While working on the crater, Turrell has also been creating art out of light in museums and galleries—projecting and mixing colored light to make seemingly solid objects appear to be hung from walls or suspended in air. In a typical installation called Gard Blue (p. 93), you enter a dark room and see a 5 1/2-foot-tall blue tetrahedron standing brightly in one corner. It looks as though it’s made of plastic and lit from within. Only when you come close do you see that the “object” is actually pure light, projected across the room from a corner of the ceiling. Stepping into another installation, called Danaë, you see a large purple rectangular panel, glowing like illuminated Sheetrock, hanging in front of a white wall at the far end of the room—but if you try to touch it, there’s nothing there, only a rectangular hole cut into the wall with hidden ultraviolet lights on the other side.
A pioneer in what is now called installation art, Turrell caused a sensation when the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City gave him a show in 1980 and a guest at the opening tried to lean against one of his “sculptures” and fell through it, breaking her wrist.Astunning retrospective of Turrell’s work is on view through the end of June at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, a museum that has grown up with installation art, and which featured Turrell’s work in one of its first shows 20 years ago.
Barbara Luderowski, the Mattress Factory’s director, and curator Michael Olijnyk were among Turrell’s early supporters. “In those days it was tough to find places that would let an artist put nails in the floor or rewire a room,” says Luderowski. “When we did that first show, Turrell was an artist’s artist. Since then he has had a profound effect on younger artists and will have even more of one because he’s becoming more visible.”
Light has always been the subject of art, says Turrell, who recalls his Quaker grandmother telling him, “Go inside and greet the light.” Paintings, he says, whether Rembrandt’s somber interiors or Rothko’s abstract colorfields, are a kind of journal of how an artist sees light. But his own work is not about light in this way; it simply is light. “I want to put you directly in front of light, so you see it with your own eyes, not through my eyes,” he says. The results can be sublime. “Turrell’s work comes as close to spiritual as anything I’ve ever seen,” says Luderowski. “And it’s an aspect of art that has not been much in evidence in our culture in our times.”
What the crater and the museum installations have in common is Turrell’s ability to show us something we rarely see: light as a physical presence, a material in its own right, not just something that illuminates the rest of the world. Turrell first had this idea in an art class at PomonaCollege, watching slides of paintings projected onto a screen. He found the light beam dancing in the darkness more fascinating than the pictures. “I realized I was more interested in the light than in the art,” he says. In a sense, he has spent the rest of his life exploring that epiphany.