SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is a huge year for the American artist James Turrell. Three major museums collaborated to give him thousands of square feet of exhibition space. Mr. Turrell's work is all about space, and light and perception. Indeed, the three big shows in New York, Los Angeles and Houston are a kind of tease for his major life's work - the open air spaces at a volcano crater in Arizona. Edward Lifson has more.
EDWARD LIFSON, BYLINE: James Turrell fills Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum rotunda with light that slowly changes from purple to tangerine to turquoise and more. It surrounds and washes down on the viewer. After seeing the New York show, Deborah Solomon says something you probably haven't heard an art critic say in decades.
DEBORAH SOLOMON: He's so sincere and he believes in art. He's not ironic or cynical and he's not making art about the loss of faith in images, as artists have done since the sixties.
LIFSON: And Turrell believes in big themes: nature, peace, perception, the heavens. He was raised a Quaker, and when he went to meeting houses he was told to greet the light. He grew up in Pasadena surrounded by the open space and light of Southern California. In art history class, he was just as interested in the beam of light from the projector as he was in the slides.
JAMES TURRELL: You know, there's truth in light.
LIFSON: As he walks through his retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, known as LACMA, Turrell says his work furthers the explorations of light done for centuries by artists such as Vermeer and the painters of the Hudson River School.
TURRELL: Here, there's not too much difference, except this idea that I want to look at light, rather than having light illuminate another thing. I'm interested in the thingness of light itself, so that light is the revelation.
LIFSON: Turrell looks the part of the prophet who wants to take you somewhere. He's tall, with long white beard, flowing white hair, deep eyes, gravitas and purpose.
TURRELL: It's fine if you just slip off your shoes, that would be fine.
LIFSON: He and a visitor slowly ascend ziggurat-shaped steps, as though walking up into an ancient temple, entering what he calls a light-filled void. From the outside, it looks like a rectangular space large enough for twenty people, but once inside, the ways Turrell has hidden the light sources and cast light of uniform color and brightness all around, makes the walls, floor and ceiling seem to disappear in subtly shifting fuchsias, aquas and pinks. It's the light you see inside closed eyelids.
TURRELL: We know light like this, but we just don't generally see it with our eyes open. However, everyone that talks about the near-death experience, or enlightenment or samadhi, always does this in a vocabulary of light.
LIFSON: James Turrell flies airplanes out to where the horizon seems to curl up.
TURRELL: A new landscape without horizon.
LIFSON: Forty years ago, Turrell flew over the American West, spied an extinct volcanic crater in northern Arizona and bought it. He's spent more than 30 years moving earth to create light-filled spaces and a naked eye observatory to convey the vastness of the universe. It's called Roden Crater and it could be a contemporary Stonehenge or Machu Picchu. The co-curator of the LACMA show, Christine Kim hopes that Turrell, who just turned 70, can see it completed.
CHRISTINE KIM: When it is finished, from 20 different chambers and tunnels, a viewer can look down a tunnel, look out an aperture, can look at the sun, the moon and the stars, and find these experiences that are tuned as if in the inside of a flute. But I will I say, I hope that it will be open in our lifetimes.
LIFSON: In the meantime, visitors wait on line to pack into the Turrell exhibitions in New York, Houston and Los Angeles, which sort of diminishes any intended meditative states. The LACMA show is the most retrospective of the three, from early projections onto walls to some rooms that offer the absence of light to a faint glow to a large metal sphere that Turrell calls the "Perceptual Cell."
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Are you ready?
LIFSON: You lay down on your back as two young women in white lab coats slide you in.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How are you doing?
LIFSON: (Whispering) The light is getting darker, deeper blue and it's flashing, it's flashing a lot.
Some see Turrell's work as spectacle, no more profound than a Las Vegas Cirque de Soleil LED extravaganza. Critic Jed Perl wrote: Turrell is a minor poet with the ambitions of a megalomaniac. And the art world is his enabler. But no doubt...
SOLOMON: He's having an incredible moment.
LIFSON: ...says art critic Deborah Solomon.
SOLOMON: I think because people are glad to see an artist who actually believes in what he's doing and is not just playing off the cynicism of the moment. And James Turrell really has an air of integrity about him.
LIFSON: Leaving the Turrell exhibitions, one might regret that the serenity his works can offer is but illusion, experienced on Earth all too rarely. For NPR News, I'm Edward Lifson.