James Turrell on the Physical Experience of Color
Where do you stand on James Turrell? Are his best works his early, low-tech miracles of light, like Afrum (White), from 1966? Or are you more impressed by his recent works, in which advanced technology and complex theories of physics and physiology come into play behind the scenes? Light Reignfall (2013), the crown jewel of the current LACMA retrospective, is such a work.
Turrell has long been drawn to the bleeding edge of physics and perceptual psychology, as demonstrated by his early experiments as part of LACMA’s Art and Technology program.
But whether Turrell prefers to share and demonstrate his knowledge or to simply impress is a divisive question, and one not settled by LACMA’s exhibition.
I recently talked to Turrell and he still has something of the lab wizard about him. Color is a physical phenomenon, not just a visual one, he told me. “I can train you to feel the color of light on your skin. […] I can teach you, in a number of places, to discriminate between four colors, sometimes five. In about twenty minutes you can learn the difference between red, blue, green, orange and purple. It’s best at the back of the neck. You can do it on the forehead, although then you can kind of cheat with the eyes, but it’s also good on the back of the hand and behind the knees. Just because we haven’t named a sense, it doesn’t mean we don’t have it.”
Pretty amazing, you have to admit.
Above: James Turrell, Light Reignfall, 2011. Gaswork. Installation view at Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow. Courtesy of the artist, Pace Gallery, and Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. Photo: Florian Holzherr.