James Turrell and Frank Lloyd Wright's Shared Vision

4:34 | Published on June 21, 2013 | 3,632 Views

Guggenheim curators Carmen Giménez and Nat Trotman describe the similarities between architect Frank Lloyd Wright and artist James Turrell's vision of the world and particular interest in harnessing natural light in their works.

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James Turrell and Frank Lloyd Wright

JAMES TURRELL:
When I work at the Guggenheim, the shape there is not rectangular, and so it’s wonderful to have this opportunity to work within others’ architecture in a way that gives a more natural form.  

NAT TROTMAN:
There are a lot of similarities between Frank Lloyd Wright and James Turrell’s vision of the world. Although Wright was obviously creating buildings and Turrell is creating light experiences, both were very interested in the natural world and in harnessing natural light, especially in their work as evidenced in the design of the Guggenheim.

CARMEN GIMÉNEZ:
The philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright and the light coming into the building is essential. I think for Frank Lloyd Wright the idea was that art has to have the light, you know. He did all those, not only in the void, but he did all those lights in the rotunda. Frank Lloyd Wright always liked nature. That’s why we have this Guggenheim in front of Central Park.

NAT TROTMAN:
Frank Lloyd Wright considered nature the defining principle behind his architecture.    That’s embodied at the Guggenheim through the skylight especially, as well as the planters and the fountain that gives the sound of running water in the space.

JAMES TURRELL:
As Wright matured, you see a much more curvilinear quality in his work, which I thought is very interesting. And this has to do with a certain sensuality, I think, might be a good way to look at it. So, I like the form of the Guggenheim, it's terrific to work within that.

NAT TROTMAN:
In the late 1970s, just outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, Turrell acquired an extinct volcano called Roden Crater and began to transform it into his magnum opus: a series of light spaces and natural observatory spaces spread throughout the volcanic crater. Part of what attracted him so much to this space was its isolation as well as its round shape and ability to embrace the sky in a very direct way.

The bowl of the crater is elliptical, much like the piece in the rotunda is, and one of the things that Turrell liked about the ellipse is that it does relate to nature and to the human field of vision. So when he developed the elliptical shape of the rotunda installation, he was thinking very much about the spaces at the crater.

JAMES TURRELL:
Nature, of course, everyone thinks likes the circle. But in fact nature loves the ellipse. All orbits of planets are elliptical. Even the earth is ellipsoid; it's not a sphere. So I've tried to also love the ellipse. I've done pieces that are mainly rectilinear—for rectilinear spaces. We live in rectangles. But at the crater everything is elliptical and circular and that's the natural form. Also, our field of vision is ellipsoidal. We have two foci, the eyes, and so we're seeing in shaping like this.

NAT TROTMAN:
Wright was very interested in celestial activities and orbs—orbs like the sun and the moon and orbits—so there was originally even going to be an astronomical observatory on the top of the Guggenheim in one of the early drawings.

Wright was also very interested in ancient architectural forms that were devised to experience the cosmos, especially ziggurats in Mesopotamia. Wright thought of the Guggenheim as a place where people could come together and have a communal experience that would be aesthetic and prelinguistic, and this gels very well with Turrell’s own interest in communal spaces and the idea of meeting together to greet the light in contemplation.

CARMEN GIMÉNEZ:
You will understand better James Turrell by experiencing one of his pieces. And to have one of these unique experiences in this immense void he is going to create here at the Guggenheim, and this dialogue with Frank Lloyd Wright and James Turrell, I think is going to be unique.