In 1977, James Turrell purchased a parcel of land in north-central Arizona near the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon. The centerpiece of this land is a 600-foot-tall dormant volcanic cinder cone, the location of Turrell’s Roden Crater Project (1979– ). The artist first discovered the site while doing an aerial survey in 1974, after seven months of searching for an appropriate location for his planned naked-eye observatory. Still under construction, the observatory will eventually comprise a network of pathways, tunnels, and mostly subterranean spaces with apertures designed to enable the viewing of atmospheric phenomena. Inspired by ancient architecture such as Mayan pyramids and by his own Quaker upbringing, Turrell aims to create a spiritual, contemplative environment in which the wonder of the natural world is isolated and amplified. Roden Crater’s volcanic formation preserves evidence of a terrestrial event, representing for the artist the passing of geologic time. By opening the crater up to the sky, the observatory will marry the geologic and the astronomical.
Turrell has made numerous drawings, photographs, prints, and models of the site over the past four decades. Crater Site Plan with Survey Net (1986) is among a group of drawings he created in 1985 and 1986 that map out the locations of aboveground walkways and underground tunnels. This two-part work shows an aerial view of Roden Crater, paired with an elevation view of the planned subterranean spaces. Turrell created the work by transferring photographic images onto Mylar sheets using wax emulsion. He then applied markings to the image by removing the wax or drawing over it with ink, paint, and wax crayon. The two sheets are framed separately and hung to abut one another. The aerial source image, taken by the artist, honors the extension of human vision through flight—aeronautics is a passion of the artist’s—while the instrument of the architectural plan refers to the logic of human perception. In this way vision and perception, both essential to the wonder of the Roden Crater Project, are also present in their particulars in this drawing.