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The Shape of Perception: The Art of James Turrell

You enter a cylindrical structure through a rectangular door. Inside the space is simple and empty; no ornamentation, just a minimalist sense of space and materials; wood, stone and concrete. The room is empty except for a bench that runs around the inside of the curved walls. People are sitting here and there, looking up at a circular monochromatic light [1] on the ceiling – the light is intense and uniformly luminous, and surrounding the light is a domed ceiling lit by hidden orange lights. The colors are sharp, saturated and seductive. You sit for a while looking at the central blue disk, a rich saturated colored object, and then you realize it is not an object at all - it's a hole.

James Turrell. Knight Rise, Scottsdale Museum of Art, AZ (Image Sean Deckert, source:

You are looking at the sky! What seemed so solid, so real, was an illusion. It was not ‘in’ the room in any usual sense of the word, but you felt like you could just reach up and touch it. And then something else begins to happen – the sky begins to change color. What seemed a rich ultramarine blue is now becoming emerald green, as the lights inside the room shift to red. The sky is changing color, but skies don’t change that fast. Between what you see and what you know, there is a disconnect. Do you trust your senses? For the moment, such things don’t matter as you become entranced by the sheer presence and beauty of light and color inside one of the Skyspace sculptures of American artist, James Turrell.

James Turrell. (1943 - ) with Roden Crater in the background. (Photograph by Florian Holzherr 2005,

Image source

Turrell is an artist whose work is designed to be experienced. You need to take time with it, let your eyes adjust and then revel in the simplicity and sensuality of the experience. He wants to make light tangible, and to give it a presence, almost a solidity. Even the presence of clouds do not disrupt this illusion, such atmospheric phenomena merely create the impression you are looking at a video screen, again inside the space. His spaces invite quiet meditation – no doubt an influence of his Quaker heritage, and the meeting house tradition of seated contemplation.

Historically, many artists have dealt with light and color, from Carravaggio’s dramatic spot light effects to the ethereal work of the painters J M W Turner and Claude Monet. But whereas painters dealt with depicting light and color, especially the reflective surfaces of the world, Turrell emerged as part of a new wave of artists in the 1960’s known as the Light and Space movement, artists that used light as a medium in and of itself.

James Turrell. From the Skyspace series. Top right: Installation view of the exhibition James Turrell at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (Image source Top left: Roden Crater, East Portal: (Image source Bottom right: The Way of Color Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville Arkansas. (Image source Bottom left: The Color Inside College of Fine Arts University of Texas, Austin. (Image source

His most popular series, the Skyspace works described above, now number some 80 installations all over the world. They are simple concepts that involve a room with an oculus, or geometric window, cut into the ceiling. The oculus isolates a small piece of the sky for the viewer to observe. The walls are then lit inside with a series of colored lights that transform the experience. This is based on the simple principle of simultaneous contrast, first codified by Chevreul and Goethe in the 19th century. By changing the color of the ceiling, the color of the sky appears to change accordingly. An object lesson, right out of Joseph Alber’s iconic book The Interaction of Color. These works make the color of the sky look somehow tangible and solid – a geometric shape that seems to be in the room with you.

James Turrell. Acton (1976), located in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which is in Indianapolis, Indiana

(Image source

This concept, of light made tangible, grew out of his earlier work such as Acton of 1976. In these pieces a section of the room was walled off with a rectangular ‘window’ cut into the dividing wall. Both rooms were lit in such a way that the rectangular window looked like a monochrome painting on canvas. It was only after staring at it for some time, or heeding the guards advice to (get this) ‘touch the painting’ that the viewer realized there was nothing there!

As Turrell often says regarding his work, “With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought.”

Roden Crater, in progress. Near Flagstaff Arizona. (Image source

For the last several decades, Turrell has been working on his unfinished magnum opus - Roden Crater, a giant structure built into an extinct volcano in Flagstaff Arizona. The piece is designed to be a “naked-eye observatory for experiencing celestial phenomena”[2] and incorporates many of his ideas on a grand scale.The crater is not yet available to the public, only to select guests and friends, but his other works, like the Skyspace installations can be found in museums and galleries all over the world and are well worth a visit if you get the chance.


[1] The term ‘monochromatic’ as used in this article, refers to the artistic sense of the term; to appear as a single color, and not the radiation of a single wavelength.

[2] Finkel, Jori. James Turrell Shapes Perceptions. The Los Angeles Times. May 11, 2013.


© 2016 Carl Jennings -

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