Inside an extinct volcano on Arizona’s Painted Desert sits America’s Stonehenge. Art buffs alone know it’s there, yet beneath the sprawling sky, sun, moon, and stars are already playing a symphony. The conductor is the modern master of light, James Turrell.
“We eat light,” Turrell said. “We drink it in through our skins.” And in a career spanning a half century, Turrell has turned light into a dazzling feast of art and magic. In 2013, when his retrospective took over the Guggenheim in Manhattan, patrons lay “blissed out” by overhead ovals of light. Elsewhere, in museums around the world, ordinary eyes soak up Turrell’s light fields, entire rooms flooded with changing colors. In cities from Houston to Johannesburg, patrons sit serenely beneath Turrell “skyscapes,” staring through frames that highlight the changing miracle of light and clouds.
Turrell came by his fascination with light naturally — he was born into it. Growing up in Southern California, he absorbed the “bioluminscent-lichen-light of urban Los Angeles.” But his Quaker family urged him to pursue “the light inside,” so Turrell studied psychology, focusing on optics and perception. Then in art school, he made light his paint brush.
Aiming a slide projector at a dark corner, Turrell created a radiant cube whose floating angles teased the strolling viewer. “Afrum (White)” shone a light never before seen in art — light as object. “You don’t need us,” one professor told Turrell. “Go be an artist.”
But “it took awhile to get a handle on how to work light,” Turrell recalled. “You don’t carve it away like wood or stone. So getting to work with it is. . . more like sound, like music.”
Opening his own studio, Turrell tapped L.A.’s ever-present radiance — head- and tail lights — making a traffic light show dance across walls. Turrell likened his “Mendota Stoppages” to Plato’s cave, where the world is projected in mirror-image. Then in 1968 he stepped into the Ganzfeld.
Discovered by German psychologists in the 1930s, the Ganzfeld (“entire field”) floods a viewer with a uniform light that changes everything. Look around! That red wall where you entered — it’s now blue. Your yellow shirt? Green. Your own hand seems alien, eerie. The effect is mesmerizing, disturbing, and on one occasion, dangerous.
Walking through a Turrell exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum, a woman leaned against a wall — a wall of light. She fell and broke her wrist. A lawsuit left Turrell skittish about showing his light-fields in the U.S. In 2017, however, he put a Ganzfeld on long-term view at MassMOCA in the Berkshires.
Now in his seventies, soft-spoken and cerebral with a bushy white beard, Turrell seems a curious blend of artist, philosopher, and monk. What other combination could have crafted Roden Crater?
In 1974, Turrell left L.A. and took to the air. For seven months, he flew his small plane across the West seeking a platform for his expanding vision. He finally spotted a long, low crater fifty miles northeast of Flagstaff. Spending a night inside the empty cone, alone beneath the spangled sky, he imagined the possibilities. Whole rooms channeling the stars. Staircases leading to viewing platforms. Sun, moon, the Milky Way.
Backed by the Dia Art Foundation, Turrell purchased the crater and began sketching. He expected his Roden Crater Project to be done by 1990, but it remains a work in progress. Lucky critics, however, have toured the crater and come away awestruck. Here is the pedestal celestial light deserves.
Using foundation funding, including a MacArthur Genius grant, Turrell has micro-managed a major construction project, moving millions of tons of earth, sculpting tunnels deep beneath the desert. The result is an observatory worthy of the ancients. Six tunnels channel natural light through keyholes of receding radiance. The Sun and Moon Space, one of 21 viewing rooms, glows with a vertical disc filtering moon- or sunlight. The East Portal staircase ascends to an oval window on the cosmos. Elsewhere, a stone seat faces the North Star where, beneath spinning constellations, the viewer feels the universe in motion. “Turrell’s ultimate skylight,” one critic wrote, is “an architecture made for the sky.”
Last year, art buffs got good news. Roden Crater’s public debut is in view. Boosted by $10 million from Kanye West, who shot his 2019 film “Jesus is King” inside the crater, Turrell hopes to open the site by 2024.
As a celebration of cosmic light, Roden Crater stands with Stonehenge and other ancient observatories. “Roden Crater has knowledge in it and it does something with that knowledge,” Turrell said. “It is an eye, something that is itself perceiving. . . It has visions, qualities and a universe of possibilities.” Construction continues. Above the Painted Desert, sun and moon rise and set, rise and set. Stay tuned. And in the meantime, drink in the light.