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James Turrell (American, b.b. 1941)


Also known as:  Turrell, James Archie; JAMES TURRELL

Birth Place: Los Angeles, California

James Turrell (May 6, 1943 - ) was born in Los Angeles, California, and he has become an influential force in the contemporary art world today. Turrell is largely known for his works that engage viewers in experiencing the boundaries and wonder of human consciousness by creating environments that explore the phenomena of light and space.

Turrell received his bachelor’s degree from Pomona College, where he studied psychology and mathematics. He decided to pursue art after college and attended the University of California in Irvine for graduate school from 1965 to 1966. In 1973, he received his MFA from the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California.

The medium that Turrell has chosen to explore throughout his artistic career is pure light. In addition, as a passionate pilot with over twelve thousand hours flying logged, Turrell regards the sky as his studio, material, and canvas.

Turrell’s work provides a chance for people to see themselves “seeing,” an idea grounded in his undergraduate studies in optical illusion and perceptual psychology. In his words, “My work has no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought.”

His continual interest with the wondrous qualities of light comes from his own inward search for humankind’s place in the universe. In an attempt to answer this big question, Turrell’s works situate viewers in a realm of pure experience, whether transforming the glow of a television into an oscillating gateway, or mobilizing the light of a sunset.

Turrell began experimenting with the medium of light in the mid-1960’s. In 1967, he had a solo show at the Pasadena Art Museum of his Projection Pieces, works involving high-intensity projectors and specifically altered spaces. Terrell then created a series of light works, entitled Mendota Stoppages, which he paired with his Projection Pieces and exhibited at his studio in Santa Monica. With structural cuts in the building, he created apertures open to the light outside. By mixing interior and exterior spaces, Turrell was providing the foundation for his open sky spaces present in his later works.

In 1977, Turrell began a project of monumental proportions that he would continue for more than thirty years. At Roden Crater, an extinct volcano located near the Grand Canyon and Arizona’s Painted Desert, Turrell has sculpted the dimensions of the crater bowl and cut a series of tunnels, chambers, and apertures inside the volcano. The idea is to create a celestial observatory, magnifying people’s perception of heaven and earth, connecting the actions of people with the movements of distant galaxies and planets.

Since Roden Crater is not yet open to the public, Turrell has installed works in twenty-two countries and in seventeen US states open for the public to experience. Many of Turrell’s projects around the world implement the ideas and features constructed in Roden Crater.

Turrell is the recipient of several prestigious awards in art and architecture, such as Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. He currently lives and works in Arizona.

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