Since 1979, James Turrell has been transforming Roden Crater into a large-scale work of art that functions as a naked-eye observatory, allowing visitors to view celestial phenomena.
Roden Crater is a natural cinder volcano situated on the southeastern edge of the Painted Desert in northern Arizona. Since 1979, James Turrell has been transforming Roden Crater into a large-scale work of art that functions as a naked-eye observatory, allowing visitors to view celestial phenomena. The approaches Turrell takes to light and space in his installation works are the same as those he undertakes for the Roden Crater project.
Many of his most recent works are conceptualized as studies for the crater, particularly the aperture pieces, the dark spaces and the Skyspaces.
James Turrell is one of the most celebrated American artists working today. Born in California in 1943, he grew up with an enduring love of aviation and the sky, as well as a fascination with light. His Quaker background also substantially formed his approach to life and art, with its emphasis on silent access to the “light within.” From age six, Turrell was urged by his grandmother to “go inside and greet the light” at Quaker meetings. In the early 1960’s, Turrell studied perceptual psychology at Pomona College, taking additional classes in other scientific disciplines, such as mathematics, geology and astronomy.
He also studied in an experimental program at the University of California at Irvine that combined art and technology. In 1966, Turrell rented the old Mendota Hotel in Ocean Park, California. For two years, he worked on his studio spaces, transforming them into pure white boxes. He closed the studio rooms off from all outside light by painting the windowpanes, constructing walls to cover the windows and smoothing the walls with plaster. These “shells” were ideal for his exploration of projected light. Turrell’s first works exploring light used projections of white or colored light in darkened rooms. At the Mendota Hotel he also developed “Shallow Space Constructions,” in which a secondary wall is built in a room so that slits occur at one or more of its edges. The partition wall is back-lit with fluorescent lights that shine through the slits, dissolving one’s sense of the actual dimensions of the room. In the mid-1970’s, Turrell lost his studio spaces and turned his attention to flying. He supported himself by restoring antique cars and rebuilding vintage aircraft. During this time, Turrell spent hundreds of hours flying over America in search of the ideal location for his life’s most ambitious work of art. He scanned the countryside from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast, and from Lake Louise south of the Canadian border down to Chihuahua near the Mexican border. The succeeding work of Turrell’s life grew out of his experiences viewing the earth and light during these flights. It was at this time that Turrell discovered the San Francisco range of extinct volcano cones in northwest Arizona. He was subsequently able to purchase Roden Crater, where he settled permanently in 1979. Roden Crater is a natural cinder volcano situated on the southeastern edge of the Painted Desert. Since 1979, Turrell has been transforming the crater into a large-scale work of art that relates – through the medium of light – to the universe of the surrounding sky, land, and culture.
Turrell studied and adapted essential features of other “naked eye observatories,” such as the 18th-century observatory in Jaipur, India, for the Roden Crater project, using and adapting the natural formation of the crater. James Turrell’s artwork has been exhibited in major museums around the world, and many cities and collectors have commissioned new permanent works. Turrell’s achievements have been recognized by the Acadamie Francaise when he was made a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres (a signal honor for a non-French artist) at the opening of a major installation of his work in Poitiers. Recent exhibitions of his work have been presented at the MAK, Vienna, Austria; the Scottsdale Center for Contemporary Art, Scottsdale, AZ; Espace Electra, Paris; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.