Manipulating light as a sculptor would mold clay, James Turrell creates works that amplify perception. Unlike pictorial art that replicates visual experience through mimetic illusion, Turrell’s light works—one cannot call these shimmering events “objects” or “images”—give form to perception. Each installation activates a heightened sensory awareness that promotes discovery: what seems to be a lustrous, suspended cube is actually the conjunction of two flat panels of projected light; a rectangle of radiant color hovering in front of a wall is really a deep, illuminated depression in the space; a velvety black square on the ceiling is, in reality, a portal to the night sky. With such effects, Turrell hopes to coax the viewer into a state of self-reflexivity in which one can see oneself seeing.
Turrell has consistently utilized the sparest formal means to perpetuate the consciousness of perception. As demonstrated by the projected geometric “cube” of Afrum I, in which light creates the illusion of volume, the artist’s work derives its power from simplicity. Turrell’s early inquiries into the psychological implications of perception involved sensory deprivation. In 1968 he participated in the Art & Technology program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. With scientist Edward Wortz, who was investigating the perceptual alterations encountered in space travel, he studied the visual indeterminacy of the Ganzfeld—an optical phenomenon in which there is nothing for the eye to focus on—with the goal of observing his own retinal activity.
Such phenomena are manifest in works involving structural cuts into existing architecture that allow outside light to penetrate and inhabit interior realms. Lunette is an opening to the sky at the end of a barrel-vaulted hall flanked by hidden fluorescent lights that accentuate the nuanced tones of dawn and dusk. Skyspace I (1974) is a square room with a large square aperture in the ceiling, in which the sky is framed by a narrow margin of white ceiling. The low, concealed fluorescent lights and white-painted floor reflect and intensify the modulating light. These and all of Turrell’s skyspaces harken back to ancient building techniques that deployed natural light—and the cycles of the cosmos—to create symbolic architecture. In other spatial interventions, such as Night Passage, Turrell uses wall partitions with rectangular windows opening onto contiguous areas filled with pure, colored light. Standing in what Turrell has called the “sensing space,” the viewer encounters a Ganzfeld, the volume of colored light on the other side of the partition collapsing into what appears to be a floating, luminous plane with no surface or depth. The illusion is destabilizing yet mesmerizing; it is a tangible example of the artist’s endeavor to produce sensations that are essentially prelingual, to create a transformative experience of wordless thought.