In the 1960s, by manipulating light rather than paint or sculptural material, James Turrell introduced an art that was not an object but an experience in perception. It examined the very nature of seeing. Over the next half century, Turrell has become known not only for his light projections and installations but especially for his continued work for more than three decades on his Roden Crater project—the conversion of a natural volcanic crater on the edge of the Painted Desert in northern Arizona into one of the most ambitious artworks ever envisioned by a single artist.
A pilot and rancher, and conversant not only in art, but equally in science, literature, history, and religion, the 68-year-old Turrell is one of the most multifaceted artists of our time. Having known his work since my own art studies in the 1970s and ’80s, I first met him when I became director of the Dia Art Foundation in 1994. Dia had been instrumental in helping Turrell begin work on Roden Crater but the organization soon abandoned the project for lack of funds. My intention was to rekindle Dia’s support for that artwork, which seemed to epitomize Dia’s founding focus on singular epic-scale artistic vision. Roden Crater is still under construction today, and I now maintain a support role from the vantage point of Los Angeles, where Turrell’s ideas and art first emerged. In fact, one could argue that Turrell’s upbringing in Southern California, as well as his religious rearing as a Quaker, play a large role in his work. But to limit the works to biography is to risk missing their purity and emotional resonance.
Currently, I am co-curating a retrospective exhibition on Turrell, which will be on view at my own Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2013, as well as at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. In the meantime, the prolific artist is appearing in a number of shows—including an installation at this summer’s Venice Biennale, and his first solo exhibition in Russia at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow.
Turrell helped nurture my own interest in aviation. This past May, after work on a clear evening in Southern California, I flew my own tiny airplane to Flagstaff and talked with Turrell at a famous Route 66 establishment, the Little America truck stop and hotel, not far from his nonstop work-in-progress,Roden Crater.