San Francisco

James Turrell

Capp Street Project

This starkly modern multipurpose building, faced with corrugated aluminum and edged with jutting clerestory windows, is the home of an ongoing series of three-month residencies that brings artists to live, work, and create site-specific installations within it. Here, James Turrell recently gave the first local demonstration of his well-known ability to manipulate the perception of a space through the manner of its illumination. His three rooms, although discrete and self-sufficient, offered richer meaning when understood as interrelating and sequential, producing an experience of deepening inward focus as one moved through the compact house.

The two initial spaces were structurally similar, each a medium-sized room into which one looked through a large cut-out rectangle, like a picture window, in the front wall. Inside, lighting was recessed and unseen. One encountered the first piece, Kono, after traversing the long foyer and turning a corner. Natural sunlight from above combined with peach helium light, forming a warmly lustrous haze. In looking into the room one faced toward the street, and of the three rooms the delicately vivifying color here was most like that of glowing daylight. The viewer had to turn away from it and move further inward, toward the rear, to stand before the large rectangle opening onto Orca. In contrast to the clearer, slightly harder light of Kono, a foggy lavender blue (solely from argon) suffused the room, making the intersection of walls and floor difficult to perceive. Central to these light spaces was the dichotomy between empty and full: there was nothing to look at but the quality of light itself. The process of absorbing the differing hues and densities engendered, in turn, distinct moods. The soft, more somber violet promoted a quieter, more emotionally withdrawn state than did the luminosity of the peach.

The illumination in each of these works didn’t accentuate perception of the shape of the room but diminished it, the atmospheric light creating more a sense of boundless inner space. In contrast to that sense of contemplative expansion, the front walls acted as frustrating obstacles to physically merging with the space. The rectangular frames also asserted the rooms’ identities as “art,” which, like pictures, or a landscape outside a window, cannot be directly experienced except from a static visual perspective.

In terms of landscape, the peach suggested the radiance just before sunset, the violet, the light just after. To reach the third installation, Selene, one descended a long shallow ramp in a dark corridor and turned into a small, almost completely black viewing chamber. The sequence was like entering night, a netherworld, or the subconscious. Across the narrow space an indeterminate red glow, sometimes appearing ringed by white, was barely perceptible. One had to stare with difficulty to bring it into focus, which made it mysterious or even mystical (as if a glowing “sacred heart”), and a focal point for quiet concentration.

In this series of spaces Turrell drew on one’s physical movement deeper into the house—itself a protective container offering metaphoric associations with the body or the temple—to augment the mental movement toward an inward contemplative state. The sophisticated installation produced an extraordinary experience. It would only have been further enhanced by an exit foyer preventing one from having to double back past other viewers in order to leave (although that acted like an “ascent” back to daylight), and by some crowd control. The final days of this popular and unusual work drew a chattering queue of visitors that disrupted the quiet necessary for its absorption.

Suzaan Boettger