James Turrell's Light Fantastic

The innovative artist has devoted his life to transforming.

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The most spectacular Pittsburgh installation is a 12-foothigh sphere called Gasworks. It looks something like an MRI diagnostic machine, and you lie flat on your back on a gurney while a white-coated attendant slides you into the sphere. Once inside, you feel suspended in pure color, which keeps changing, as if the light itself is holding you up and you’re floating through a rainbow. With nothing to focus on, it gets hard to tell if you’re seeing a color or imagining it. When you close your eyes, the afterimages are so intense that your eyes still seem to be open. Suddenly bursts of flashing strobe lights generate astonishing geometric patterns. Then serenity returns as you are enveloped once more in luminous fields of pure color, pulsing slowly brighter and darker until you feel the light like a massage, pressing down and releasing you into Turrell’s strange cosmos. The voice of the attendant seems otherworldly when you hear him, as though in a dream, saying, “We’re going to pull you out now.”


On my last day at the crater, Turrell asks if I’d like to see it from the air. I nod enthusiastically, and soon we are pushing a 1939 single-engine, two-seat Scout out of a hangar. It seems light as a feather, with a skin of sky-blue cloth sewn over a metal frame. “Don’t put your hand through the sides,” he warns as I climb in.

In the air, as he searches for stray cattle, Turrell appears totally at home. The plane sweeps over the desert landscape and flies low over the curving Little Colorado River. We soar back up over the canyon rim and bank hard, heading straight for Roden Crater. At a distance, the cone of red cinders looks its age, about 400,000 years. Only as we dip down and fly over it do I see its two circular stonework “eyes.” “It’s a beautiful geologic structure,” says Turrell, “and I want it to look as untouched as possible when I’m done.”


Then he tells me about the work crew who couldn’t understand why they had to keep picking up cinders from one place, only to put them down in another as he tried to even out the crater’s bowl and rim. “ ‘Why?’ they kept asking. ‘We’re shaping the crater,’ I told them. ‘Actually, we’re shaping the sky. ’ ”


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