PRINT January 1981


AS CITIZENS OF ART, we’re conditioned to ask questions about time and space, questions that have defined the art of this century. What we’re not conditioned to do is to cease asking questions, to invite suspension within time and space, to enter a voiceless, wordless, and silent state. But it is this voiceless condition when nothing happens, and everything can be noticed, that allows a “oneness.” To achieve this, one has to be so bored or exhausted or calm that what the Buddhists call “Mind” falls away, and “Voidness,” or what Western philosophy might call the ground of “Being,” comes to the fore. This “presentness” is seldom encountered. It’s an extra-ordinary condition, a meta-physical state. It happens on long trips in small planes, or at dusk when alone, or during times of extreme psychic intensity. It has come upon me when someone close to me has died, or in a state of extreme physical exhaustion, with heat stifling the synapses and blocking one’s old habits. It is this state that the art of Jim Turrell deliberately induces, through taut control of light, the classic source of revelation.

As I read it, Turrell is an “artist of light” whose primary intention is to confront the forms of understanding embedded in perception. To do this he must use light—which implies and informs sight (the only one of the five senses that creates a horizon), and which is the most important way in which the world manifests itself to Mind.

Turrell’s art requires cutting away all distractions so that a confrontation can be forced with the means by which we acquire our perceptual information. Though that attitude may initially be the same as the one that creates Minimal art, its goal is vastly different. Reductivism eliminates all psychological distractions in order to pare down the object to its essential objectness, its materiality. Turrell rids light of its materiality to free it from physical encumbrances, to assert its connection to consciousness.

Turrell’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum recreated six works from the ’60s and ’70s, revealing essential characteristics of light that contradict or confuse what Mind is determined to perceive. Ideally, in order to encounter the six pieces at the Whitney, one should have just come from the Roden Crater in northern Arizona, an extinct volcano where Turrell is currently working on a project; however, to confront the crater, one should have just seen the works at the Whitney.

His idea doesn’t lend itself to easy description, since any description must hinge on the theoretical way in which one chooses to explain “presentness.” Turrell’s own belief would seem to be somewhere between perceptual psychology and the life-task set down by some Eastern religions. In Buddhism, for instance, the ego and the world do not exist outside of each other; they are both part .of the sphere of phenomena, also known as the dream state. Beyond this lies “voidness,” which by its nature is a oneness. All dualities and seeming inconsistencies disappear when the nature of voidness is encountered: in that state there is no bliss, but neither is there the absence of bliss.

What is the state that lies beyond words, or beyond thinking? Traditional modern Western philosophy, based on the Cartesian relation of body and soul, of matter and mind, dismissed the Eastern explanation of “voidness” as so much mysticism. Yet for 20th-century phenomenology Cartesianism sets up a false picture. Rather than being an isolated “act” imposed on an “outside world,” perception is grounded in the world—the ego and the world share existence. Every encounter between the ego and the world thus carries the whole realm of being along with it. Without phenomenology it would be hard to understand how Turrell’s work can be so formally pure and yet so transcendent.

In our phenomenal world, light is the carrier of mystical, as well as factual, information. Even in its most banal usage, language tells us so. “The light at the end of the tunnel.” “She felt light-headed.” “You light up my life.” Whereas at its most sublime, light has supplied the most brilliant image of all: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3).

On a superficial level, the works in the Whitney can be approached as “illusions,” that is, tricks of the eye to fool the mind. The first piece, Avaar, seems to suggest that reading. On stepping out of the elevator, one sees a bare white room on the rear wall of which there is a large rectangle of greenish gray, (canvas? plastic?). The room is painted “Whitney white” and is illuminated by four track lights aimed toward the two side walls. As one walks toward the rectangle, one sees a faintly darker horizontal line descend from the top, then two more appear at the sides, then another at the bottom. By now, one may have realized that the flat rectangle is actually a hole in a secondary wall, and the greenish gray one sees is the color and tone of the space behind.

If nothing else happened, Turrell would be a magical illusionist. But more does happen, though one must wait silently and patiently at the entrance to the grayness before it reveals itself. The inner space seems filled with mist in which darker areas coalesce (the shadows of people moving in the brighter outside room). The space generates a set of sympathetic reverberations: it acquires a “palpable” density, as though a hand passed through it would touch something like water or sponge rubber (the temptation to try can’t be resisted, and the sense of density persists even when the hand encounters nothing but air). It even has a “sound”—a sort of super-dense saturating silence. It seems to have a smell—clean, white and foggy. And it induces a deep, meditative calm—a psychic density.

Two works at the Whitney, from the series called “Projection Pieces,” re-create Turrell’s earliest light works, which were first shown in his Santa Monica studio in 1966, at a time when he was more attached to mechanical devices. In each, a quartz-halogen projector (which casts a particularly bright white light) shines a beam through a masking plate onto a wall. When aimed at the corner, as in Afrum, light coalesces into an apparently solid cube of glowing white glass floating in space somewhere before or behind the wall (the cube dissolves on closer approach). When aimed at the flat wall itself, as in Decker, the light seems to condense into a plane deeper and richer (more solid but also more translucent) than the supporting wall.

In those early works, which depend on the presence of the projector, a certain kind of content is missing. Though they were startling when first exhibited in 1967 at the Pasadena Art Museum for Turrell’s first one-man show, they lack the metaphysical grace of the work that followed. Turrell’s career has consisted of a slow progression toward greater and greater states of exposure and revelation. After the single-wall “Projection Pieces” he made a series in which light is buried behind the secondary wall and is released through a gap or gaps along the edges or corners of the room. In Raemar, for instance, bluish light pours from the four edges of the secondary wall, making it seem to hang in space, dematerializing the true walls and adding apparent mass to the partition.

But again, optical sleights of mind have less psychic resonance than the works that relinquish the glare of bright light in favor of a sort of environmental radiance. Wedgework 3, from the series begun in 1969, begins to clarify the task Turrell set for himself in the Roden Crater: to display light alone, for its own sake. In Wedgework 3 light pours from an invisible source in an alcove to the left of the viewer. It forms a triangular wedge, cutting diagonally across the room to the opposite rear corner. The light is so dense that, like a scrim, it seems to be physically stretched between floor, walls and ceiling. It is pinkish purple overall; it collects in pockets of a deeper pinkness along the rear wall, and a nearly pure blue that extends along the hypotenuse until it ends in the far corner, like a “shadow” of color. Again, it seems to “hum” or to have extra-visual content.

In his next series, Turrell used street light entering directly into his Santa Monica studio through movable apertures in the walls. That series began the set of works “Structural Cuts” and “Skyspaces,” which open directly to the outdoors and use light not in artificial form, but in, its natural appearance as daylight and atmosphere. The “Structural Cuts” penetrate walls; the “Skyspaces” pierce ceilings and roofs. Works in both series were first made for Count Giuseppe Panza in Varese, Italy, in the early ’70s, and at the writing of this article a “Skyspace” is being cut into the roof of P.S.1 in Long Island City.

At the Whitney, however, Turrell could not cut through the building to the outside. Instead he masked a window with translucent plastic and amplified the outdoor light with purplish blue argon. The masked window glows intensely, casting an even illumination over a small room painted on the remaining five sides with reflective titanium white. The room throbs with a darkish glow that dissolves the walls and induces a disorienting near-hallucinatory state. Turrell has created a ganzfeld (light-saturated space originally devised by perceptual psychologists to duplicate flying conditions in fog).

Between the “Wedgework” series in the late ’60s and the “Space Division Constructions” of the mid-’70s, which use only ambient light (Avaar is one), Turrell began work on the Roden Crater. In the crater, the exposure is extreme; there is nothing, literally, between the viewer and the sky. The site is an extinct volcano that rises in two humps of black and red cinder 800 feet off the surrounding escarpment, over 1000 feet above a river valley. The crater dips at the top into a gentle bowl or inverted nipple that functions like the opening in Avaar—it frames space. But now the viewer is in the inner space looking out. Turrell chose a volcano because its elevation lifts one off the plane of the landscape and into the region of the sky, where both the earth’s curvature and its enormous scale are more apparent. The crater is not an “art work” but part of the natural world; Turrell is doing little to it besides piercing the crater wall with a tunnel and smoothing the bowl into a more nearly perfect hemisphere.

I visited the crater in 1978, before either task was completed, but since neither is crucial to his concerns—dawn, dusk, atmosphere, space, sensation—the crater in practical terms was already “working.” The setting is overwhelming. Standing on the lip, I could see mountains in New Mexico and the plateau that forms the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. The phenomena that happen around the crater are not a surprise—anybody who has spent time in the desert or on the ocean knows what to expect. But what Turrell has done in designating the crater as art is to reveal that the spectator is inside an experience. The only way to experience Turrell’s crater is to adopt “presentness” and wait. The separation that occurs in a gallery between spectator and artwork is impossible when the “work” surrounds you and extends for a hundred miles in all directions.

I was on the crater twice, the first time in full summer daytime heat. I found that my torpor and exhaustion brought on a semihallucinatory state of extreme perceptual sensitivity comparable to, but far greater than, what I felt in front of Avaar. At one point I crouched on the crater lip, listening to an ordinary fly—which flew past me with a buzz that seemed actually to be solid and to plow through the atmosphere leaving a visible wake. I was concerned with the apparent dimensions of space; as I walked up and down the inner bowl I watched the daytime moon appear and disappear behind the crater lip, forcing the sky to expand or shrink.

The second visit lasted from dusk to dawn. I was there alone to see the pinkish purple penumbra of the earth, which rises at dusk as a precursor of darkness, and falls back at dawn. I reached the top of the crater just as the sun set, and watched from inside the bowl as the glow of dusk faded and the sky seemed to contract until, in full darkness, it came to rest just a few feet outside the crater lip. With the contraction came claustrophobia and anguish, as though the universe were now much smaller and more focused on me. At one point the night sky, which had always arched like a bowl, “flattened” into a plane, held its position for a few moments, then snapped in again. Several times in the night I was surrounded by the cough of mountain lions; they were probably many miles away, but because of the sky’s constricted dimensions my hearing kept placing them just outside the crater lip. When light appeared on the eastern horizon, I watched the sky slowly quadruple in volume, and my optimism correspondingly returned.

Subjectivity isn’t usually considered the province of criticism. But the subjective response to perceptual conditions is the substance of Turrell’s art. Ego (or Mind) is not fragile at all—it projects itself onto the world in its own image. Without conscious effort it spreads around one like a cloak sheltering the thinking being from what lies outside thought. In the silence of the crater, by Turrell’s design, ego stands revealed.

Kay Larson writes art criticism for New York magazine.