SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2002

more feature articles:

Art and Calamity
September 11
One Year Later

by Dennis Raverty

JAMES TURRELL
"Painter's eye in three dimensions"

by David Moos

Anyone standing in front of my paintings must feel the vertical, domelike vaults encompass him to awaken an awareness of his being alive in the sensation of complete space.

Barnett Newman, "Frontiers of Space," 1962

The Alpha Tunnel from James Turrell's Roden Crater Project (photo by Florian Holzherr James Turrell)


By now the story of James Turrell's Roden Crater is well known. Decades in the making and, recently, the subject of numerous essays, Turrell's magnum opus should be familiar to readers of art magazines.2 Rather than recount my experiences of Roden Crater-having made the trip to this extraordinary artwork last November-I am inclined to reflect upon how the project differs from its neighboring earthworks in Nevada and Utah and how it relates to topics in modernist painting.

Unlike Michael Heizer's Double Negative (1969-70) and Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970)-earthworks that form a context within which Roden Crater is often discussed-Turrell's work does not impose itself as an incursion into the landscape. Instead of drastically altering the earth as did Heizer's gargantuan twin-incision, or displacing the earth in order to fashion an over-sized instrument as did Smithson, Turrell has enhanced, attenuated and subtly transformed the earth so that it yields up an entrancing experience that can only be called art. This takes place within carefully constructed spaces that heighten our ability to perceive-visually, physically, consciously.

Roden Crater offers to viewers and lovers of art an unparalleled affirmation that the dramatic, profoundly subjective experience of art is ideally amplified through the embrace of nature. This task of working with nature, as opposed to against the environment, seems daunting when one encounters the barren landscape of the Painted Desert east of Flagstaff, Arizona-an almost other-worldly expanse of spent volcanoes with few overt signs of life. "If you take art into nature it can easily be overpowered," Turrell has noted: "Instead of competing with the sunset, I wanted to use it, as light, and create a situation where perceptions were heightened more than they would be without art there."3 Within the mass of a 380,000 year-old, now-extinct volcano, Turrell has constructed a network of sequential tunnels, spaces, chambers and viewing platforms that transform our encounter with the harsh terrestrial environment into a refined aesthetic experience-one normally associated with the controlled space of modernism's white cube. This achievement, where the land becomes pictorial, is astounding when one grasps the scope of Turrell's undertaking.

Since beginning the Roden Crater project in 1974, after being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to fly his own Helio Courier airplane over all of the Western states in search of a suitable site, Turrell has moved over one million cubic yards of cinder, built an immaculately poured, 854 foot long concrete tunnel that ascends to the East Portal and then to Crater's Eye (a viewing chamber), two additional circular viewing spaces, and a compass-like viewing platform in the crater's bowl. When one stands up on the rim of the crater and looks out over the Painted Desert, inhaling a vista that stretches in all directions as far as the eye can see, one's view is obstructed by no visible trace of man.4 In order to realize this panorama of the original landscape from crater to horizon, Turrell has methodically acquired over the past three decades 96,000 acres of adjoining land. By purchasing this land-an ultimate canvas-he has secured the pictorial vista for futurity.

 
An 854 foot long tunnel ascends to the Roden Crater's
East Portal (photo by Florian Holzherr James Turrell)

Unlike Heizer and, especially, Smithson, who documented and even glorified the sheer feat of constructing their earthworks,5 Turrell has rather emphasized the formal properties required to make each of the orchestrated spaces of Roden Crater into a work of art. The viewing spaces have been built with materials found on site-volcanic obsidian, shale and sand. The concrete that lines the tunnels is mixed from red and gray cinder ash. Each material contributes a color and texture to the experience of this place and conditions how light appears in the apertures. All of these spaces have been built into the volcano. From outside, as one drives toward the crater or, perhaps, flies over it, there is almost no visible sign that Roden differs from other nearby craters or cinder cones. This internal aspect distinguishes Turrell's efforts from the more obviously sculptural undertakings of Heizer and Smithson.

One is compelled to relate the mesmerizing, meditative, mind-projecting experience of Roden Crater to aspects of high modernist painting because of how Turrell has composed the geometry of shapes, lines, openings, limits and frames. These are classic concerns of painting and in the language of modernism have a specific link to discourses of transcendence. Thinking about Turrell's relationship to painting, at a time when definitions of painting are yet again being expanded-one recent exhibition started from the premise that "painting is a philosophical enterprise that doesn't always involve paint"6-returns us to some basic questions about the role of art.

In 1949, one year after Barnett Newman created his definitive painting Onement, he traveled to Ohio where he visited some Native American earthworks. There he recorded thoughts that strike with the force of epiphany and talismanically inform his undertaking
with painting:

Standing before the Miamisburg mound, or walking inside the Fort Ancient and Newark earthworks, surrounded by these simple walls made of mud, one is confounded by a multiplicity of sensations: that here are the greatest works of art on the American continent...perhaps the greatest art monuments in the world....Here is the self-evident nature of the artistic act, its utter simplicity. There are no subjects-nothing that can be shown in a museum or even photographed; [it is] a work of art that cannot even be seen, so it is something that must be experienced on the spot.7

Newman felt that all art-ancient or modern-pales before these earthworks. Standing outside or walking inside, he must shift locations in order to record his "sensations." The word sensations carries specific connotations linked to subjective consciousness, encompassing both an intellectual and physical dimension. "Suddenly one realizes that the sensation is not one of space," Newman asserts: "The sensation is the sensation of time...not the sense of time but the physical sensation of time."

For Newman, painting offered the possibility of achieving an experience commensurate to his encounter with the earthworks. The ancient mounds not only triggered in him an awesome sense of temporality, but inspired his own understanding of what art could accomplish. The expanses of color that characterize such monumental paintings as Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51) and Cathedra (1951), both about eighteen feet wide, embody Newman's aspiration to affect a physical transformation in the viewer. To realize this ambition Newman staged photographs demonstrating how his paintings should be looked at. In 1950 at his first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, Newman had Aaron Siskind take a photo of him posed contemplative, in the empty room, before Be I-beholding his painted creation. And in 1958, in an even more deliberate move, Newman posed in his studio, inches from the surface of Cathedra, absorbing its expansive, body-engulfing deep blue. The apparently basic act of looking required Newman's admonishing insight.

This notion of saturating the visual field with color-where painting becomes an experience that transports viewers across dimensions-affected Turrell, who came of age in the 1960s when Newman's work was exerting its greatest impact. The New York galleries where Newman exhibited his works, Turrell has observed, were ideal spaces in which to experience painting's presence: "there you really feel this quality of filling the field of vision."8 Many of Turrell's earliest works, which involved fluorescent lights, cast color throughout the spaces in which they were exhibited. Other works, such as City of Arhirit (1967) used filtered ambient sunlight to create shaped volumes within entirely saturated rooms.

Turrell's works have always used light to affect how one perceives-and then conceives-the shape of space. With Roden Crater he has been able to consolidate and integrate aspects learned from diverse works that he has built since the 1960s: Skyspaces, Shallow-Space Constructions, Wedgeworks, Veils, Structural Cuts, Dark Spaces, among others.9 The specific properties of these differing kinds of works, many site-specific, all site-redefining, are present in varying degrees in Roden Crater. The perceptual impact of each space, where the light and color of the heavens is brought palpably down to earth, involves the viewer in multiple narratives that encompass place and space, being and time. "I'm interested in creating a place where you become involved with geological time," Turrell notes of Roden Crater, "making you feel as if you really are on the surface of the planet."10

The Roden Crater's exterior shows little sign of the artistic interventions within (photo James Turrell)



In the bowl of Roden Crater where Turrell has built four viewing platforms, one lies down and tilts back one's head to regard the sky. Vision is bounded below by the contour of the crater that Turrell has re-graded, shaping it to an ellipse that creates a spatial effect of depth. This phenomenon is known as celestial vaulting and puts us into contact with the sky in almost palpable terms. This sensation has an impact upon perception, imprinting and transforming how we see. Thus, when one stands on the rim of the crater and looks out across the great landscape vista, one perceives what the philosopher Georges Didi-Heberman has called "voluminosity." Borrowing the term from Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception (1962), Didi-Huberman speaks of the horizon as a joint-line, a phantom edge where the visible rises to "touch us."11

Turrell has likened this feeling to his experiences as a pilot, to flying above the desert: "A lucid dream or a flight through deep, clear blue skies of winter in northern Arizona-experiences like these I use as a source."12 The sensation one has up on the rim of the crater, after having experienced the tunnels and chambers below, is indeed of flight. It is, however, of flight without an airplane. One feels physically projected, hovering over space, moving through time.

The topics that Turrell's subject matter comprises-perception, consciousness, space and time-anchor the root of modernism's imagination. Abstract painting has always served as a vehicle with which artists access these concerns that connect phenomenology to existentialism. A painter such as Kasimir Malevich, for example, working at the beginning of the twentieth century, sought to distill into painting experiences of consciousness that eluded representation. Malevich invented a language of geometric forms that presented a wholly conceptual reality. It seems more than coincidental that he relied upon the metaphor of flying in order to describe his radical innovation. Malevich envisioned himself as an aviator who has flown through the blueness of the sky and punctured it, piercing the firmament, coming to exist in a free infinite realm:

I have torn through the blue lampshade of color limitations, and come out into the white; after me, comrade aviators sail into the chasm-I have set up semaphores of Suprematism. Sail forth! The white, free chasm, infinity is before us.13

Icarus-like as this image is, the abstract painter, however, does not fall to earth. Rather, he must confront infinity-a space/time "chasm" that beckons exploration.14

From our own vantage point at the beginning of a new century, such grandiloquent assertions seem contrary to our irony-tempered sense of the possible. Certainly painting today, as merely one option within a spectrum of creative possibilities, rarely claims such utopian territory. But Roden Crater is emboldening, inspiring one to ponder such terms-"infinity is before us." Turrell puts us in touch with a range of experiential options that are seldom encountered today. The idea of the volcano itself-a portal that simultaneously gives access to the center of our planet while shaping perception for projection outward-allows us to travel backwards and forwards in time. One structure Turrell still intends to build, the South Space, will be aligned to reveal Saros, a rare solar or lunar pattern. Some Saros conjunctions happen once every 870 years. Clearly, Turrell uses space as a metaphor with which to access time, allowing us to orient ourselves in relation to the cosmos.

Roden Crater actualizes insights that artists of previous generations had to represent through painting-through the analogue of canvas and paint. Turrell's walk-in work, scaled to our bodies, may be a contemporary earthwork, a grand light-conducting installation, a planetarium, an environmental piece performed by events in the sky. Or, perhaps it is simply about the state of painting. Regardless of how it is categorized (its beauty is that it embraces most of the categories contemporary art offers), Roden Crater puts us in touch with our own sensations. As Turrell, with characteristic generosity, has often stated: "It's about your experience, as opposed to mine."15

Models and prints of the Roden Crater Project, together with other works by James Turrell, are on view at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh through April 30, 2003.



NOTES 1. "In a way what I do is use a painter's eye in three dimensions...there's a lot that has to do with the sensibility that comes out of painting-particularly with the picture plane, and going through the picture plane, or coming in front of the wall." Martin Gayford, "Seeing the Light: James Turrell talks to Martin Gayford about the material of his art," Modern Painters (Winter 2000), 26. 2. In 1985 one Artforum contributor observed the impact that writing about the crater was having: "Although the construction of Roden Crater is at least five years away from completion and still requires sizeable funding, already texts and images, like screens and scrims, combine to ring the volcano with an additional conceptual stratosphere: the space of speculation and anticipation." See Jeff Kelley, "Light-Years," Artforum, Vol. 24, No. 3 (November 1985), 74. More recently The New York Times devoted the cover of its Arts & Leisure section to Roden Crater, renewing media coverage. See Michael Kimmelman, "Inside a Lifelong Dream of Desert Light," The New York Times, April 8, 2001. 3. Vicki Linder, "Interview with James Turrell," Omni, 109. 4. Actually, there remains one ranch near the base of the crater. The owner has refused to sell the land to Turrell's Skystone Foundation. 5. Smithson made a movie of Spiral Jetty that documented its making while simultaneously interpreting its possible meanings. Muscular earthmoving machines are giant protagonists in the film which culminates with a helicopter, a choppy flying machine, ascending in a spiral, apotheosis-like, higher and higher into sky. See Robert Smithson, The Spiral Jetty, 1971, 16 mm film, 35 minutes. Edited with the assistance of Bob Fiore and Barbara Jarvis. Much of the lore of Land Art is tied to machines employed. "Instead of using a paintbrush to make his art, Robert Morris would like to use a bulldozer." See Smithson, "Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site," (1967) in The Writings of Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, ed., (New York: New York University Press, 1979), 44. 6. Howard Halle, "Photo-unrealism," Time Out New York, December 30, 1999-January 6, 2000, 55-56, quoted in Douglas Fogle, Painting at the Edge of the World, exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2001, 18.
7. Barnett Newman, "Ohio, 1949," in John P. O'Neill, ed., Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews (New York: Knopf, 1990), 174. 8. Turrell, "Seeing the Light," 26. 9. For a comprehensive survey of Turrell's work see James Turrell: The Other Horizon, Peter Noever, ed., exhibition catalogue, MAK, Vienna, 2001. 10. Richard Cork, "Light Fantastic," 33. 11. Georges Didi-Huberman, "The Fable of the Place," in James Turrell: The Other Horizon, 53. 12. Julia Brown, "Interview with James Turrell," in Brown, ed., Occluded Front: James Turrell, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1985, 18. 13. K. S. Malevich, "Non Objective Creation and Suprematism," in Essays on Art: 1915-1928, Troels Andersen, ed., (Copenhagen: Bogen, 1968), 122. 14. The comparison between Turrell and Malevich could fruitfully regard how each artist treats linear boundaries. There is an affinity between Malevich's carefully brushed edges where forms or planes intersect, as in Suprematist Painting: Airplane Flying (1915), and the tapered lip of a Turrell aperture. The subtle articulation of geometry is central to the work of both artists. 15. Turrell, "Seeing the Light," 26.

The ART PAPERS staff would like to hear from you
Please share with us your thoughts on this FEATURE

Feature Articles | Retrospective | Special Events | Donate | Subscribe
Editorial | Contact | Advertising | About ART PAPERS | Site Credits

Site hosted by VIANETWORKS.NET
Site Developed and Maintained by Visualiti, Inc.

2007 ART PAPERS, Inc.