PRINT October 1967

James Turrell: Projected Light Images

JAMES TURRELL WAS BORN IN Los Angeles, California, in 1943; he currently lives in Santa Monica, California. Turrell’s images are projected from a slightly modified, but standard, high intensity projector positioned on the gallery ceiling. No attempt is made to conceal the projectors, and as a consequence of the intensity of the projected light image, it is not necessary for the gallery to be in absolute darkness. His monochromatic images consist of simple geometric configurations, for example, a square or a rectangle. In some instances, the overall geometric shape is modified by the removal of a smaller either similar or dissimilar geometric shape from one corner. In any event, each image is unique. The borders are crisply defined, and the internal field of the image is usually flat and without divisive incident.1

The overall size varies from configuration to configuration, but the majority approximate eight feet at the largest dimension. The white images have a slightly discernible bluish cast and the colored images are tinged a definite blue or pink. The position on the gallery wall of the whitish images is indeterminate. The colored images, on the other hand, assume a more definite position; the projected color-plane is read as a tangible surface effect and thus appears to be more objectified.

Turrell’s images are not only static, non-repetitive and absolute, but they are also highly subjective. His art corresponds to the notion discussed by the sculptor Robert Morris: “. . . The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light and the viewer’s field of vision.” Turrell’s means, however, are purely pictorial. In other words, he uses luminosity not as a sculptor uses material to create three-dimensional form, but illusionistically, in a similar manner to a painter who uses paint on canvas.

Each image is focused upon the wall surface of the gallery by projection. Some images are positioned equidistantly across one of the internal angles of the wall and others directly onto the plane of the wall. Those images focused upon one plane of the wall usually rest on, or slightly above, floor level, or crisply butt up to the angle of the adjoining wall, or are placed in both positions. Each image is a self-contained entity and activates an arc of the gallery in its own particular manner. Thus it is possible to place several images in a gallery and have them apprehended as specific works with an individual character.

The intensity of the projected light dematerializes the wall surfaces enclosed within the boundaries of the image and the unlighted wall surface abutting the image. Walking close to the wall, however, dissolves the physical-object qualities of the image and the observer becomes aware of the actual disposition of the wall surface and that the image is merely reflected light. An awareness of the transient qualities of the images does not detract from the effectiveness of the work. In fact, it serves to intensify the idea that the image, although an illusion, can nevertheless be experienced as something tangible. The manner in which light is made physical and objectified in these images demonstrates that volumes can be engendered without references to structure, and further, that transparency can be engendered without conventional employment of material.

The tangibility of the image is increased by the manner in which it modifies the lighted wall as well as the surrounding space of the gallery, and more than that, the ambient space, that is the space beyond or outside the gallery. In the first instance, the definition and the brilliance of the image makes it difficult to determine the position of the wall; the wall appears to lie somewhere behind the plane of the image. If the observer looks into the image it appears to penetrate the wall. On the other hand, when the wall is focused upon, the position of the image then becomes less determinate. One is called upon to make simultaneous decisions as to where the image lies and where the walls lie. This is due to the fact that the viewer is involved in a space in which the “painting supports” have been enlarged to become congruent with the wall surfaces.

In the second instance, it is first necessary to differentiate between the viewer’s awareness of space, or the space a viewer can perceive or imagine, and the actual space of the gallery. In other words, the viewer, when looking at one of these images, is not only forced to modify his awareness of the fixed position of the wall and image, but he also becomes aware that the image refers to an exploded space. This sensation is enhanced and increased by the very intangibility of the light. When a light image is projected under the circumstances given, the constant modification and fluctuation of the observer’s spatial sense tends to expand the awareness of the physical limits of the gallery.

It must be added that in addition to the powerful modification of the observer’s space created by these images, they also have considerable iconic power. This may not be clearly demonstrable, but the compelling sensuousness of the light and its inexhaustible brilliance is almost hypnotic. Furthermore, an apprehension of the means used does not rationalize the total effect but adds to its vividness and mysteriousness.

John Coplans



1. Except for Afrum, an image projected across the corner of the gallery. Although the projected field for this image is flat, the corner line of the gallery is highlighted as a consequence of reflected light.