Explore Phoenix-Scottsdale

The Grace of Light + Space: The Art of James Turrell in Arizona

Owing to the artist’s intangible media of choice, an installation by James Turrell can never produce the same experience twice.

Owing to the artist’s intangible media of choice, an installation by James Turrell can never produce the same experience twice. Ted G. Decker—an arts advocate who splits his time between Phoenix and Rio de Janeiro—walks up to one “Turrell” and into two others within the Valley of the Sun, and shares glimpses of the artist’s secretive volcano project in northeastern Arizona.

“Light speaks to all of us. We take light through the skin and turn it into Vitamin D, making us heliotropic. So we have this physical relationship to light, but we also have an emotional and spiritual relationship to it.” —James Turrell

This treble relationship with light permeates the way in which we respond to works by internationally renowned artist James Turrell, and within his home state of Arizona, we have a trio of intriguing public viewing options.

Turrell, a pilot and rancher, equally knowledgeable in art, science, history, religion, and literature, is one of the most fascinating artists of our time. Born in Los Angeles in 1943, he studied mathematics, perceptual psychology and optical illusions before earning a Master of Fine Arts degree.

Since the late 1960s, his works have been exhibited worldwide and have been collected by major international cultural institutions, and he has been the recipient of such prestigious awards as MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships.

Informed by his multifaceted educational formation and his Quaker upbringing, his work offers viewers explorations in light and space, situating them in what critic David Pagel refers to as “spa[s] for consciousness.” They also encourage greater self-awareness through silent contemplation and patience of the sublime.

I’ve personally pondered Turrell’s “Mohl ip” inside Phoenix Art Museum, “Knight Rise” connected to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), and “Air Apparent,” new to Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. I’ve also twice been to “Roden Crater,” the artist’s ongoing project inside an extinct volcano near Flagstaff, even though it’s closed to the public while still under construction.

Turrell’s first public “skyspace” for Arizona audiences was installed at SMoCA in 2001. A skyspace is an intimate architectural vestibule with an opening or lens in the roof. With optimal viewings at sunrise or nightrise (sunset), visitors enjoy different perceptual experiences while observing the sky’s changing light.

The work was christened “Knight Rise” as the artist opined, “I’ve always felt that the night doesn’t fall. Night rises.” He altered the spelling of “night” in tribute to SMoCA’s director at the time, Robert Knight, who was instrumental in commissioning the work.

During my first experience inside “Knight Rise,” the sky became closer and denser, and I wanted to reach out as if to physically touch and gather it towards me.

Arizona’s newer skyspace, “Air Apparent” (2012) is available to visitors 24/7, located as it is on the campus of Arizona State University. It was unveiled in 2012.

It’s a contemplative oasis in a busy environment, thoughtfully enhanced by a surrounding palo verde bosque and desert garden. While the space is very much “Turrell,” the structure itself bears the hallmarks of collaborating architect Will Bruder, in industrial materials such as steel-mesh screening, cement, and the giant cables which secure the suspended ceiling.

Phoenix-based Bruder considers the finished work “a contemporary interpretation of ancient Hohokam shade ramadas, pit houses and baskets ... redefined in a minimal sculptural formwork of 21st-century concrete and steel.”

ASU president Michael Crow says, “Like much of the work that takes place here, the skyspace is a project with roots in multiple disciplines—physics, the arts, philosophy—that transcends those categories to emerge as something unique and truly extraordinary.”

In addition to his skyspaces, James Turrell is known for his light tunnels, color aperture rooms, perceptual cells, and light projections which create shapes and textures that seem to have mass and weight, though sculpted entirely with light.

“Mohl ip” (2008) at Phoenix Art Museum is a 20-by- 10-foot installation, the largest in Turrell’s “Tall Glass” series and the first to be permanently on-view at a public institution in the United States. The artist describes it as both “a visual mantra” and a “performance painting.”

Seen through diffusing glass, its core of neon panels, individually programmed by the artist, creates a floating, subtle shifting of color similar to the transitional afternoon to evening sky. “Mohl ip,” translated from Korean, refers to a purple or pale-blue light seen with the eyes closed in the early stages of meditation.

Approaching “Mohl ip” for the first time transported me to 1992 when I viewed a major exhibition of Turrell’s works at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. I recall being transfixed by the sheer beauty of the artist’s use of ephemeral light as a medium of creating space, which occurred again standing in front of this work in Phoenix.

Phoenix Art Museum curator Sarah Cochran suggests that “‘Mohl ip’ encapsulates Turrell’s career-long investigation into manipulating light as an aesthetic and physical material that he began in 1966 with his ‘Mendota Stoppages’ series and continued with his ‘Ganzfeld’ pieces and skyspaces.”

Turrell’s life work, “Roden Crater,” is an extinct volcanic cone near Flagstaff. After spotting it while flying over the region, Turrell purchased the property in 1977 to construct a monumental naked-eye observatory (referencing Mayan pyramids, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia) and work with the visual celestial phenomena that have fascinated humans since our dawn.

Work began in 1979 with the movement of a million cubic yards of earth to perfectly shape the crater bowl, the construction of the 854-foot east tunnel and its light chambers, and the construction of a lodge-type structure. This first phase has been constructed, with plans for the south space nearly complete.

I visited Roden Crater in the mid-1990s for the first time with a group from Phoenix Art Museum, and again in 2002 when I planned a trip for SMoCA. In less than a decade, Turrell’s construction progress in transforming the crater was monumental in terms of earth removal, tunneling, and completion of internal chambers.

Inverted viewing stations in the bowl of the crater provide a surreal spectacle of a reddish rim against an expansive blue sky. In chambers and tunnels carved deep within the cone, light arrives from various sources: sun, moon, stars, reflection, and from effects synthesized from Turrell’s various installations and skyspaces.

The remoteness of “Roden Crater” is certain, someday, to enhance the visitor experience, with sweeping views of the San Francisco Peaks, mesas on Hopi and Navajo lands, the Painted Desert, clean, brisk air, and the intensity of the big sky—intensely blue during the day, star-saturated at night. —Ted Decker, 2013