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James Turrell's Light Fantastic

The innovative artist has devoted his life to transforming.

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When people ask Turrell how much the crater has cost, he replies, “A couple of wives and several relationships.” Twice divorced, he has six children, three of them grown and living nearby in Flagstaff, and the younger three living with their mother on the East Coast. He lives in a modest ranch house about 30 miles from the crater with his partner, Korean-born artist Kyung-Lim Lee, 45, who often puts down her own paintbrush to feed the livestock or answer the studio phone when Turrell is away. And he admits that he never dreamed that Roden Crater would become a life’s work.


Born in Los Angeles in 1943, Turrell grew up not far from Hollywood, the city of illusion—“Maybe that’s why I’m so interested in perception,” he says with a laugh. He was a math whiz before showing any artistic talent. When he did turn to art, he supported himself by flying small crop-dusting and mail planes over Southern California, and by restoring antique cars and vintage airplanes. In 1966, as a young artist in Ocean Park, California, where older painters Richard Diebenkorn and Sam Francis had studios a block away, Turrell rented the two-story Mendota Hotel, where he covered all the windows and painted the walls, floors and ceilings white. This was his studio, and his art consisted of letting small amounts and shapes of light into interior spaces, finding ways to show what he calls “the thingness of light.”


At the time, other California artists, among them Robert Irwin, Larry Bell and Bruce Nauman, were also working with the effects of light on various materials. Irwin became a friend and in 1984 shared with Turrell the first MacArthur “genius” award ever given to visual artists. “Bob Irwin was using light to dematerialize objects, to make them appear less solid,” Turrell says. “And I was trying to materialize light as an object.” Also around that time, artists on both coasts were inventing what came to be called Land Art, with massive works such as Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, two trenches cut into a Nevada canyon wall, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty earthwork in Utah, and Walter De Maria’s 400-acre grid of lightning rods in New Mexico. And though Roden Crater is often described as Land Art, Turrell feels his antecedents are the ancient architects who built structures that brought light in from outside to create an event inside. “That’s what I was doing at the Mendota Hotel,” he says. “That was also done at Abu Simbel, and that’s what I’m doing at Roden Crater.”


When Turrell is not working on the crater, he tries to keep up with an ever-increasing demand for his installations from collectors, museums and galleries. He recently worked on a permanent “Skyspace” similar to the Crater’s Eye in a Quaker meetinghouse in Houston (he says he’s a lapsed Quaker recently returned to the fold) and another in Seattle at the Henry Art Gallery (opening in July), and he has turned entire office towers into light installations in Europe and Japan.


In his show at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, his works reflect the influence of perceptual psychology. Psychologists have put subjects in sensory deprivation chambers, intense light boxes and other strange environments to probe the nature and limits of perception. Turrell’s installations sometimes seem like such experiments masquerading as art, but the in genuity of their design is obscured by their beauty and simplicity. “Whatever work it may take to get there doesn’t matter,” he says. “I want you to see the swan as it glides across the lake, not the fact that underneath it’s paddling like hell.”


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