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Enlightened Spaces

For almost half a century, James Turrell has been working with light in a way that merges art and technology.

Imagine a painting by Mark Rothko transformed into a movie. In a space behind a glass panel, fuzzy clouds of color slowly morph from one configuration to another. A golden patch may appear in a field of crimson and slowly expand like a rising sun, suffusing the whole zone. Then around the edges a filament of green appears, spreading almost imperceptibly. This, in turn, shifts and modulates. And on and on. This is the experience of looking at works in James Turrell’s Tall Glass and Wide Glass series,some of which are on displayat the Pace Gallery in London and (with other works) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

These were just two of an extraordinary series of simultaneous exhibitions by Turrell in 2013 and early 2014, which also included shows mounted by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

For almost half a century, Turrell, who is 71, has been making innovative art out of the most fundamental elements: light, space, and time. The Tall Glass and Wide Glasspieces consist of an oblong aperture in the wall covered by a sometimes curved surface of frosted glass; behind it is a digitally controlled LED display.

In 2001, when I asked Turrell to choose a work of art from the past to talk about, he selected Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands (1835–40); his inspirations as a young man included the abstract painters Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Ad Reinhardt. To the tradition represented by those artists, Turrell adds (quite literally) new dimensions. There is real space behind the glass, and his works unfold through time in a way that Turner, for example, could only hint at.

Things Reviewed

  • Tall Glass and Wide Glass series

    By James Turrell

  • James Turrell: Recent Works

    Pace Gallery, London
    February-April 2014

  • James Turrell: A Retrospective

    Los Angeles County
    Museum of Art
    May 2013-April 2014

The translation of paint into light might be connected with the way that Turrell first came into contact with painting as a child in Pasadena, California. “On the West Coast, where I grew up,” he told me, “we didn’t really see paintings except through photographic slides.” Because there were then not many museum collections in California, he was prepared to think of art as consisting not of paint and canvas but of light and space.

That is what many of his works are made of, some seeming to occupy space like a sculpture, some covering a flat area like a picture. To someone used to looking at abstract art, the result can be highly deceptive. During a 1980 exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, several people attempted to lean on what they thought was a colored wall but was in fact a surface created by the artist from nothing but light. (A woman broke her arm and sued Turrell.) For the artist, the more painful aspect of the incident was (as he told Wil Hylton in the New York Times) a sense that “on some level you’d have to say I failed.”

Apani, 2011
Installation view “ILLUMInations”
at Biennale di Venetia, 2011

Turrell isn’t trying to create an illusion. He wants to make a deeper point: “that light can hold a volume, and have a surface.” His moment of revelation—the point at which he became an artist—came in 1966. He was a graduate student attending the University of California, Irvine. One day he was reading an essay by Michael Fried, in which there was a polemic against minimalist art. The complaint was that the works of artists such as Donald Judd had a thin, insubstantial look like projected slides. Turrell shouted, “That’s it! I’ve got it!”

Turrell saw that an artwork could be made from light alone. The first works he made—one of which, Afrum White (1966), is on display at LACMA—consisted of a luminous rectangle projected into the corner of a room. The effect is almost of an apparition. A glowing cube seems to be hovering, two sides attached to the walls of the room, the rest protruding into space. It takes a while to realize it is a dematerialized geometric sculpture.

Greet the light

This double quality is characteristic of Turrell’s work: it is at once matter-of-fact and otherworldly. Both characteristics are grounded in his biography. Before he turned to art, Turrell studied mathematics and the psychology of perception at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Today, he continues to employ light as an artistic medium while simultaneously thinking about it like a scientist, and loving it for itself. “The physical quality of light is amazing,” he exclaimed to me in a rhapsody to his medium (and subject). “It can burn us; we drink it as vitamin D. It’s something we eat. Without exposure to light we get seasonal affective disorder.”

Early in his career Turrell’s interest in transforming light into art led him to investigate how we see. In 1968 and 1969, in company with a fellow artist, Robert Irwin, and a perceptual psychologist, Edward Wortz, he conducted a series of experiments as part of LACMA’s Art and Technology Program.

Some of the research Turrell did in those years involved the Ganzfeld effect. This phenomenon, whose name is derived from the German for “complete field,” was first described by the psychologist Wolfgang Metzger (1899–1979), who noted that staring at an undifferentiated field of color causes changes in perception and even hallucinations. What we see affects how we think and feel: that is one of Turrell’s messages. But the artist has another, fundamental point. Many aspects of reality, such as color, are the products of our perceptions. A subset of his oeuvre is “Ganzfeld Pieces,” environments in which the viewer is immersed in a space filled by monochrome light. Breathing Light (2013), shown at LACMA, comprises 5,000 square feet flooded with ever-fluctuating light by digitally programmed LEDs. Such an environment does not cause the extreme effects observed by Metzger, but it is an experience at once disorienting and beautiful: you are lost in a sea of blue or red. In some such pieces, the viewer looking out at the white walls of the gallery seems to see now green, now yellow, according to changes in the colors of the light within the inner pod.

That’s the technological side of Turrell; but of course light is also a profound symbol of the inner life. We talk, almost without knowing what we mean, about enlightenment. By background Turrell was a Quaker. He recalls his grandmother encouraging him to “go inside and greet the light” at meetings. As he grew up, he rejected Quakerism and then returned to it in a fashion, but through it all the notion of light as a spiritual metaphor stuck with him. In a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, blessed souls ascending to heaven rise through a tunnel of light, depicted as series of diminishing, luminous circles. The effect of that 500-year-old picture is strikingly similar to that of Aten Reign (2013), the majestic work that Turrell created last year with a mixture of LEDs and natural light in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum. In this work, he effectively dematerialized the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, transforming the circular form of the building’s central space into, as he described it, “an architecture of space created with light.”

Above Horizon, 1998
Jim Goldstein residence,
Los Angeles

Working in collaboration with a large team of technicians, Turrell created a tower within Wright’s architecture. This began about 25 feet above the floor and rose through five concentric elliptical rings to the top, where under the skylight, translucent material allowed daylight to enter. Simply designing this structure—which was suspended from the oculus at the top—posed a significant challenge.

Each of the five layers of the conical tower had, on the perimeter of its upper surface, two rows of multiple-color, variable LED lights—over a thousand units in all (supplied by Philips Color Kinetics). The number of units on each tier was determined by the dimensions of the oval. These LED fixtures shone upward, filling each conical chamber of the tower with slowly mutating light. Every one of these units was allocated its own unit number according to its location—a digital address—so that the color and brightness each emitted could be controlled either individually or in sections via DMX enablers. The entire unfolding spectacle was operated by a digital program devised by Turrell and his studio. The result: hanging above the spectators were ellipses of light, rising upward while slowly, but constantly, shifting in hue and intensity.

Look at the sky!

This device—drawing attention to light, not as a medium for looking at other things but for itself—is one Turrell has used in many of his works. It is the basis, for example, of his many “skyspace” installations around the world. In some ways, these pieces could not be simpler. An artistically minded teacher at my British school, one of whose less congenial duties was to referee sports, once startled a group of football players by blowing his whistle and shouting, “Look, boys! Look at the sky!” Turrell asks us to do the same thing in his skyspaces, which consist of a viewing chamber open to the heavens. A remarkable example is One Accord (2000) at Live Oak Friends Meeting House in Houston, but there are many others. Some are original, stand-alone structures; others are adaptations of existing buildings.


Turrell does more than just show us the sky; he uses the lighting inside the space to affect the way we see what is outside. The phenomenon is common: if you switch on a light in a room at twilight, the scene outside becomes darker. Turrell uses more subtle gradations of light to modulate what one sees, varying the effects from skyspace to skyspace. The most startling effects tend to be at twilight and dawn, when the sky can seem to be painted on the ceiling—just like one of the frescoed heavens inhabited by fluttering angels in so many baroque churches.

Turrell’s work does what the best art so often does: it makes us pay attention to a sight that would otherwise slip past, familiar and ignored. This is why, in addition to light, his tool is time. The full program for the Wide Glass pieces lasts around two hours. Tall Glass pieces take around an hour and a half. It is not necessary to watch the entire sequence, but it is important to pay attention for long enough to let them have their effect on you.

Roden Crater, begun 1972
View of “keyhole” with stairs
Painted Desert, Arizona

Turrell often makes you stop and look, and look, and look, like this. He is, in his way, a member of the “slow” movement that has gathered strength in the last few decades, especially in Europe, where a Slow Food campaign flourishes, and where Sten Nadolny’s book The Discovery of Slowness (1983) has long been a best-seller. Turrell is a leading exponent of slow art. Minutes could easily drift into hours as you sit in front of one of his Wide Glass pieces. Many of his works require such a commitment; because they are so widely dispersed and are often in remote locations, simply traveling to see them would require much more. To see his most important permanent installations, the Turrell aficionado would need to go to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, where Agua de Luz (2012) was recently installed within a Mayan-inspired stepped pyramid; and to Colomé, Argentina, where one can find the most important permanent collection of his work, at the James Turrell Museum.

Turrell’s masterpiece—in sheer scale, the most ambitious artwork of the late 20th and early 21st centuries—is still unfinished after 40 years in the making. In the Painted Desert of Arizona, a two-hour drive from Flagstaff, he has been working since the mid-1970s to transform Roden Crater, an extinct volcano, into a “naked-eye observatory.”

The partially completed project remains closed to the public. It features a huge circular opening to sky, circumscribed by the rim of the crater itself, and creates the illusion (from the point of view of someone inside the crater) of a heavenly dome above. Below the surface are many openings and chambers that are configured with particular celestial sights. One tunnel is aligned with the summer and winter solstice, and twice a year, for just two minutes, it functions as a camera obscura, projecting a clear image of the sun onto the walls of a “sun and moon space.” A second tunnel projects an image of the moon, including its craters, into the space (but only every 18.61 years, when the moon reaches its southernmost declination). Turrell explicitly connects this massive enterprise with Neolithic monuments such as Maes Howe in Orkney and Newgrange in Ireland, where the light of the rising sun shines down the entrance passage only on certain days of the year (the artist consulted on astronomical matters with, among others, E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory). Asked what he was doing at Roden, the artist explained, “In this stage set of geologic time, I wanted to make spaces that engaged celestial events in light so that the spaces performed a ‘music of the spheres’ in light.”

At Roden Crater, a hostel has been built so that, ultimately, visitors can stay overnight to experience such phenomena as sunrise, dusk, and the starlit sky. (Turrell recommended that I take a similar approach to his skyspace at Kielder, Northumberland, in the remote north of England: stay at a pub, watch the sunset, have dinner, get up early to catch the dawn.)

Like other artists of his generation—the British sculptor Richard Long, for example—Turrell has affinities with 1960s minimalism and also with some of the oldest structures made by man. The unique aspect of his best work, however, is the way it is poised between art and psychology, physics, and mysticism. He manages to evoke the many meanings that light acquired over the millennia, from the Stone Age to the romanticism of Turner. That is what makes experiencing Turrell worth the time and effort it often requires.

Martin Gayford’s latest book is Michelangelo: His Epic Life (2013). His last story forMIT Technology ReviewwasOld Media, Digitized, Makes New Forms”  (November/December 2012).

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