of Turrell’s work: Projection pieces, Wedgework constructions, Shallow Space constructions, Skyspaces, Skylights, Roden Crater, Perceptual Cells, Ganzfelds and Tall Glasses.

“We have all prejudiced perception – by which I mean that what we perceive is limited by the kind of perception that creatures like us have. And then come the ways that we have learned to perceive. But we tend to make great assumptions. Like the assumptions people make in real life. It’s like marriage. Often people have extremely different views of what they’re getting into and never manage to express their views to each other. This is also how we perceive the world.”

I’d say this volume works wonderfully as a companion piece to the retrospective publication, and it also has a few works that are younger than the latter’s publication date. That said, if you want to buy only one, the LACMA publication offers more bang for your buck, easily.

“I am dealing with no image, because I want to avoid associative, symbolic thought.”

Dorotheenstadt burial chapel 2Dorotheenstadt burial chapel 3Dorotheenstadt burial chapel 1Dorotheenstadt burial chapel 4Burial chapel, Dorotheenstadt cemetery, Berlin, July 2016 - James Turrell

Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews only, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

8 responses to “TWO BOOKS ON TURRELL (2013 & 2018)

  1. While the subject matter feels like too-rarefied air for me 😉 I love the way light and color are used in the pictures you shared: it looks like an experience that’s both visual and emotional.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the thing indeed. I think experiencing Turrell in Berlin and in Tilburg ranks among the most emotional art experiences I ever had. There’s a few other I should mention: my first time Breugel in Vienna, Botticelli’s The Allegory of Spring in Florence when I was 18 – the first painting that made me cry, and the first time I saw the Seagram Murals of Rothko in the Tate Modern. All of these experiences were of a semi-religious nature, having a profound effect on my soul, so to say, and each of them had an impact on how I perceive art & beauty.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I find this comment fascinating because I looked up the artwork that you mention. Allegory of Spring looks elegant and somehow painstakingly thought through, and the Seagram Murals look foreboding, making me really uncomfortable, but those are the only reactions I have to them. The only art that ever made me cry is music and film.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s probably a huge cliché, but all these works need to be seen and felt in real life, rather than from reproductions to experience their true impact. Obviously there’s also a certain idiosyncraticity to why I’ve reacted to those particular works that’s impossible to explain, but I’ll try to do a broad sketch for each.

          The Botticelli was simply an unexpected encounter with beauty. I was really taken by surprise, and surprised at my own reaction. His painting has a certain lightness to it, a luminosity that’s hard to explain, I’ve since noticed it in other of his paintings too, but back then, I was touched by the ethereal quality of the work, the way the veils are painted, the facial expression. I was only 18, but it made a lasting impression. I’ve never seen it since, sadly.

          When I first saw the Seagram Murals, I didn’t know a thing about them, and not so much about Rothko himself either. They are presented in a room with less lightening, to emulate a restaurant experience, for which they were commissioned. There’s something profoundly meditative in that room, surrounded by these painting, hypnotic, etc. – all clichés too – and while I admit they have a certain darkness and sadness to them, there’s also a consolation of some sorts. I think I thought it moving somebody was able to convey these complex emotions in me just by painting. The second time I saw them, I obviously expected too much and the experience wasn’t the same.

          The Breugel room in the KHM in Vienna is incredible, I think my favorite place on earth. When I first visited it, it was a shock, I spend more than an hour there, finally seeing all these paintings that are well-known in Belgium, part of our collective subconscious so to say, but what really made it special was the sudden realization that Breugel was a genius, and that was unexpected, because I thought I knew these paintings as there are so many reproductions of these works in all kinds of media (the Suske & Wiske comic e.g.) that they in a way seemed banal to me – that is, until I saw them in real life. Again hard to explain, but his work communicates something of the condition humaine and manages to do so 4 centuries later, again with a feast of color, a clarity of painting. Wannes Van de Velde, an Antwerp folk singer, has a song about Breugel in which has the line “zijn penselen boorden gaten in de tijd” (his pensils pierced wholes in time) and that is exactly it. Obviously the experience can’t be separated by the journey, the fact that we were visiting the magnificent Vienna, had already seen other masterworks in the museum, the building, etc. It’s like visiting a shrine, a pilgrimage, etc. Recently I’ve learned that some of Breugel’s paintings (the ones depicting farmers) were probably inspired by farmers living only 10 kilometers from where I grew up, so there also must be something of a shared ‘terroir’ there.

          In my first reply here I forgot the visit I payed to the Late Rembrandt exhibition in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I wasn’t really familiar with Rembrandt at that moment, I only had a superficial knowledge, and an inkling that it would be great because of his last self-portrait I saw in The Hague a few months before, but the entire exhibition (also shown in London) was again an encounter with somebody who really, truly understood painting, maybe in the most revolutionary way possible. The experience for me was again an encounter with a personality, somebody communicating from beyond the grave that he truly understood art – if I’m allowed such hyperbole. Now that I think of it was Rembrandt’s revolutionary, radical spirit I was in awe of, and that’s probably the most important base for my emotional reaction to that exhibition.

          But agreed: I’ve cried to music & film way more often than to art 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • It is true for me that the experience of art is very dependent on the moment. I have been to Vienna and I remember walking down a quiet street in the evening, it was dark, and a street musician was playing Albinoni’s Adagio. And in those surroundings, at that time as a lone traveller, it touched me much more than if I look for it on YouTube right now.

            That same trip to Vienna I visited the KHM, but as a young adult I was still struggling with the stupid idea that museums were for stuffy and nerdy people. I still visited because secretly I wanted to and I had to come to terms with that. I remember the Breugel room still as a good exhibition.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes I’m pretty sure the KHM wouldn’t have clicked for me at 18 or 22 or so. Not that I didn’t like museums, but I simply wasn’t interested in older art, only contemporary stuff, because I didn’t know how to look. The eye needs a bit of experience and training too. In that sense the Botticelli experience at 18 was all the more exceptional.

              I think the first time older pre-20th century art really clicked (besides that school trip to Italy) was when I saw the Frick collection in New York when I was 26 or 27.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. I used to live near Flagstaff, love the San Francisco volcanics and the clear high-desert sunlight — and was disappointed that his project seems to be taking, well, forever. How he can compete with that reality, who knows? TBH, I think I’m happier with the real thing. Or I’ll go to southern Utah, my vision of God’s Country. Or northern New Mexico….

    Mind, where I live now isn’t shabby — though living in California is a mixed bag at best. The sheer expense of EVERYthing! Still, have a look: Still pretty country, and surprisingly far from the madding crowds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a very interesting question. I guess it might be and/and, not either/or. As for as I can tell, he tries to showcase different aspects from reality than the landscape. But I agree, in the end, the real thing might be more impressive indeed.

      I’ve only been to the States twice, only on the Eastcoast, mainly to visit cities, and haven’t seen that much spectacular landscapes, but your pictures are mouth-watering indeed. Makes the low countries look bland – which they mostly are from a landscape perspective. I’ve always wondered what living in a more impressive natural environment would do to the psyche.


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